Today’s Daily Cup of Joe is Part 3 of 3 looking at Ron Francis’ work in terms of Hurricanes players who are scheduled to be free agents this summer and also a few who are not scheduled to be free agents until next summer.
Part 1 of this series covered the NHL legalese for free agent contracts and dealings hopefully in enough detail for practical use without delving to the depths of an academic law and contract course.
Part 2 brought the topic back to 1400 Edwards Mill Road in Raleigh and discussed the Hurricanes’ NHL-level free agents with whom general manager Ron Francis will need to negotiate (or not negotiate) new contracts.
Today Part 3 wraps up by looking at the volume of free agents at the AHL level.
The general situation at the AHL level
At a basic level, the task each summer in terms of the Checkers is to first build the NHL roster and include some necessary depth that falls to the AHL level. After that, Ron Francis must determine which AHL slots will be filled by the team’s prospects and what roles they are expected to play. The combination of the first two math exercises determines how many and which positions still need to be filled at the AHL level and also how much room the team has up against the 50-contract limit.
For the 2017-18 Charlotte Checkers, two notable changes will impact the roster and free agent signings. First is that the Hurricanes organization will see a wave of forwards migrate from Canadian juniors up to the AHL level. I wrote about this changing of the guard, as I called it, in some detail on May 8. Nicolas Roy, Warren Foegele, Spencer Smallman and Steven Lorentz are nearly certain to play in Charlotte, Julien Gauthier is also eligible and likely to join them. In addition, Aleksi Saarela seems likely to play in North America for the 2017-18 season. If none of those players jump straight to the NHL level, that makes for an influx of 6 new forwards. In addition, Callum Booth will join the Checkers’ goalie ranks and force a decision at that position too.
Charlotte Checkers goalies and free agent decisions
Right now, the Hurricanes have Alex Nedeljkovic and Callum Booth under contract and slotted to man the nets in Charlotte or possibly with the Florida Everblades in the ECHL. In 2016-17, the Hurricanes chose to pair two young goalies with a veteran. Michael Leighton was signed before the start of the season, and Tom McCollum was brought in at the trade deadline when Leighton was injured. Those veterans played a fairly heavy load and largely drove the success at the AHL level while the kids learned.
With two young goalies already under contract in Nedeljkovic and Booth and presumably one slot remaining, Francis will have a decision to make. Michael Leighton is an unrestricted free agent. McCollum was acquired on loan and will return to the Calgary Flames organization. Daniel Altshuller who will turn 23 in July is a restricted free agent.
The math and the decisions: The decision for Ron Francis will be first whether he wants to retain Daniel Altshuller as part of his goalie prospect pool. Altshuller had a strong run in 2015-16 but for whatever reason never really seems to garner much attention in the team’s long-term plans. If Francis wants to have a veteran somewhat similar to Leighton in the AHL mix for 2017-18, it would likely need to be at the expense of Daniel Altshuller. The alternative is to carry another goalie contract and have a crowded crease with four players battling for starts.
Charlotte Checkers defensemen and free agent decisions
The Checkers blue line is almost the opposite of the forward situation. Whereas the Hurricanes have a number of forwards ready to fill the AHL ranks, the organization is light on high-end defense prospects at that middle level. This shortage is more of a positive than a negative, as it was caused by the trio of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin mostly skipping the AHL level. If Haydn Fleury or Roland McKeown graduates to the NHL level next fall, that will take another player from the AHL level.
When you look at the blue line personnel at the AHL level, the count goes like this:
Younger prospects (4): One of McKeown or Fleury plus Trevor Carrick, Josh Wesley and Tyler Ganly represent the prospect-level players who are already under contract. That group is a bit light on experience with Wesley spending much of the 2016-17 season at the ECHL level and Tyler Ganly missing most of the season with an injury sustained during the Hurricanes training camp.
Veteran free agents (3): The four players listed above are the only (plus the other of Fleury or McKeown if neither stick at the NHL level) AHL-level players currently under contract. Jake Chelios (RFA), Dennis Robertson (UFA) and Philip Samuelsson (UFA) are three veteran AHLers who will likely be offered contracts to return. If any depart, Francis will need to go shopping for another veteran defenseman or two. If Matt Tennyson is willing to take a two-way contract, he could be a candidate; otherwise Francis will need to find some depth on the free agent market.
The math and the decisions: Francis will need to either re-sign or replace the three veteran AHL defensemen to fill out the Checkers roster. Veterans like Chelios, Samuelsson and Robertson help create a stable situation for the young goaltenders in Charlotte. I think there is a good chance that Francis will retain what he has while also making one addition ideally with NHL experience who can provide ready NHL depth in the event of a bunch of injuries.
Charlotte Checkers forwards and free agent decisions
The biggest shake up in Charlotte for 2017-18 is likely to be at the forward position due to the next wave of forward prospects detailed above.
Prospects under contract (10): Nicolas Roy, Julien Gauthier, Warren Foegele, Aleksi Saarela, Spencer Smallman, Steven Lorentz, Andrew Poturalski, Lucas Wallmark, Clark Bishop and Sergey Tolchinsky.
The math above assumes for now that Andrej Nestrasil is not retained and that Phil Di Giuseppe and Brock McGinn are either lost to the expansion draft or at the NHL level. In addition, there is a reasonable chance that one or two of the prospects make the Hurricanes roster and make another opening or two.
Free agent veteran AHL forwards (5): Andrew Miller (UFA), Patrick Brown (UFA), Brendan Woods (UFA), Connor Brickley (UFA) and Danny Kristo (UFA).
Forwards under contract directly with the Checkers (not Hurricanes’ contracts) (4+): Patrick Dwyer, Kyle Hagel, Kris Newbury, Mitchell Heard and a few other players who came aboard short-term to fill holes created by injuries were part of mix in 2016-17.
The math and the decisions: With the influx of new players, the Checkers will need to decrease the number of veterans on the roster either from the Hurricanes signing fewer players to two-way NHL contracts or from the Checkers decreasing the number of forwards on AHL contracts. The Hurricanes will likely lose a forward to Las Vegas which will open up an NHL roster slot. Jay McClement will become a free agent and likely be replaced from within (Lucas Wallmark?). Erik Karlsson has already departed, announcing that he had signed to play in Europe next season. And as noted above and elsewhere, there is a good chance that Andrej Nestrasil’s next contract will be elsewhere. Those departures will do much of the needed pruning, but Francis will likely need to cut a few more players from the 2016-17 mix.
What say you Canes (and Checkers fans)?
Does anyone have a feeling for Daniel Altshuller’s standing in the Hurricanes goalie depth pool such that he/she is willing to venture a guess on whether he is re-signed?
If it is not possible to keep all of the veteran AHL forwards who generally played well in 2016-17, which 2-3 would you prioritize?