With the injuries and trades, the Carolina Hurricanes lineup for March includes depth forwards who were in and out of the lineup earlier and also young players being recalled from the AHL. The games in March and early April are very much a tryout and assessment period for Coach Bill Peters and General Manager Ron Francis to figure out what they have and do not have for building the 2016-17 team.
In part 1 of this 2-part series, I will look at 2 groups of players. The first group is the collection of players nearly certain to be on the 2016-17 NHL roster if not traded. The second group includes players signed to 1-way deals for the 2015-16 season who are scheduled to be free agents at the end of the season. In part 2 of this series, I will look at the Canes prospects/young players who have had try outs at the NHL level this season but could also be AHL players again next season.
It is also important to note that this could change in the next few weeks. With the roster thinned by trades and injuries, the try out players are receiving significant ice time and still have 11 games left in the 2015-16 season to make a favorable impression before Francis starts his summer work building the 2016-17 team.
The core already with spots for 2016-17 if not traded (14)
For 2016-17, the following players are either already under contract or a restricted free agent without the ability to test the open market. These players are nearly certain to be on the NHL roster if healthy and not traded.
Forward (7): Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Joakim Nordstrom (RFA), Elias Lindholm, Andrej Nestrasil, Jay McClement.
Defense: (6): Justin Faulk, Ron Hainsey, Jaccob Slavin, James Wisniewski, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce.
Goalie (1): Eddie Lack.
In a category by himself (1)
Forward (1) Phil Di Giuseppe.
Di Giuseppe is signed for next season and with his play this season, he arguably belongs in the category above as an eighth forward
Players who will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season (6)
Riley Nash — Stays
I think he stays for 2 reasons. First is his versatility. The limited version of Riley Nash from a couple years ago when he broke into the NHL now boasts the ability to play penalty kill or power play, center or right wing if necessary, the ability to take defensive zone draws and capable 2-way play. His 20 points in 57 games also suggests that there is some offensive to be had if Nash fills in for higher roles. For the reasons noted above, he could also project as a fourth line center for 2017-18 when Jay McClement’s contract ends.
Nathan Gerbe — Goes
His consistency in terms of compete level on a nightly basis is as impressive as ever. The issue with Gerbe is that his ability to generate secondary scoring has dried up. He has only 3 goals in 36 games this season after netting only 10 in 78 games last season. My hunch (and it is only a hunch) is that GM Ron Francis will hold his last few roster spots for young players to make the team in training camp or possibly spend them on players who have the potential to generate more offensively.
Brad Malone — Goes
This might sound odd, but I think Brad Malone had a solid 2015-16 season when you consider his role to be that of a #12/#13 forward, enforcer and energy player. He has handled the rough stuff when necessary and brought a physical brand of hockey when in the lineup. His best was a stretch in the first half of the season where he knocked players out of games 3 times in the span of a few weeks all with physical but clean hits. The issue for Malone is that his role in general is going away. If the Canes were going to carry a #13 type forward who could handle the physical stuff, I would actually keep him. But in search of scoring and needing as many options as possible to get it, I think Francis will spend even these bottom roster spots on either promising young skill players or otherwise sign veterans with more offensive upside for the last couple forward slots.
Chris Terry — Goes
I just do not think he has enough mobility to put his offensive skills which have NHL potential to use. His 5 goals and 2 assists in 57 games just are not enough to win him another 1-way contract. He is restricted free agent. If my math is right, the Canes would need to offer another 1-way contract to qualify him which I do not think they will. The likely result is that his agent will choose to use Terry’s option to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. There is a chance that the Canes would take him back on a 2-way deal if he does not (and I do not think he will) earn a 1-way deal elsewhere to add another veteran for Charlotte and deep depth for the NHL level.
Michal Jordan — Goes
He is similar to Chris Terry except in an even worse position because of the greater volume of ready or potentially ready soon young talent on the Canes blue line. Like Terry, I would expect the Canes to not qualify Jordan with a 1-way contract at which point he might use his right to become a free agent. The only way he returns is if he does not get a 1-way deal elsewhere (very likely) and the Canes want him over a collection of older prospects who are scheduled to become restricted free agents this summer. A couple but not all of Keegan Lowe, Michal Jordan, Rasmus Rissanen, Dennis Robertson and Danny Biega will likely be signed to fill the veteran part of the roster in Charlotte.
Cam Ward — Could be an option in July but I say 75% chance he goes
The Hurricanes do need to add a second veteran NHL goalie to go with Eddie Lack for the 2016-17 season. I think this will be Ron Francis’ biggest decision to make this summer. The market for unrestricted free agents is limited with options including Cam Ward, Chad Johnson, Karri Ramo, James Reimer and Antti Raanta plus a few others. There are also a few goalies who could be available via trade with Frederik Andersen and Jimmy Howard topping the list. If I had to guess right now, I would expect Ron Francis not to re-sign Ward before the July 1 deadline, but I would not consider the door shut at that point. Depending on what Ward wants to do and salary requirements, he could prove better than the other options available. It is just a hunch and NOT something Francis has said or even hinted at, but I think Francis might just prefer to move forward completely to a new era and new leadership/veterans.