When a team is 6-9-1, there are always multiple things that could be better. That is true for the 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes. But I think the most glaring 1 is how short the Carolina Hurricanes are at forward right now.
Slotting the current forwards
When I go through the roster, I count only 5 players that I would put in the top 9 on a good hockey team tomorrow, and that is not to say that even all of them are playing at the top of their game. My list includes Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Kris Versteeg, Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner. And that is truly all right now. To be clear, Jeff Skinner gets slotted so high based on his proven ability to score which seems bound to emerge sometime soon.
I think Riley Nash, Andrej Nestrasil and Nathan Gerbe would be great fourth-liners who could score a bit higher than that level. I think Jay McClement, Joakim Nordstrom and Brad Malone are good stereotypical fourth-line role players. And I think at least right now that Chris Terry and Elias Lindholm are borderline AHL/NHL players, and when borderline players are not producing, on most teams they quickly find the AHL side of that fence. At age 25, Chris Terry is still a fringe player. At age 20, Elias Lindholm projects to be much higher, and I think he will ultimately get there, but he realistically would not be toiling away at the NHL level with 1 goal and 0 assists in 16 games on more than a handful of teams. There are numerous good young players who are playing better than he is right now who are still in the AHL.
Perhaps the starkest example of the Canes scoring woes and lack of forward depth is that the second line on Thursday included Nathan Gerbe and Chris Terry with Jordan Staal. Sometimes hot players get boosted up the lineup when playing well, but Chris Terry had not registered a scoring point in 5 games coming into tonight and has only 2 goals (no assists) in 16 games this season. You similarly have to go back 5 games to find and assist for Nathan Gerbe who has 1 goal and 2 assists now in 16 games. Those numbers would be bumped down the lineup on a deeper team.
Ron Francis’ strategy/approach
Ron Francis has been some combination of stubborn and stingy in terms of adding help at forward in the offseason. In 2014-15, a preseason injury to Jordan Staal seemed to doom the season before it even started when an already shallow forward group could not fill the hole. This summer saw a struggling Canes offense buy out Alexander Semin after trading Jiri Tlusty at the trade deadline and only add Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom. The Canes entered the season with all of Riley Nash, Chris Terry and Elias Lindholm who had not proven they could score at the NHL level slotted for the top 9. Exactly none of them are providing depth scoring that might take pressure off the top of the lineup. So here we are again watching a Hurricanes struggle into the middle of November.
Ron Francis general strategy of filling the roster by developing players is a good one. The issue is that you have to first develop a decent pipeline of players before this works; otherwise, you end up forcing up the top players on the prospect chart based on where they rate in your system instead of via an assessment of whether they are ready/good enough for the NHL. I think the 2 most obvious examples are Chris Terry and Elias Lindholm. On a deeper team, Chris Terry would be on a 1-way contract and needing to be at the top of his game to stay at the NHL level. On a deeper team, Elias Lindholm would be honing his trade in the AHL until he was ready to step into the NHL and be quickly on his way to being a difference-maker and top-half-of-the-roster player.
Options for what is next
It will be interesting to see how Ron Francis plays his cards. Does he:
Ride the current horses? Does he ride this out and let the players in the mix determine if this team can compete or if the season gets chucked completely to the rebuilding year category by the midway point of the season?
Roll the dice with options in the system? Or will he roll the dice a bit and look to Charlotte before it is too late instead of after it is over? Much like the Brett Pesce situation, I am not certain it will work, but I voted a couple days ago to call up both Phil Di Giuseppe and Derek Ryan who are playing well together in Charlotte. You can find that HERE if you missed it. Di Giuseppe has a full year in the AHL under his belt and Ryan despite not having any AHL/NHL experience prior to this year is an odd rookie veteran at the age of 28. If nothing else, you start to figure out how close players like this might be to helping next year.
Make a trade or 2 to try to expedite the process? Might Ron Francis look to make a trade or 2 as we reach the magical Thanksigiving season milestone that usually starts the trade phones ringing? I am not a fan of adding the usual slightly overpaid, slightly underperforming veteran on a short-term contract. Rather, I would look to make trades that add players who are young and either near NHL ready or otherwise under contract for multiple years such that they become a core part of the team for the long haul. I wrote up the prospect for prospect thing HERE. I am thinking either a near-ready prospect for prospect deal where the Canes give up a defenseman who is in the queue and in return get back a forward who maybe jumps straight into the lineup despite still learning. The other option would be to trade for a young but proven NHLer who costs more in futures but is under contract for multiple years.
I just do not see enough near-ready NHL depth to fill the volume of holes that the Hurricanes have right now, and if this season stays on the current path, it is not like the Hurricanes will be a top free agent destination next summer.
If I were GM for a day…
If I was GM Ron Francis, I would do the Di Giuseppe/Ryan trial immediately. With the fourth line playing well, if the kid line struggles, you can just bury them in a game if you need to. I would also be rating/ranking young NHL and prospect level forwards for the trade talks that should start warming up.