Yesterday, I posted part 1 of a 2-part series looking forward to building out the Canes roster for the 2016-17 season. You can find my thoughts on goalie and defensemen HERE. The short version is that that part of the equation is reasonably set. Ron Francis will have a critical decision to make in terms of a second goalie, but the blue line is mostly set with players already under contract.
The forward position is much more wide open with a bunch to be figured out between now and next October. With the departure of Kris Versteeg and Eric Staal, 2 more openings were created to go most of the veteran depth forwards coming off contract at the end of this season.
When I net it out, I think you have a first or second line of Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom. They were so good for an extended period of time that I think they are officially a thing. Then you have Skinner/Rask/Lindholm. All 3 figure to be top 9 forwards, but I am not sure if they fit together, and I also view the trio, if left together, as being a good third line and not really a second line. Then there is Jay McClement set to center the fourth line.
If you slot them pessimistically hoping for significant additions, it could arguably look something like:
If you slot it this way, Ron Francis has the tall task of building out an entire first line. Even if you bump Jordan Staal’s line up and call it the first line, Francis still must build a second line or at least most of it.
In terms of filling the 5 blanks, Phil Di Giuseppe is currently a front runner to win 1 of the slots, and it is possible that 1 or more of the unrestricted free agents (Nathan Gerbe, Brad Malone, Riley Nash, Chris Terry) could be brought back. It is also reasonable to think that a spot or 2 could be won by another prospect with Brock McGinn and Sebastian Aho near the top of that list currently.
Francis should have some budget this summer with more than $20 million of contracts coming off the books, but it is still hard to just go buy a first or second line.
So what are Francis’ options to fill the spots not taken by the young players?
1) Follow the Toronto model and rent veterans short-term
One option is to add a number of veteran free agents on inexpensive short-term deals like Toronto did this season. If it works out real well, you count your blessings. If it does not, you have some modest assets for the trade deadline and are not locked into anything long-term.
2) Spend more distant futures to add young NHL-ready help
Another option is to spend from the stockpile of draft picks and prospects who are farther out to add a couple players who could slot into the NHL lineup as a top 9 forward for the 2016-17 season. Options available or potentially available include Jonathan Drouin, Nail Yakupov, Kerby Rychel and others. There are also some promising young players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in Edmonton (who needs help on defense) and Alex Galchenyuk (who seems to have dropped in favor in Montreal) who could be available.
3) Captalize on a buyers’ market for the higher-end free agents this summer
Projections seem to mostly have the NHL salary cap as flat for next season with some even saying it could fall. That would be a boon for the Hurricanes who have a ton of budget and salary cap room since it would squeeze the big market teams who are pressing up against the cap and limit the competition for free agents this summer.
If I was in Ron Francis’ shoes, I would lean toward a mix of #1 and #2. Combined I think a mix of these 2 approaches to match Francis’ mantra of building to have a deep system capable of winning not just once but regularly in the future but also play for 2016-17. Trading futures to add NHL-ready young players would decrease the volume of the prospect pool, but it would do so in adding young players who can be part of the long-term, not just short-term lottery tickets. And filling in some of the remaining open slots with veteran NHLers on short-term contracts makes a play for 2016-17 but not by trading futures to do it.
If I had to guess, I think Riley Nash has the best chance to return among the veteran depth players. None of Chris Terry, Nathan Gerbe or Brad Malone have carved out an every-night role this season. My hunch is that Francis will either free up those spots for youth or fill them with players that are at least ‘maybes’ for winning spots in the top 9.
Regardless of how it all shakes out, the opening day roster at forward stands to look significantly different in October 2016 than it did 1 year earlier.