Yesterday, I posted part 1 of this 2-parter which you can find HERE. If you can stomach 1 of my long, rambling Hurricanes blogs, I suggest reading that first if you have not already. It basically drives my analysis of individual players from a “what I think the Canes need” level.
Priority 1 – Get a playmaking center to be the catalyst for a scoring line
The challenge is that this skill set is incredibly scarce in this summer’s free agent market. Between having plenty of salary cap availability, room for another star/leader and an emerging roster of young players, I actually think a case could be made for entering the Stamkos frenzy. But the budget thing is too hard, so I know it will not happen. Past the elite premium Stamkos option, the options are pretty sparse.
Frans Nielsen: I let the cat out of the bag a bit in the first post naming Frans Nielsen the player I like best from the limited options available. Nielsen is a speedy center who is versatile in the sense that he can play in any situation 5-on-5 and also on either special teams unit. With the Islanders, he has mostly served as a solid C2 behind the top line usually anchored by the Tavares/Okposo duo. The upside is that Nielsen’s numbers were not inflated by playing with an elite player that he would be leaving. The downside is that his production is respectable but not spectacular at a 50ish-point pace for the past 3 years. He is also 32 years old but so far seems to be on a Matt Cullen track maintaining his mobility. He is coming off a $2.75 million/year contract and probably looking for a raise. As a middle-tier player another positive could be that a $4 million salary could leave room to add a complementary wing to increase depth and possibly provide two-thirds of a decent scoring line. I am not thrilled with Nielsen but think he is the best of the bunch in a thin market.
The field at the center position
When you look through the other free agent options at center, you find a few decent players most of whom do not fit my job description as a playmaking center.
David Backes: His strong postseason will boost his value significantly, and despite his scoring outburst in the playoffs, the longer recent history and style of play for Backes look more like Jordan Staal than offensive catalyst. He is 32 years old and now probably with the ability to ride a strong playoff performance to 1 more big $ contract for 3-4 years. No thanks. He is not a great fit for what I want, and the risk is high.
Eric Staal: First, let me say that I think Eric Staal is a good player and still has productive years in the NHL. I think he slots nicely as a good third line center with enough ability and expertise to provide depth to a healthy team and a short-term fill in on a higher line when an injury necessitates it. I just have not seen enough (or hardly any) evidence to suggest that Eric Staal can return to a 30ish goal level, and I also think he is more finisher/complement at this point that driver/catalyst for a first or second line. I pass.
Alternatives from the trade market: Because of the limited options in the free agent market, I think if GM Ron Francis agrees with my prioritization that there is a good chance that he looks to the trade market to fill this need. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is seemingly available. Matt Duchene could be available. There are teams who are deeper at forward but might need help on defense who might part with a center for a package of Brett Pesce plus draft pick or prospect assets.
Interesting options from the Ray Whitney/Cory Stillman ‘get your playmaking from the wing’ category
While it is more common to get playmaking/puck distribution from the center position, the Hurricanes do have a rich history of having the playmaking and puck distribution come from the wing. Cory Stillman was the passing catalyst for the 2005-06 Stillman/EStaal/Cole line that was 1 of the best lines in Canes history, and Ray Whitney was a longtime wing man and assist machine next to Eric Staal shortly after that. The 2016 NHL free agent pool actually has a bit more to choose from in this regard.
Loui Eriksson: Eriksson can score goals, but he is 1 of those skill players who is 50/50 on pass versus shoot and has the ability to lift up his line mates. He sits firmly in the tier right below Steven Stamkos and should theoretically have numerous suitors at a high price. I have seen $6 million bandied around. If accurate, it could be challenging for the Canes. I am not sure Francis would be willing to overpay to win a bidding war, and if a bunch of deals come in at a similar price, the Canes playoff drought is not likely a positive for winning that selection process. I like Loui Eriksson but as 1 of the most sought after players scheduled to hit the market and a hefty price tag, he would be a long shot, but if I was going to wade into the deep end of the free agent market at forward, I would put him above Okposo, Ladd, Backes, EStaal and others.
Marquee forwards with big price tags and significant underperformance risk without also adding a complementary center
Kyle Okposo: I covered his the risk in his situation in yesterday’s part 1. In short, I like him and think he has a legitimate claim to being the best free agent forward not named Steven Stamkos. Coming off a good season, he will be expensive. Someone will bid $6 million or more per season to get him. That is not a bad price for the 70ish-point player that he has been for the past couple seasons. But those seasons were playing with John Tavares as his center. If Francis spends a huge chunk of his budget to land Okposo and then has to go cheaper at center, what is the impact on Okposo’s scoring total? I think it is possible that he is suddenly an overpriced 50-55-point scorer. I like Okposo, but if my expectation that Francis can afford at most 1 high-salary forward, I would rather spend it on a playmaker who can be a catalyst for scoring increases for a couple current Canes players.
Andrew Ladd: Like Okposo, I think Ladd is a great player, but I think he is even more of a risk to put up light scoring totals without enough help. I view him as being more of a good complementary power forward than a player that drives offense for his entire line. That is how Chicago used him. As such, I would pass on a bidding war to win his services.
The field at the wing
Below Eriksson and Okposo who might be both impossible for the Canes to get and also an underperformance risk without enough help, there are a bunch of players who have some merit as decent depth forwards who can offer some offense. With top priorities and budgets going to a goalie and a playmaking center, I am more inclined to be opportunistic and shop the leftovers in late July or August to add a couple players with upside for a discount. Many of these players could price at $3-4 million if someone is really interested. I would look to sort through the leftovers for $1-2 million.
Radim Vrbata: After a 31-goal/63-point 2014-15 season, Vrbata’s production fell off the cliff to 27 points in 63 games for the 2015-16 season. Like Okposo, Vrbata’s production nets a boost from spending a significant amount of time on the ice with the Sedins. At 34 years old and coming off a down season, I pass.
David Perron: He has now been hit or miss on a couple teams. My interest level in him is almost purely a function of how much of a discount he can be signed for.
Jiri Hudler: He could be an interesting wild card for the right price. He had a phenomenal 2014-15 season in Calgary notching a whopping 76 points. His 46 points in 72 games split between Calgary and Florida in 2014-15 is less impressive but still not a horrible total. At 32 years old could he rebound slightly to 50-55 points and do so for a bargain price?
Mikkel Boedker: He is a 26-year old with decent speed and finishing ability who has played at a 50-point pace when healthy over the past couple years, but his possession stats are unimpressive, and he could be fairly expensive. Like most of the players in this category, I rate him as moderately interesting but only for a discounted price.
Milan Lucic: The Canes could use more size. Lucic knows his game and how to get decent scoring out of it. But coming off a pretty good 2015-16 campaign, I would not be willing to win any kind of bidding war for him.
Kris Versteeg: In a Hurricanes uniform for most of the 2015-16 season, I think Versteeg had an okay great season. He and regular line mate Eric Staal were able to drive possession and control play, but they never really converted it to first or second line scoring. Based on seeing him up close, I think he slots as a good depth skill player/scorer. That is where he fit on the Blackhawks and where he likely fits on another good team. As such, I put him firmly in the category of players who could provide offensive depth if the price is right, but I do not see him as a player that I would pursue as a priority.
Others more of the third line/2-way variety
With Jordan Staal’s line set up as a second/checking line extraordinaire but a little light on scoring, I am not interested in paying a premium for great 2-way depth type players like Troy Brouwer, Jamie McGinn, etc. I would rather add as many potential 50-point producers as possible even if some are a stretch/rebound play knowing that not all will work out.
So what would I do?
My math has the Canes at about $45 million in salary after re-signing Victor Rask and Ryan Murphy. The team will need to spend about $10 million to reach the salary cap floor. Given attendance for the 2015-16 season, my wild guess is that Francis gets only another $5-7 million up to $60-62 million. I would allocate as much as two-thirds of that amount to landing a solid second goalie and a top 6-capable playmaking center. The high end might be something like $4 million for a goalie (Frederik Andersen price?) and up to $6 million for a center (that is current salary for Matt Duchene and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins).
If that happened, the Canes would be set at goalie and on defense. Even if a roster defenseman is traded to land a forward, there are still decent options in Murphy, Carrick, Fleury and McKeown to add young depth. It also leaves about $5-6 million remaining to opportunistically add 2-3 more forwards. The team would slot as follows:
Skinner / Legitimate top 6 center / ______
Nestrasil / JStaal / Nordstrom
______ / Rask / Lindholm
Di Giuseppe / McClement / ________
I really like Riley Nash for a modest price as a fourth-liner. He has the ability to slot up the lineup at right wing in a pinch, and I actually think he could steal McClement’s slot (pushing him to #13) and helping create a fourth line that can provide more depth scoring. Sebastian Aho will be given every opportunity to win 1 of the open slots. That would leave a decent budget of $4-5 million to add 2 more forwards who are not just fourth-line pluggers but rather are players with the potential to provide depth scoring and at least potential to play on a higher line.
With a modest $1.5 – 2.5 million budget for a couple depth forwards, I think it is less about targeting specific players and more about opportunistically finding the best players who lose the game of musical chairs and become available for a discount.
Here is hoping that Francis explores all options and spends if necessary to get the best he can for a second goalie and then also prioritizes adding a catalyst type player for a scoring line after that.