If you are catching up, this is actually sort of the fourth post related to the upcoming NHL free agent market. See also:
With that in the rear view mirror, this post identifies targets and alternatives for filling at least the Canes biggest needs.
Top 6 forward
Update on Ryan-Nugent Hopkins possibility post Taylor Hall trade: About 15 hours before the Taylor Hall trade went down, I wrote a long-winded post that finished with a diabolical plot for Ron Francis to steal Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the cheap. The Taylor Hall definitely decreases the desperation for Chiarelli to do a deal for a defenseman, but if he adds Milan Lucic as many expect and then another top 4 defenseman like Demers, I actually think Nugent-Hopkins could come back into play and be available more as a cap move for futures which is in Ron Francis’ wheelhouse. If the Oilers add Lucic for $6 million and Demers or another defenseman for $5 million, the team would suddenly be at $69 million. With a pretty full roster, that is not a problem for 2016-17, it could be for the next 2 years when the Oilers need to re-sign Draisatl and McDavid for much larger salaries. With Nugent-Hopkins sitting in a C3 slot behind 2 young stars, might he become a salary cap reduction casualty that looks forward to 2017-18 and beyond?
But as much as I would love to add Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as a young (still just 23 years old) but proven catalyst/playmaking type center to drive a newly-built scoring line, it is going to take a decent number of stars to align for that to happen, and it is also unclear what the cost would be in terms of trade value.
So is there another option or at least someone ‘close enough’ in the free agent pool who would not cost anything in terms of trade assets? I am not sure there really is which is exactly the reason, I have been so hung up on Nugent-Hopkins for the better part of the summer. There are some very good wings, probably requiring expensive long-term deals, who bring some playmaking element but really are not a true first/second line puck distributing center.
Frans Nielsen: Of all of the free agents available when also considering potential contract, Nielsen is the player I like best behind Nugent-Hopkins for a 2-3 year solution until the organization can grow more forwards internally. The key caveat with Nielsen is contract. He is 32 years old, and it makes sense that he and his agent will push for a maximum last deal before he rides off into the sunset. I read that the reason the Isles had not re-signed him was because he wanted $6 million per year for at least 4, possibly more years. There is risk in any deal past 1-2 years at Nielsen’s age and in his price range, but my ceiling sits around $4 million for 3 years.
Financial complexities aside, why do I like Nielsen so much? He is just a good all-around hockey player. I think Matt Cullen from a few years ago is a pretty good comparison. Despite his age, speed and skating is still a strength for Nielsen. Also like Cullen, he is just a good all-around hockey player. I would not label him as a pure anything. He both scores goals and passes. He is a sound 2-way player both defending and using his speed to forecheck. He is strong on the power play despite not being an elite scorer. And his is 1 of the best 4-5 players in hockey in the shootout to boot.
In short, he is just a good hockey player, so while not being exactly the high-end playmaker ideally in the form of a young long-term option, he is potentially the best available option for what I want (a center) if the price is right.
But what about the more extensive list of elite wings? The list of options is both longer and higher-end at the wing position. All of Kyle Okposo, Andrew Ladd, Loui Eriksson, Milan Lucic and David Backes (a center but not really of playmaking variety) offer more options on the wing arguably even of higher quality. I wrote about individual players in my post from May 25. In short, my concern with spending all of the budget on a wing who is more of the finisher/complementary variety is a huge underperformance risk on an equally huge contract. Kyle Okposo is the most glaring example. He was mid-high 60s point producer on a line and first power play unit with elite playmaker John Tavares. On a Canes team that cannot offer him nearly that level of help, what is a reasonable point total to expect? Could it be as low as low 50s points for a price tag of $7 million per year with a 5-6-year commitment? I see the same issue with Ladd, Lucic and Backes. Louis Eriksson interests me a bit more because he is cut a bit more from the Cory Stillman/Ray Whitney mold of a playmaker on the wing.
At a more fundamental level and keeping with Francis’ goal of building a good young, deep team primarily from within, I prefer the option of either adding a young player (Nugent-Hopkins) who is just entering his prime or otherwise settling for an older player (Nielsen if he would take 3 years) to avoid risk and leave room to hopefully fill this slot with a homegrown prospect in a couple years.
Shopping for bargains: If neither Nugent-Hopkins or Nielsen is an option because of trade or salary cost, I would then be inclined to either look for a bargain if 1 of the top-end wings loses the game of musical chairs and goes on sale. If that does not happen, I would exercise patience. There are a number of teams with salary cap issues. Last summer Francis made his best move when he added Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom IN SEPTEMBER for virtually nothing because Chicago had cap issues and had run out of time.
So summarizing my thought process for adding a top 6 forward:
1-I still like Nugent-Hopkins as a long-term solution or otherwise Nielsen as a decent shorter-term alternative with price being key for both.
2-I would not enter any of the bidding wars for the higher-end forwards, mostly wings, and would only play in this space if the dust settles with 1 of them losing musical chairs and taking a discounted price. Those players start become interesting at $4-5 million for 3-4 years which might not happen for any of them.
3-All the while, I would continue to explore other trade possibilities to add a younger playmaking center. Those are hard to come by, and reports do not seem to suggest many other options. But fairly recently Matt Duchene’s name was being bandied around who knows who else might be available from teams that have less leakage to the media.
4- There are also a high number of second-tier players who become interesting depending on price. I figure Francis also has budget for a depth forward at a price of $800,000 to $1.2 million. If a scoring-capable wing like Jiri Hudler, Kris Versteeg, Radim Verbata, David Perron, Mikkel Boedker, etc. does not find love in the free agent market and is suddenly available for $1.5-1.8 million per year on a 2-year deal, I would consider adding decent top 9 depth on the cheap and waiting out the bigger things.
Is there an alternative internally? On the lights out Finnish line in the U18s, Aho was the center that helped the line with Puljujarvi and Laine go. That was against 18-year olds, but is it possible that he could step into the NHL and do the same?
Like: (Still) Nugent-Hopkins, Nielsen for right price, opportunistically adding scoring depth for cheap.
Dislike: Winning a crazy bidding war for 5-6 years and a small fortune for a scoring wing that Canes cannot pair with needed playmaking center.
This situation is an interesting. It is hard to say for certain if Francis is really even shopping here or if he is happy with what he has. My gut instinct is that he will at least explore the possibility of upgrading Eddie Lack’s slot. This situation is a little more complex because Francis needs to both add and subtract a goalie so he does not have an extra 1, and with Eddie Lack’s mostly challenging 2015-16 campaign, it is not like teams will be beating down his door for him. That said, there are a decent number of teams that could use an experienced backup. Anaheim turned over the reins to young John Gibson with the Frederik Andersen trade, and the same could happen in Pittsburgh if Marc-Andre Fleury gets move and in Tampa Bay if Ben Bishop becomes a casualty of the Steven Stamkos re-signing and the cap challenges that it creates.
So given where the Canes are now with 2 goalies in tow, what would I do?
1-I would explore options to upgrade in net in a deal that includes Eddie Lack. Any upgrade that sees Lack go the other way would be reasonably friendly financially because the salary increase would only be the difference between the 2 salaries. I detailed the goalie options (a couple of whom have already moved) in this post on May 11. One challenge could be whether Francis’ internal budget holds both the addition of a top 6 forward and also more $ to upgrade Eddie Lack’s slot. Budget aside, there are still some options likely available via trade.
2-I would simultaneously explore the possibility of trading Eddie Lack for futures and adding a free agent. With 2 of the most needy goalie shoppers in Calgary and Toronto set with their respective trade additions of Brian Elliott and Frederik Andersen, there really are not that many places left for starters to land. If James Reimer falls to a backup-ish price for $1.5-2.2 million, he will receive a ton of interest from teams wanting to add him as a premium #2. But at that price range and compensation being equal, might the Hurricanes be the best option for him to step in and have a chance to win the starter’s crease? I think so.
Is there a deal that sees Eddie Lack traded for a modest collection of futures and James Reimer signed for 2-3 years at $2-2.2 million per year? This would have seemed far-fetched only a couple weeks ago, but the potential destinations for expensive goalies has dwindled.
Is there an alternative internally? The Canes are currently locked into the alternative with Ward/Lack both signed and returning.
Like: Idea of finding a creative way to upgrade in net, Fleury or Bishop (only if contract extension is part of deal) but am skeptical that Francis can make budget work for these, idea of pouncing if Reimer’s price falls significantly.
Dislike: Going with Ward/Lack, seeing Reimer’s value tank and him signing with another team for 3 years or less for less than $3 million/year.
As I wrote about last week, at some point before next June’s expansion draft, the Canes need to add or generate either a veteran defenseman that they can expose to protect their good young core. This player must have either 40 games of experience in each of the past 2 years or simply 70 total between those 2 years. Also important to note is that my guess is that Francis would just be shopping for inexpensive depth and will use his budget primarily on a forward and possibly a goalie. So this player needs to be inexpensive, ideally $1 million or less. While it is possible to get a player who played 40 or more games last season and then work him up to 70 total, the risk is that you have such a player suffer an season-ending injury in training camp and then not qualify. Then you have to start the process of acquiring or generating such a player all over again.
Inexpensive options that qualify to be an expansion draft shield next summer: So in an ideal world, the Canes would add a defenseman who played 70 games last season on a 2-year deal such that he will automatically qualify come next summer. My quick combing of stats and free agent lists uncovered a couple options. Roman Polak, Matt Bartkowski and Barret Jackman. None of these players are exciting or are going to be drive the team’s success, but I actually think Polak or Jackman could be an interesting addition with some value. I had a Twitter exchange with a couple knowledgeable hockey people who voted no on Polak, but I think for cheap, he brings size, nastiness and a proven ability to kill penalties. Ideally, he is a #7 behind Murphy, but if forced into the lineup, he is a good options for 3 minutes of penalty killing and a player you shelter a bit otherwise. Barrett Jackman is another griseled veteran who could be a help in the locker room.
John-Michael Liles: His contribution to the development of the young defenseman is underestimated. His name comes up specifically when you interview the kids, and his role in easing Brett Pesce into the NHL in a challenging role and then helping him grow and take on more responsibilities from there was not short of spectacular. Coming off a solid 2015-16 season, I have seen his next contract estimated at $2 million and fairly likely to be for 1 year because of his age. That would be a stretch from my budget-friendly $800,000 to $1.2 million budget for a lesser veteran but just maybe it is worth it. Whether it is even possible would depend on what Liles’ goals are this summer. Coming off a strong season, he should have a few options. Does he want maximum $? Will he prefer to play for a Cup contender? Etc.
This situation is not the highest priority and does not not necessarily need to be dealt with on Friday or even in the next week.
I also expect Francis to add 1 more depth forward past the bigger splash trying to land a top 6 forward. I continue to like Riley Nash for this slot because of his versatility, but perhaps it makes sense to be patient and land a higher caliber player on the cheap when the game of musical chairs is closer to over. Unless Francis really wants someone specific, I think he will be patient on this slot.
AHL/NHL fringe forward or 2
This also could take a little while to develop. Most fringe AHL/NHL players (Chris Terry and Michal Jordan) will first pursue 1-way deals. If/when those do not materialize, they look for the next best thing which is 2-way deals with higher AHL salaries and decent situations where they have an ability to win NHL ice time.
What to expect for Friday?
Last summer, the Hurricanes lone NHL deal on July 1 was the re-signing of Riley Nash. Who knows what 2016 brings, but I would not rule out a repeat. I also would be quick to note that the time to judge Ron Francis’ work is not until at least training camp. There are likely to be desperate salary cap-strapped teams again this summer that could make for some great trade opportunities 6-8 weeks down the road.
What say you Canes fans? Do you think Francis will do a deal on July 1? Who do you hope we add?