Though we are still about a month away from the NHL draft derby and the free agent frenzy that follows the following week, like many others I have already poked around the lists of available free agents and a few articles related to those. The few things I have read that are Canes-centric all start from the huge menu of options and then go about rating the various options usually with a ‘pick 1 from each category’ approach that picks 1-2 expensive players and then 1-2 cheaper players.
Starting point for evaluating free agents is understanding Canes’ needs
For me, it is not about evaluating individual options in a vacuum. It is about first assessing what the Canes have and need. So I actually come at this process from the other side of the equation which is thinking about what the Canes need most to improve. In this Hurricanes blog shortly after the season ended, I quickly identified the teams 2 biggest offseason priorities – a good second goalie and a catalyst type playmaking forward. I already addressed the goalie situation s that when I detailed most of the options HERE and then rated them HERE. On the forward front and at a basic level, the Canes need more offense/scoring. Even before the departure of 2 medium-ish scorers in Kris Versteeg and Eric Staal, the Hurricanes were near the bottom of the NHL in scoring. The team finished 27th out of 30. The fact that the Canes need more goals sends most people on a chase to find the free agents that scored the most goals last season.
What team has right now at forward
While there is definitely an element of needing someone to put the puck in the net, thinking about the team’s current roster and what it has leads me to a different starting point. I think it is safe to say that the Canes at least start the 2016-17 season with Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom as 1 of its top 2 lines. Let’s call it a checking-focused second line. The trio will score some too, but even the good version of it (and it was incredibly good from December through late February before Nestrasil was lost to injury) was not a scoring juggernaut. Jordan Staal’s scoring totals did balloon but even in the boom time, Nestrasil and Nordstrom’s production was modest. That is okay. The line was eating up a ton of hard minutes in tough match ups, playing a great puck possession game and generally playing break even if not better hockey.
The key is that complement a second line that is a little bit light on raw scoring power, a good team really needs a complementary line that can score in bunches. And that, combined with the power play to some degree, is where the Canes missed the mark in the 2015-16 season. The top line of Versteeg/EStaal/Lindholm or Di Giuseppe was actually quite similar though not as dominant as Jordan Staal’s line. They too controlled play and posted strong possession numbers, but they too were light on scoring. When traded Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg were tracking toward a modest 43 point total (projected over 82 games). The Canes actually had pretty solid depth scoring from Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask but only if you slot them as third-liners. The moment they jump to your first line, the problem is the same. There scoring totals area little bit light and even worse, it leaves a gaping hole for the third line.
When you net it out with the departure of Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg, Ron Francis’ challenging task is to try to build a first/scoring line from scratch. Jeff Skinner and/or Elias Lindholm could be a part of it depending on chemistry and desire to balance scoring across 3 lines. Rising star Sebastian Aho will be given every opportunity to play his way into the mix at training camp. Phil Di Giuseppe has some offensive ability. In addition to adding scoring from outside of the organization, the Canes need to get more from within.
But the Canes need a ‘scoring line catalyst’
Enter a playmaker/scoring catalyst. Francis’ shopping list for forwards is not as simple as adding depth scoring or complementary players to play behind 2 established top lines. He needs to add at least 1 player who can be a catalyst for a scoring line that boosts production from 3 players to the level of a scoring first or second line. While I think it is possible for Elias Lindholm could play in the top 6, the 2015-16 version of him simply was not that. He was a difference-maker only intermittently, and his 39 points despite playing 82 games and receiving a reasonably favorable helping of power play time and decent line mates screams decent all-around complementary third-liner. Jeff Skinner had a very good season. Most noticeable was his improvement defensively, but on a team that did not boost offense, he still put up a very respectable 28 goals and 51 points that was heavy on primary assists. But again, that is just not enough for the top scorer on a good NHL team. That total needs to be north of 60 points.
For me, the burning question is this – IF the Canes add a true playmaking center, could such a player put up 55-65 points himself and also boost 2 (possibly existing roster) wings to a similar total. When you watch Jeff Skinner play when things are going well and he is finding the puck on his stick in scoring areas, 70+ points does not seem out of the question. Lindholm’s all-around game, smarts and pedigree seem capable of more than a 40-point ceiling, but does stretching to 55 or more require help?
My priority 1 at forward
It is this analysis of where the holes currently are in the Canes roster and what the team needs that drives my starting point for building the Canes roster at forward. I wrote about it in a little bit more detail HERE, but the short version is that my top priority and biggest budget item (in terms of salary for free agents or possibly trade assets) is to add a proven top 6 scoring/offense-leaning forward of the playmaking variety with the “playmaking variety” not being optional or something that I would compromise on.
If I had Ron Francis’ job, I would explore all avenues to add the best playmaking center that I can get first and then adjust in terms of how much budget is left and what type of other additions might fit best with him, etc.
Sadly, the options in this regard are limited
There are a couple pretty good options that could allegedly be available in the trade market in Matt Duchene and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but in terms of just picking up a proven, top 6 playmaking center in the free agent market, the options are slim. I will jump the gun on reviewing individual players in part 2 of this 2-parter and say that Frans Nielsen jumps out at me. He is not a pure first-liner, but he is a proven NHL producer with a decent mix of playmaking with some scoring, great speed and some bonus versatility in terms of being able to play on either special teams unit. His average of 51 points over the past 3 seasons is not eye-popping by any means, but I think it is important to note that he was largely doing this as the catalyst of a second line playing behind not with Tavares and the Isles top line talent. I do not view Nielsen as being the pure version of what I want to add which is why I think the trade market might be the best avenue to fill this need.
Kyle Okposo as a potential downside example to going the other direction
The free agent pool is actually a bit richer at the wing position especially leaning toward the finisher variety of player, but I think this approach to building a new scoring line is flawed. The current Canes roster lacks a proven playmaking type center. Once people write off the possibility of Steven Stamkos donning a Hurricanes uniform next summer, a name that usually pops up shortly thereafter is Kyle Okposo. Okposo is a great NHL player. He can play a bull in the China shop power forward game, but also has plenty of skill, speed, playmaking and hockey sense to be more than a limited physical force. If you adjust for time lost to injuries, Okposo has played at about a 70-point pace over the past 3 seasons. And that production should net him $6 million or more per season on his next contract. But here’s the thing. That 70-point pace was playing with elite playmaking center John Tavares and the best/hottest complementary player that the Isles could put next to them and playing on a good first power play unit most of the time. If Francis makes a splash with Okposo (or similar), he likely spends a big chunk of his budget in the process and has to go a bit budget/makeshift for his other additions. With that situation, what is the reasonable downgrade to Okposo’s scoring potential with a significant downgrade from Tavares putting the puck on his stick? Would Okposo suddenly then be just a pretty good but not elite-scoring 50ish-point player, maybe even as low as low 50s for points? People looking simply at numbers from year to year would be left disappointed and wanting more, but if you factor in situation is this what might be reasonably projected from the situation?
There is definitely a debate to be had about whether the priority should be goal scorers or playmakers. I am firmly in the camp that says the Canes should first add playmaking with the hope that it boosts a complete line of players and then opportunistically shop for more finishing in the bargain bin.
I already tipped my hat for how I will prioritize the free agent options, but part 2 of this post (hopefully tomorrow) will go through the top options player by player.