I found time to watch the Canes prospect game #2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday but not time to write/post notes. Plan is to do so possibly Monday evening; otherwise, I will include them with the recap for Tuesday’s finale. The short version is that the outcome was obviously much better with a 7-4 win. The short version is that Canes were the better team overall, the same veterans were strong again and Ryan Suzuki rebounded with a big game.
On Friday, I posted an article that covered multiple layers on the Hurricanes signing defenseman Jake Gardiner. If you missed it, you can find that article HERE.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a deeper dive sorting out the Hurricanes blue line both short-term and long-term.
The current lineup
Just like last season when the Hurricanes had five capable top 4 defenseman and also Trevor van Riemsdyk who could be considered for such a role on at least some NHL teams, there is not one right answer for how to build a top 4, and it is likely to change as the season progresses. We could (and maybe will) have a whole separate debate about that, but for now the aim of what follows is mostly just to to roughly plot who goes where. So let’s start with what the team had for a top 4 and use Gardiner to bump someone out of the third pairing.
Jaccob Slavin / Dougie Hamilton
Brett Pesce / Justin Faulk
Jake Gardiner / Trevor van Riemsdyk
Note: I really like the idea of trying Gardiner with Pesce who could be a great complement as a steady defensive defenseman but maybe that waits until after Gardiner settles in.
Competing for #7/healthy scratch slot and not waiver eligible
Haydn Fleury, Gustav Forsling, Roland McKeown
Needs NHL ice time in 2019-20 but waiver-eligible
The next tier at the AHL level
Chase Priskie, Jesper Sellgren
Two problems at the bottom of the depth chart
If Trevor van Riemsdyk is ready to go for the season opener and everyone else is healthy, first and foremost, the group is incredibly deep both in terms of players in the lineup and also the ability to back fill a player or two in the even of an injury. But the current depth chart also presents two problems – 1 short-term and 1 a bit longer-term.
Short-term the Hurricanes have three decent young defensemen who currently slot 7th through 9th on the depth chart who would need to clear waivers to go back to the AHL. Because of his draft pedigree, NHL size and skating ability, still reasonably young age of 23 years old and contract close to the minimum at $850,000 with only restricted free agent status next summer, I think Fleury would certainly be claimed if sent across waivers. For similar reasons, I think Forsling who is also only 23 years old but with 122 games of NHL experience would be plucked off of waivers. With his two-way contract, the risk is virtually zero. If he did not work out, an acquiring team could take the same risk of sending him to the AHL and triggering that contract or risk losing him. Roland McKeown is less certain. With only a short 10-game stint at the NHL level, he is an unknown at the NHL level. But as a young right shot defenseman who has played well at the AHL level, I think there is a chance, let’s call it 50/50, that a rebuilding type team takes a low risk chance on being able to pick up a young defenseman at no cost. So the first problem is figuring out what to do with the trio of 23-year olds who could be lost if not kept at the NHL level. Having a higher salary player on injured reserve to start the season could make it possible to keep two of these players on the NHL roster, but if the team enters the season fully healthy, it might only have room for one with the tight salary cap situation. So at least short-term van Riemsdyk being on injured reserve could be a small blessing that allows more time to audition these players and make a move or two to clear the logjam.
The longer-term problem (as in needs to be addressed sometime during the 2019-20 season) is that the team needs to find a way to get Jake Bean some NHL ice time. He is waiver-exempt yet for the 2019-20 season, so he can travel freely back and forth between the AHL and NHL. But he will not be waiver-exempt for the 2020-21 season which is why the Hurricanes need to get him some kind of NHL audition this season gauge where is development-wise and what role he might be capable of for the 2020-21 season when he would not be waiver-exempt. If the Hurricanes address the logjam ahead of him and then have an injury or two during the season, this situation should take care of it itself with some openings for Bean to step onto the third pairing on the blue line at least for stretches.
The longer-term sorting out for the top part of the NHL roster
As I touched on in the my article on Gardiner’s signing, this move also adds flexibility and options for how to build out the top 4 going forward. Gardiner makes three top 4 defensemen signed long-term with Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce also locked in for the foreseeable future. But Justin Faulk and Trevor van Riemsdyk are both scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next summer, and Dougie Hamilton is an unrestricted free agent the following summer.
So I view this trade as giving the Hurricanes a new core of three top 4 defensemen and at the same time meaning that at a minimum they need only one more. To be clear, that is not to say that Gardiner necessarily jumps Faulk or Hamilton on the depth chart. Rather, it is to say that he presents another option. The other disclaimer is that such slotting is dependent on how he settles in with the Hurricanes and subject to change based on that.
But if you start from an assumption that Gardiner is at a minimum a capable #4 who is also valuable because of a role on the power play, the Hurricanes now really only need to re-sign and keep one of Justin Faulk and Dougie Hamilton and possibly even Trevor van Riemsdyk. That is significant for a couple reasons. First is that now having five if not six capable top 4 defensemen, the team has the depth to explore trade possibilities now without depleting the current group too much. Second is that in trying to re-sign at one or possibly two of these players, the team now has more leverage. When Don Waddell tells the agent that the team would like to re-sign the player at a certain price but has enough other options that it will pass at a higher price, they are not bluffing. The depth is right there, and it is not might be’s and hopes from unproven young players.
Options to resolve the situation
There are multiple options to resolve this situation. As I see it, right now Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Jake Gardiner because he just arrived are locked with next summer at least potentially a reevaluation point for Gardiner after a full season with the Hurricanes. I also think that the Hurricanes are unlikely to trade Jake Bean without first seeing what he can do at the NHL level. But I really think any of the other players in #4 through #9 slots could be available for the right price, and to some degree who is ultimately traded could actually be a function of which player(s) garner the best return relative to how the team values them and also expectations on salary for a next contract.
Speaking in hypotheticals, if Justin Faulk’s agent is looking for maximum salary and 5-6 years for his next contract and he thinks that is $8 million, maybe he becomes the preferred trade chip even if his partial no-trade cost limits the return a bit. If there is a team that is super high on Fleury’s upside from his thus far modest base and is willing to pay for that upside in trade value, maybe the Hurricanes collect on that, keep Forsling as experienced depth short-term but longer-term pencil Bean into that slot. Van Riemsdyk is a complete wild card. He has been incredibly good as the steady, veteran half of the bottom pairing with a revolving door next to him. I think that has easily been worth his $2.3 million and the premium it represents compared to a run of the mill third pairing defenseman. But based on that, could he pitch himself as a player capable of stepping into a second pairing on a team with less blue line depth? And if so, does that garner $4 or even $4.5 million as an unrestricted free agent? I think that is a stretch but not outlandish or unthinkable. The point of the hypotheticals is that the possibilities are numerous and the situation is a complex mix of player quality/level of play, salary, next salary and trade value on the open market.
Level of play up=> more likely to keep. Current and future salary up=> more likely to trade; Trade value up=> more likely to trade.
Considering the three tiers
Without inside knowledge of any next contract discussions for Faulk, Hamilton or van Riemsdyk, it is difficult to determine which is most likely to be traded. And without seeing NHL action for Forsling, McKeown and especially Bean, it is difficult to project what the team envisions 1-3 years out for the bottom of the NHL blue line. But let’s take a shot at working through the logjam anyway.
An important disclaimer in the win in 2019-20 mentality: Important to note is that the Carolina Hurricanes are no longer a team building for 2-3 years from now. The team is very much playing to win all that it can in 2019-20. As such, any player who becomes integral to doing that could go off the trade table regardless of contract status or even the possibility of being lost for nothing at the end of the season. The Hurricanes opted not to trade Micheal Ferland at the trade deadline despite the likelihood of losing him for nothing in the summer, which they did. That could happen again with Faulk or van Riemsdyk if they are deemed critical to maximizing the 2019-20 season. Gardiner settling in quickly and finding his way into the top 4 would alleviate that situation a bit.
The big guns: Though it is not impossible to keep both, the team seems to have set up an eventual either/or choice between Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk. Both players seem likely to price out at $6 million or higher for their next contract. The Hurricanes could theoretically keep both if each took a modest discount to stay, but that seems unlikely. So which if either player plays better early in the season, especially if Gardiner moves into the top 4 and pushes one one, could put one more on the trade block. Higher re-signing salary demands could as well. And finally, Faulk being first to free agency could make him the most likely to be dealt despite his partial no-trade clause. For this decision, there is no immediate urgency. Having a couple teams realize that they need blue line help after the season starts could help trade value as could a strong start by Hamilton and Faulk.
Trevor van Riemsdyk: The big question with van Riemsdyk is what he wants in a next contract. If he wants to push for a maximum contract, I think he likely prices out of the Hurricanes’ budget for his role with the team as a third pairing defenseman. For a team trying to fill a #4 slot without a ton of budget, I think van Riemsdyk could be a good risk for something like a $3-3.5 million salary. And the Hurricanes needing to factor in bigger contracts for players like Andrei Svechnikov, Warren Foegele, possibly Lucas Wallmark and hopefully Martin Necas down the road, I do not think van Riemsdyk fits at that price with the Hurricanes. If van Riemsdyk wants to stay and maybe leave some money on the table, I think maybe the Hurricanes stretch to $2.5 or $2.7 million for a couple years. But at a higher price, I think he departs. If discussions with his agent suggest that path, the Hurricanes have to at least consider collecting trade value for him once he returns from his shoulder injury and demonstrates that he is back to 100 percent. If the Hurricanes trade Hamilton or Faulk, then van Riemsdyk is likely to stay (again the team is not just planning for the future but also trying to win in 2019-20).
The depth: I think long-term the Hurricanes at least hope that Jake Bean or possibly Chase Priskie will rise up and become at least initially a good third pairing defenseman who can provide offense. So at one point, there needs to at least be an opening for Bean to get a try out in this role to see if it is possible. That necessitates clearing out a player or two at some point. What happens here could partly be affected by what happens above. If the Hurricanes were to quickly trade one of Faulk or Hamilton, another slot opens up when everyone moves up a notch. And if the team thinks it is likely to lose van Riemsdyk next summer if not sooner, that opens up another slot. With that math, there could be room for Fleury, Forsling, Bean and maybe even McKeown as depth if the team can avoid losing him on waivers.
A key element in how this sorts out is the opinion of the team’s scouts and player evaluators. All of Fleury, Forsling and McKeown are 23 years old which is an age where they could still have upside. If the team feels strongly that Fleury is on a path to be a capable top 4 defenseman in another year or two, then no way would they flip him for a mid-round draft pick just to clear space. Same goes for McKeown. My assessment of him is that he is NHL-capable but has a fairly low ceiling as a third pairing defenseman at the NHL level. But if the scouting staff thinks there is even a chance that he can be significantly better than that, best would be to at least give that a chance before trading him for a draft pick.
A big issue at this bottom level is the potential to lose one or more of these players for nothing. If the team does not quickly resolve the higher-level issues by trading a player or two and if van Riemsdyk is ready for action at the start of the season, the Hurricanes could be faced with sending two of Fleury, Forsling and McKeown over waivers in early October. As I said above, I am not optimistic about any of these three players successfully making it to the AHL. That possible outcome suggests collecting what you can for at least one of them even if it is just a mid/late-round draft pick.
How does it all get resolved?
1) Pruning first: I am on record as thinking that the Hurricanes part ways with McKeown for a modest return of a mid or late-round draft pick. This assumes that the Hurricanes assessment of him is similar to mine and that one of the bigger deals is not done first.
2) I think ultimately Justin Faulk is the big gun to leave. It is just a hunch, but I think he will be looking for a maximum type contract next summer, and that could be in the $7-8 million range long-term. With Slavin, Pesce and Gardiner locked in long-term in the $4-5 million range, I think the team lets Faulk go. The big question is whether he is traded to collect some return or if instead the team goes ‘self rental’ with him in chasing success in 2019-20.
3) I also think van Riemsdyk also departs simply because his market value is so much higher elsewhere. Unless the Hurricanes get an offer then cannot refuse, I think most likely with van Riemsdyk is that he plays out the season with the Hurricanes and then leaves as a free agent.
The player I have the biggest question mark on is Fleury. Do the Hurricanes see him as a player who has peaked such that maybe they get a decent return for someone willing to still pay for potential? Or do the Hurricanes see him as an inexpensive option to develop at least a bit more and be a good, defensively steady #5 defenseman who could step into the top 4 if needed a bit like van Riemsdyk is today?
So I see the 2020-21 Carolina Hurricanes blue line as Slavin/Hamilton, Gardiner/Pesce, Fleury or Forsling/Bean possibly with another depth defenseman added from outside for depth.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What would you hope to do for the Carolina Hurricanes blue line?
2) What do you expect will happen with the Hurricanes blue line?
3) What do you project the team’s top 6 to be after the trade deadline this season? What do you project it to be to start the 2020-21 season?