Nearing the end of the 2-year bridge
When Ron Francis took over as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes 2 years ago, I said that he had to make it across a 2-year bridge before he could really build his first team. That is not completely true. He has made moves both in terms of the NHL roster and also recharting the “how we do things” for the Hurricanes franchise. But with a huge amount of the team’s budget tied up, he really only had budget for a few small dollar additions at the NHL level while he kept working on building for the future. Along the way, he also leveraged missed playoffs and veterans coming off of contracts to stockpile extra draft picks to the tune of 7 picks in the first 3 rounds this year and 6 more next year.
2016-17 as a new beginning
That all changes this summer. With the expiration (or trade away slightly before expiration) of contracts for Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Jay Harrison (retained portion), Tuomo Ruutu (retained portion), John-Michael Liles, Kris Versteeg, Nathan Gerbe, Riley Nash and Brad Malone, a whopping $25.6 million of salary cap is coming off the books. If you add it up right now, the Canes have 7 near certain NHL forwards (JStaal, Skinner, Lindholm, Nordstrom, Nestrasil, Di Giuseppe, McClement), 6 defensemen (Faulk, Hainsey, Wisniewski, Slavin, Pesce, Hanifin) and 1 goalie (Lack) under contract with a current salary cap hit of $39.6 million.
To make the math easy let’s peg the 2016-17 salary cap floor at $54.6 million. (2015-16 had a ceiling of $71.4 million with a floor of $52.8 million and the 2016-17 ceiling is currently estimated to be $74.0 million, so that should be fairly close.) That means that the Carolina Hurricanes must add a minimum of $15 million to reach the league minimum. If you estimate Victor Rask re-signing at $3 million and also that either Ryan Murphy takes the #7 D slot for $1 million (or another young player or inexpensive veteran takes that slot), the minimum spend to reach the floor drops to $11 million still needing to add 5 forwards to get to 13 and 1 goalie.
If I assume the minimum spend of $11 million and then try to allocate it to what the Canes need, I spend it like this:
2 top 6-capable forwards $6 million total.
1 starter-capable goalie $3 million.
3 more depth forwards for $2 million total.
That is obviously pretty tight especially with regard to filling out the forward ranks with anything more than bottom half of the roster depth players. My rough math shows the team starting the 2015-16 season with total salary of about $63 million. With attendance slumping with the run of playoff misses, I would not expect Francis to spend to that same $63 million level, but it is probably reasonable to think that he can spend a little above the minimum $55 million.
If you give Francis an additional $3 million up to a $58 million budget, the team is still $5 million below last season’s starting point and has something more workable. That could boost the budget for 2 top end forwards to $8 million and at least have $1 million each available for the 3 depth forwards.
Shorter version: For the first time in his tenure as GM, Ron Francis has a decent amount of budget available to add new players. Because of the volume of players that need to be added it is still tight, but Francis does have some room to maneuver and even add a couple higher-end players.
Potential impact of expansion draft
Another potential wild card is the expansion draft next summer. As of right now, the Canes are in a pretty good position in terms of protecting players because as currently written the key young players on defense would be exempt from the draft as second-year professionals. Francis could protect Faulk plus up to 2 other defensemen with Slavin, Hanifin, Pesce, McKeown and Fleury all exempt. At forward, the Canes would have 7 slots which will force the team to leave a couple players unprotected depending on the contract term for newly-signed players. And the Canes would be able to protect only 1 goalie.
But the interesting twist could be the requirement to leave at least 25 percent of total salary unprotected. This is easy to do if you have a bad contract or 2 (think Brian Bickell) that you will gladly put out to be passed on in the expansion draft, but depending on how exactly this is implemented it could impact the Hurricanes. If you go with my rough budget of $58 million in salary for the 2016-17 Hurricanes that would require $14.5 million of players to be unprotected. If players coming off contract are not counted (i.e. Hainsey, Wisniewski), it is not very easy for the team to reach this threshold with the current players without exposing a key player or 2 with a big salary. It is almost as if the Canes need to add a big contract or 2 this summer on 2-year deals that they would be okay with losing to the expansion draft.
Could that situation see Francis take on a bad contract with 2 years remaining for a decent player who can help the Hurricanes in 2016-17 and then help meet the salary exposed requirement for an expansion draft next summer? In an NHL that saw Marc Savard and Chris Pronger traded last summer and deal swapped Nathan Horton for David Clarkson last season, I guess anything is possible to make the math work.
My math says that Ron Francis will need to add at least $15 million of salary (including re-signing Victor Rask) just to reach the salary cap floor, so he will definitely do some shopping this summer. Though the dollar amount sounds high, it really is not that much money when you consider the volume of players that must be added. But if Francis can pull off a Versteeg-like deal or 2 and also lure a top-end player or 2 from free agency or trade, the potential is there for the team to be both better and deeper at forward next year. Finally, the ever-impactful NHL rules that see an expansion draft possibly added on top of the salary cap create the potential for some interesting deals to make the math work.
My hope is to start looking at needs, possible targets to fill those needs and even Hurricanes players that could be available via trade to make it happen.