To be blunt, I am not sure what direction I would go if I were Canes GM Ron Francis, and I do not envy him right now. I am on record as being morally opposed to quitting on seasons that are not over, and the 2015-16 is not over for the Carolina Hurricanes. At the same time, I love Ron Francis’ commitment to building for the long haul, NOT seeking a 1-off playoff appearance.
I think the only thing that is certain is that he will not be a big-time bidder and spend futures on the 2015-16 season. The burning question is whether he will sell and collect futures possibly at the expense of the 2015-16 season.
If I had Ron Francis’ job, the first thing I would do (in addition to working the phones to see what the options are) is wait. The Canes busy schedule sees 4 more games this week before the trade deadline. Francis might as well see where the team is at the end of it. A 4-0 or 0-4 run puts the team in wildly different places in advance of the 3pm trade deadline next Monday.
The biggest decision to be made is obviously what to do with Eric Staal (recognizing that he also has a huge say in this with his no-trade clause). Where I am with that right now is that I want to get some kind of return for Eric Staal ideally that does not sabotage the chances for 2015-16. That ‘have our cake and eat it too’ goal is tricky, but I do not think it is impossible. The potential of missing the playoffs even with him and then seeing him leave for nothing in July just seems to go too much against Ron Francis’ repeated goal of building for the long haul.
I think it can happen in 2 ways with the second being less obvious.
Trade with a roster forward in return
The first is to trade him but do so in a deal that returns a young forward who can slot right into the top 9. Obviously, you are not going to get a young player with more contract years who is equal to Eric Staal in return for his rental services, but I think it could be possible to get a player and lesser pick instead of the coveted first-rounder. And while Eric Staal has been playing decent hockey overall, he is mired in a scoring drought. It is not that far-fetched to think that the player coming back in return could find a spark and actually produce much more than Staal has been. As long as the player is young and either in a reasonable contract or only approaching restricted free agent status, I think this meets Ron Francis’ requirements of building for the future. The example I threw out awhile back was Alex Galchenyuk who seemed to be on outs in Montreal, but the Canadiens have quickly gone from buyer to seller and would not be an options. But you get the idea. The other slightly less desirable way to the do the same thing would be to take back another rental obviously of lesser quality in addition to primarily futures in return (draft picks, prospects who would not slot into NHL this season). With the salary cap issues of Eric Staal’s huge cap hit, this might actually be a requirement for some teams. The idea is to get a serviceable top 9 forward back not someone like Raffi Torres who was included as a $ offset in today’s Toronto Maple Leafs trade.
Use the situation to get a significant hometown discount on a new contract
I think the other less obvious way to get a return for Eric Staal for 2015-16 and the team’s future would be to use the impending trade deadline to put a bit of pressure on him to sign a new contract at a hometown discount. Formally, Eric Staal holds all of the cards with his no-trade clause, but Francis can easily counteract this by saying that the offer he is making now goes off the table if not accepted and that he like Eric Staal will explore his options in July if no agreement is reached. With the young blue line rising up ahead of schedule, competing for a playoff spot in 2016-17 suddenly seems very reasonable. The Canes will likely need to fill any holes left by trade deadline deals. The team just is not deep enough in terms of forward prospects to fill many holes, especially in the top half of the roster, from within. In getting futures, what you get are players who will hopefully help your team for many years and at least for a few years of that do it at a budget-friendly price. If Eric Staal signs for 4 years at a discount, you get a ‘ready for 2016-17’ lesser version of that with 4ish years of Eric Staal for at least a somewhat reduced price relative to free agent prices this summer.
In the next few days, I will offer my thoughts on the other impending unrestricted free agents including Kris Versteeg, John-Michael Liles, Riley Nash, Nathan Gerbe and Brad Malone.