Last week, I trekked through three articles detailing three rounds of big decisions for the Carolina Hurricanes during the off-season.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe considers a couple significant wild cards that might or might not come into play during the upcoming off-season.
Justin Williams and the captaincy
Justin Williams’ role in a significant step one of the Hurricanes transformation was unmistakable. The combination of Rod Brind’Amour as head coach and Justin Williams as first lieutenant had an immediate and profound impact. The hard-charging effort-fueled style appeared from the very beginning when the team overwhelmed opponents in preseason and into the first few games of the regular season. There were growing pains over the rest of the first half of the season, but the new mentality again rose up above the fray when the team started showing a resilient nature to bounce back from losses at about the beginning of January.
After pouring all he had into the 2018-19 season, successfully putting the team on a new track, achieving playoff success and finishing up his current contract at the age of 37, it would not be unreasonable for Williams to ride off into the sunset having made a huge contribution to the next era of Hurricanes hockey. No doubt, his play and production for the 2018-19 season suggest he has more in the tank, but whether he exercises that option is a personal decision.
From my vantage point, I greatly hope that Williams signs on for another season. As much as I like the current trajectory of the team coming out of the 2019-20 season, I think one more season with Williams wearing the ‘C’ would help cement the foundation. One season does not a rebound make. The team needs to follow it up, so now with some pressure that was not so much there before the 2018-19 season, I much prefer to have Williams leading the way when the team hits some patches of adversity. Further, I am not sure that the timing is right for the transition to the next captain. My leaning is that the next captain will come from the younger group that includes players like Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin and maybe another player or two, and I think another season and a slightly longer bridge to this transition would be ideal. If Williams did retire (or I guess theoretically sign elsewhere), would the team go back to Staal or Faulk as the captain short-term? Or would that situation just expedite the transition to someone like Aho or Slavin?
My wild guess is that Justin Williams returns on a one-year contract. This might sound odd, but I actually say that because his family is invested in the team. This is personal opinion and reading tea leaves, but my read is that his kids and wife will vote for one more season at which point it will be easy for him to rest and recharge over the summer and be ready to give it a go (at least) one more time.
Sebastian Aho’s next contract
One nearly foregone conclusion is that the Hurricanes will ink young star Sebastian Aho to a long-term deal for the 2019-20 season. The big question is how much the salary will be. With an 83-point season, Aho seemed to play his way up into the tier just below the McDavids and Matthews of the world. That tier could price out above $10 million per year. On the other hand, his point per game pace and good but not great playoffs maybe pull his salary down just a bit. With other players already on team-friendly contracts and a current top salary of only $6 million per year, could Aho’s next deal come in at a discount $8 million-ish yearly salary? The probability of anything but Aho signing a really long-term deal to play for the Hurricanes is as close to zero as you can get, but the exact terms of the deal are still a bit of a wild card.
He has had an incredible run in Charlotte and looks to be absolutely perfect for that role. The issue is that excelling at the AHL level eventually makes a coach a candidate for roles at the NHL level. He would not seem to yet be a regular candidate for head coaching roles at the NHL level, but anything is possible. But Vellucci’s agent could definitely stir up options for an assistant role at the NHL level that gets him within range of an NHL head coaching role. Best for the Hurricanes organization would be if Vellucci continues to excel at the AHL level for another year or two with so many Canes prospects developing there. But if another team comes calling, would the Hurricanes offer Vellucci an NHL assistant role to keep him in the fold? If so, who would the team hire to replace him at the NHL level.
The front part of the 2019 NHL Draft
With the Hurricanes pushing to the Eastern Conference Finals, the team’s own draft slot fell to #27. The result is that the Hurricanes now have four draft picks in the range of 32 picks starting with the late first-round pick. There is nothing wrong with continuing to stock a prospect pool that has risen to be among the NHL’s best. But it can also be hard to find that many players in a short draft range with which the team is enamored. Couple that with the potential desire to add a difference-maker to the current mix, and the pile of second round draft picks could become a trade asset. Or alternatively, if the Hurricanes do not trade any of the second-round picks for roster players, the potential exists for the Hurricanes to trade down a bit with a pick or two to spread out the draft picks and add even more prospects to the organization.
A completely different vibe starting the 2019-20 season
On the one hand, the 2019-20 Hurricanes should benefit from the team experiencing what it takes to push over the hump and into the playoffs. On the other hand, the team will enter the 2019-20 season with new expectations and a completely different kind of pressure. Based on the success in the playoffs, one could easily just chart the trend line higher and assume away any risk for the 2019-20 season. That incorrectly ignores the reality in the NHL where each year teams surprise but also each year teams that seem to be trending upwards regress.
The aim here is not to paint a picture of doom and gloom but rather to balance the picture and recognize challenges for the 2019-20 season.
–Injuries: Both Calvin de Haan and Trevor van Riemsdyk have injuries and recoveries that put into question their readiness for the start of the 2019-20 season. At least considering the current roster, the team is a defense injury away from trying to make a go with a depleted blue line at the beginning of the season.
–The goalie position: It is not even clear what the goalie tandem will look like yet. Worth noting is that Petr Mrazek started slowly in 2018-19 and Alex Nedeljkovic has exactly one NHL start under his belt. That combination could make for an interesting transition into the 2019-20 season.
–New pressure: The new pressure to at least make the playoffs will be brand new for most of these players. If and when the team hits a stumbling block or two, the team will need to be challenged in a different way.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think Justin Williams will return? If he does not, what direction would you go with the captaincy?
2) What is your best guess for term and salary for Sebastian Aho’s new contract?
3) Is anyone else fearful that Mike Vellucci’s success with the Checkers will quickly put his name in the mix for other jobs such that the Canes might need to change his role to keep him?
4) With newfound pressure to make the playoffs and a couple potential beginning of season head winds, what risk do you think there is that the team regresses?