On the one hand, the Hurricanes took a huge step forward in the 2018-19 season pushing into the playoffs and then going a step further playing all the way into the Eastern Conference Finals. But on the other hand, I think it is fair to say that the team overachieved a bit with some playoff magic and in a good way still has significant room to improve.
Having a solid goalie tandem emerge made a world of difference in tipping many games, some undeservedly, into the win column in the second half climb up the playoff standings. And Brind’Amour’s system proved capable of generating scoring chances across the entire roster even if it had some dry spells. And though it took reinforcements from outside the organization in Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan, the blue line finally emerged as a strength.
If I look forward to 2019-20 with the aim of building on a decent foundation and improving, what jumps out is the potential to add one or two more players who are pure offense. More specifically, the goal is to add a catalyst/driver for a second scoring line. That would take some pressure off having to always overachieve offensively via the forechecking system. Adding one more player with a higher-end playmaking skill set should also boost the scoring of a couple other players. Aho drove his line and boosted Micheal Ferland’s production in the first half of the season and did the same with Justin Williams in the second half of the season. Adding a similarly capable puck-distributing type playmaker to fuel a second line should similarly add a multiplier effect and boost for a couple more players on a second scoring line. And though the power has issues system-wise too, adding another experienced, skilled scorer certainly could help improve that offensive weakness.
I like the team’s depth at the bottom of the forward lineup especially if a center is added to push Staal to sort of a checking/match up-leaning C2 role and also to push Lucas Wallmark into the C4 slot where he is suddenly above average offensively and capable of stepping into a higher role if/when injuries occur. I also like the team’s ability to pull help from the AHL prospects that can both simply fit the system (Bishop, Brown) but also boost scoring (Geekie, Necas, Saarela, Gauthier). The depth is gradually arriving, but in an NHL where being 9-12 forwards deep is table stakes not an advantage, there is no substitute for having enough top-end scoring talent.
It should not be overlooked that the Hurricanes will again need to figure out the all-important goalie position, but past that I think the Holy Grail this summer is to somehow add the right player who is the catalyst for a second scoring line. Ideal would be a center and even better would be a right shot to balance face-offs, but a playmaking wing is also a possibility.
But I do think it is important to distinguish between very good complementary players and players who are the type of playmakers that drive a line and boost the scoring output of the line mates.
A quick check of the available scoring forwards on the free agent list looks like a high stakes bidding war where a couple times win big (but potentially lose big because of the prices) and everyone else is left empty-handed. But a deeper dive into what could be a sizable quality second tier of quality players who could be available via trade makes for a much bigger market of potential additions for the Hurricanes.
Reiterating the job description
The ideal goal is not simply to add a good player or even any top 6-capable forward. The goal is to add a player whose natural skill set is that of a playmaker such that he could be a catalyst for a second scoring line. Putting names to job descriptions, a player like Kasperi Kapanen would be a great fit for Brind’Amour’s system and the Hurricanes in general, but he is more of a complementary player and not so much the type who will directly generate scoring chances for his two line mates. Micheal Ferland is another good example closer to home. Ferland fit nicely as a big body and finisher with Aho and Teravainen in the first half of the season, but he is not so much the type of player who generates scoring chances for his line mates.
The goal is a player who can generate offense/scoring chances for his line mates such that the added player boosts scoring not just for his slot but rather for a whole line.
The big fish
The top tier of players available who fit the job description is an impressive one, but other than one unique exception, I would be suprised to see the Hurricanes play here.
Easily one of the two or three biggest names available in free agency, Matt Duchene is probably the top prize for a team seeking to add a top offensive center to the mix. The issue is that he likely costs more than $10 million per year on a long-term deal and has multiple suitors. I do not see the Hurricanes playing here.
The wing equivalent of Duchene is Artemi Panarin. Panarin is another proven first line scorer. As such, he also likely garners $10 million or more on a long-term deal. Alleged to be preferring a location with beach access and possibly also packaging with Sergei Bobrovsky, Panarin is another who is enticing but not likely one that the Hurricanes pursue.
Joe Pavelski is an interesting situation. As a long-time leader of the San Jose Sharks, he would figure to return to San Jose. But the Sharks are cap-challenged and also just re-signed Erik Karlsson for a whopping $11.5 million per year. After seeing a short timer get paid in full, could Pavelski thumb his nose at taking a discount and maybe consider other options figuring he has taken enough kicks at the can in San Jose? If so, the Hurricanes could afford to pay him full value short-term (two or maybe stretching to three years). Pavelski is 34 years old, but has had three straight productive seasons in the mid-60s for points. He would also bring more leadership, a right shot and power play help. The fact that he can play center or wing also fits nicely with likely filling the center slot initially but possibly shifting to wing if Martin Necas emerges and is ready to play center at some point. Odds are that Pavelski just re-signs in San Jose, but at the point that become not true, I think he could be a great fit short-term as the Hurricanes try to take the next step up. One of the positives with Pavelski is that he is a free agent, so he costs only the salary he signs for. That is also true of Panarin and Duchene, but is not true of most of the players in tier two who also require that the Hurricanes part with meaningful trade assets.
As of right now, I would not expect Jonathan Huberdeau to be available. But expectations are that the Panthers could try to add both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Panthers have 14 players under contract and about $22 million of cap space. If Bob and Bread’s are signed and their salaries push high enough, Florida could need to shed some salary. If that happens, I would grab a big pile of assets and start seeing how many it takes to land Huberdeau. Huberdeau is still in his prime at 26 years old, is a proven NHL scorer and is signed to a reasonable $5.9 million contract for the next four years. Again, like Pavelski, Huberdeau is not likely available right now but is a situation to keep an eye on as the summer progresses.
The quality second tier
Below the top tier of elite players sits a fairly deep pool of good players with a good match for the required skill set.
If the Los Angeles Kings sell off some veteran assets, Jeff Carter could be another option to add a scoring center. Carter’s contract is interesting in that his cap hit is $5.3 million for three more years, but the actual salaries are only a budget friendly $3 million, $2 million and $2 million. He is 34 years old and coming off of a down season with only 33 points in 76 games. He scored 22 points in only 27 games in 2017-18 and had three straight 60-point seasons prior to that. The question is whether he hit a wall at the end of his career in 2018-19 or if he could rebound with a fresh start elsewhere.
The Winnipeg Jets have entered the off-season with significant salary cap challenges. The Jets already traded Jacob Trouba for a Neal Pionk and a draft picks and will need to do more to squeeze under the salary cap ceiling. One of the players alleged to be available is Nikolaj Ehlers. Ehlers is a 23-year old wing who is already established as an NHL scorer and who has the straight line speed to be a great fit in Brind’Amour’s forechecking system. He is locked in for six years at $6 million which is a very reasonable price if he continues to be a legitimate second line forward with scoring to match that level. And though he is a wing not a center, he has the skill set of a playmaker who can boost line mates scoring. The one negative on his resume is that after posting 60 points in 82 games in 2017-18, he dipped to a depth scorer type level of only 37 points in 62 games in 2018-19. So the Hurricanes would be looking for a rebound, but that is not an outlandish request for a 23-year old.
Kadri is one of a few players who could be the odd man out as Toronto tries to squeeze under the salary cap ceiling. He might be more likely to stay because his $5.3 million salary is not out of hand, and because of his discipline issues, maybe the Hurricanes are not interested regardless of the deal. But Kadri is a proven player who could be a key component in a second scoring line.
After his massive 43-goal outburst in Vegas’ inaugural season, Karlsson opted for a one-year deal for a reasonable $5.25 million. In 2018-19, he followed up with a very respectable 24 goals and 56 points in 82 games. He is eligible for arbitration this summer and with that could price himself out of Vegas’ budget which has him possibly on the trade market. As a 26-year old center, he could fit the bill for what the Hurricanes need, but could also be pricey both in terms of what it takes in trade to get him and then also his next contract.
Continuing with the theme of plucking a good young player from a salary cap-strapped franchise, William Nylander from the Maple Leafs is another interesting option. After holding out for the front part of the 2018-19 season, he signed a long-term deal for $6.96 million per year. General Manager Kyle Dubas is on record as saying the Nylander was part of the long-term group, but that was before Mitch Marner had a phenomenal season, upped his next salary and made the Maple Leafs cap situation even more challenging. Nylander is another with an interesting contract. His salary cap hit is almost $7 million, but because of his contract’s odd structure, he would be due only $700,000 for 2019-20 after the Maple Leafs pick up his signing bonus and would be due only $6 million per year for the remaining four years. He meets the job description as a center who leans offense/scoring and is the preferred right shot.
From the category of ‘most rumored to be trade to the Hurricanes’ comes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. With the whirlwind situation in Edmonton these days, it is difficult to know who is part of the core and how is available for trade. But if Nugent-Hopkins becomes available, he is still a decent fit for what the Hurricanes need. Though maybe not as high end offensively as some other options, Nugent-Hopkins is a good, proven NHL center who brings enough offensively for the role. He is 26 years old and signed for two years at $6 million per year. In some ways, that might be perfect to buy some time for hopefully Necas and/or other young players to become ready for NHL roles in the top half of the lineup. And if Nugent-Hopkins were traded for Justin Faulk, virtually everyone who has ever predicted Hurricanes trades would be able to say, “I told you so” for something predicted within the past couple years. Nugent-Hopkins is not as sexy as other options but could actually be a great fit.
Kyle Turris is supposedly available for the Nashville Predators who are up against the salary cap ceiling and looking to retool a bit. Turris is 29 years old and signed for five more years at $6 million salary per year. The big issue with Turris is that his production has declined since he arrived in Nashville. He had 51 points in 76 games in 2017-18 and then fell to 23 points in 55 games in 2018-19 which is why he is on the trading black. His skill set as a skating playmaking center matches the job description and he would add a right shot center, but the burning question is whether he is a player on decline approaching 30 years old of if he is due for a rebound with a change of scenery. He is probably only interesting if Nashville retains a significant chunk of his salary to reduce the risk.
Where I land
If Joe Pavelski bolts San Jose and is willing to accept a two or possibly three-year deal, I would bid aggressively. He still has gas in the tank, matches the skill set desired and adds more leadership to boot. He would be a short-term fix but could be perfect to help the Hurricanes take the next step.
The same is true for Jonathan Huberdeau. He is not likely to be available, but if Florida lands Panarin and Bobrovsky and is forced to cut salary because of it, I would put together a sizable package to attain a player who is still in his prime, capable of playing center or wing and a good fit for the Hurricanes needs.
I would pass on the crazy contracts that it will take for Duchene or Panarin in terms of salary but also term.
From the second tier I like Nikolaj Ehlers even though he is not a center.
Kyle Turris and Jeff Carter come with significant risk because of their age, and I think William Karlsson and William Nylander are a bit pricey for what they bring.
Finally, I think it is important to note that the Hurricanes do not have to do something out of desperation. Bringing back the same team would in no way be catastrophic. The scored at a decent pace with depth in 2018-19, and the potential to improve just because of another year of experience is also there.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Would you pursue any of the options from the top tier? Do you think the Hurricanes have a chance to win any of these players?
2) Which, if any, of the players from the second tier would be of interest?
3) Are there other options that you think should be on this list to add a scoring catalyst for a second scoring line?
4) How urgent would you prioritize this need inside the range of ‘almost unnecessary’ for a team that does not really need this scoring help up to ‘urgent’ as a need that much be addressed?