It is that time of year where the rumblings and rumors for NHL deals and signings grow by leaps and bounds. In today’s internet world, it is often hard to separate the BS from the real rumors or at least reasonably well thought out possibilities.
This is also a good time to issue my semi-regular disclaimer that I do NOT have any sources close to the team or any source for rumors (though I have a few great stories of random emails and Twitter DMs I have received over the years with people claiming to have something for me). What I write about is purely speculation in my favorite role as back seat GM.
So with all of the stuff swirling around both the Edmonton Oilers and to a lesser degree the Carolina Hurricanes, here is a shot at sorting out what might actually make sense and how Ron Francis might leverage the situation to pull off his next heist.
First, it is important to identify a factual starting point for what is going on. We know the following:
1) Edmonton is shopping for a defenseman, namely a top 4 defenseman and ideally a right shot top 4 defenseman.
2) Edmonton recognizes that it will need to part ways with someone from its forward ranks to do such a deal.
3) Carolina GM Ron Francis is on record as still looking to add a top 6 forward to his roster.
Based on the facts, there are a few things that would logically make sense.
1) The player the very clearly (and impressively) meets Edmonton’s desires is Justin Faulk who is a young, top 4, right shot defenseman.
2) The Oilers have a couple forwards who could meet Francis’ top 6 forward needs depending on what specific skill set and position he wants.
Me playing Hurricanes GM Ron Francis and Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli
What Chiarelli wants: Ideally, I think Chiarelli wants to unload Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the primary part of the Oilers side of the deal. With McDavid and Draisatl locked into the C1 and C2 positions, Nugent-Hopkins is a good but also very expensive $6 million/year third line center. With Draisatl and McDavid still on entry-level deals, it is possible to make Nugent-Hopkins salary work for 1 or possibly 2 more years, but when those 2 players get big raises and it is coupled with an expensive defenseman or 2, it will difficult if not impossible make that salary work in that slot. Alternatively, I suppose the Oilers could part with Eberle, but he actually fits in the top 6 as a scoring-capable wing to play next to 1 of the top centers. And of course in return, Chiarelli desperately wants Justin Faulk and would probably even be able to sweeten a deal that had Nugent-Hopkins as the base.
What Ron Francis wants: Ron Francis does want a top 6 forward, and I think Nugent-Hopkins as a playmaking center is an incredibly good fit. He brings 50-60 points but equally importantly he brings the playmaking skill set that also has the potential to boost 2 young forwards from Lindholm, Teravainen, Di Giuseppe or Aho to a higher level. But here’s the thing. I will be shocked if Francis is willing to trade Faulk in any deal for Nugent-Hopkins. Faulk is just a better player and also an important leader for the Canes. Nugent-Hopkins is good, but I just do not see him as being in the elite category that it would take to pry Faulk loose. So the deal that Francis wants to do would involve a bunch of futures possibly to include someone like Brett Pesce who was actually a right shot top 4 defenseman last season.
So despite each side having what the other wants, I do not think there is a match in the first round of each side calling out the deal that each wants to do.
Enter Taylor Hall
Taylor Hall could change things. Whereas I do not see Nugent-Hopkins as an elite player (just a very good one), I actually think Hall is. He might not quite be in the very top category of Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos, Kane, Toews and a few others, but whatever the second tier is I think he easily fits in that one. I view Hall as being the type of player that will make an entire line go even if his line mates are a notch below him. And though he might need some help, he is easily capable of being a point per game player (has already done it).
I would go so far as to say that Taylor Hall for Justin Faulk is a fair trade. Both sides are incredibly excited by who they receive. And both sides are equally pained by who they gave up. So if Francis did this deal, I would not be shocked nor would I be upset.
But in a narrow vote that could change if you ask me again in 2 days, I would not do this deal for a couple reasons:
1) I view Faulk as a young leader of the Hurricanes. Could Hall step in and become the same? Sure. But Faulk has earned his way there from inside the dressing room.
2) The team’s roster just is not ready yet. I was as impressed as anyone by the season the young Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce had as rookies in 2015-16. But after only 1 season in the NHL, I would not declare them proven top 4 defensemen or sure things. The Canes were in this situation awhile back when Jamie McBain had a really solid second half of a season in top 4 role. The next season, he was slotted as a top 4 with no plan B behind him, struggled mightily and then more or less crashed and burned. He never really recovered. I love the idea of Jaccob Slavin picking up where he left off last season and playing his way up the depth chart. I also love the idea of Brett Pesce settling in like he did with Liles and being a solid top 4. And I love the idea of Noah Hanifin making fast strides to reach his ceiling which is probably the highest of the 3 during the 2016-17 season. But in all 3 cases, I want this to be earned not forced and patience to rule the day if any of these players have setbacks or slow a bit in his development. I also love the depth on the blue line below the NHL level, but these players could still be 2-3 years away from helping. Faulk, who is still developing himself, anchors 1 of the top pairings for the foreseeable future and has some veteran help in Wisniewski and Hainsey.
Interestingly, I actually think a deal like this could make sense as early as next summer depending on how the young defensemen progress this summer, but it is just too early right now.
But I still think this could play out well for the next Francis’ heist
So my thoughts suggest that despite each team having what the other wants, that there just might not be a deal to be had. And I think there is a reasonable probability that the Oilers package up Nugent-Hopkins or Eberle possibly with some modest futures and land a top 4ish defenseman. Ron Francis would have the trump card in Faulk but would smartly not use it. And as much as I have had an offseason man crush on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the playmaking ability that he could bring to a Canes scoring line as a 23-year old, I would be fully on board with Francis passing in this situation.
But I think there is a potential chain of events that could line up really nicely for Francis’ next big heist in the same vein as Nordstrom and Versteeg for virtually nothing last August and also Francis’ deal to get young forward Teuvo Teravainen inexpensively for taking on Bryan Bickell’s contract.
It goes like this:
1) Plan A (Nugent-Hopkins or Eberle for 4 D fails): Peter Chiarelli will exhaust all possible options to land a top 4 defenseman with either Nugent-Hopkins or possibly Eberle. Awhile back, Travis Hamonic wanted out of Long Island, but he has since rescinded that offer. It is unclear if he would have been good enough but Dmitry Kulikov was traded to Buffalo. Tyson Barrie was supposedly available, but Colorado is at least alleging that he is not. There are still some decent options supposedly on the trade block in Kevin Shattenkirk and Cam Fowler (or whoever else Anaheim parts with). And there are younger, slightly less proven options like Jacob Trouba who would be a notch above Brett Pesce and his lone year of experience. But here’s the thing…Chiarelli has been trying desperately to do this deal for a few weeks now and pushed all the way through the draft weekend without it happening. It seems to be a reasonable possibility that he will lose this game of musical chairs.
2) Plan B (upping ante to Hall is deemed a bad idea): The next possible step is to up the ante with Taylor Hall. If Chiarelli becomes desperate enough, I think he will land a defenseman. But I also think that there is some chance that he comes to his senses (if the rumors that Hall is available are even true) and decides against it.
3) But Oilers still want Lucic: Meanwhile, the Oilers are supposedly interested in Milan Lucic who would provide size and bang to go with the skill on their top 2 lines. Ideal for my scenario would be if the Oilers would win this bidding war which will probably run $6 million or more per year.
4) At this point Oilers will somehow have added $/players at forward: At that point, the Oilers will have added salary (or at least be prepared to add salary) and will have exhausted all of the possibilities to leverage Nugent-Hopkins to land the defenseman that they covet.
5) Cue plan B which is dump Nugent-Hopkins: At this point, is it possible that Chiarelli looks into the future and sees that Nugent-Hopkins does not really fit as a $6 million C3 anyway, also want to sign Lucic and decide to go with plan B and take the best reasonable offer for Nugent-Hopkins even if it is mostly futures? Brett Pesce or even Ryan Murphy would give the Oilers a right shot defenseman with NHL experience. Especially Pesce might be worth an audition in the top 4 until Chiarelli can pull off the elusive bigger deal. Heck, Pesce actually was a decent top 4 with the Hurricanes last season. And in the event that a deal comes along later, Chiarelli could use whatever futures he obtained in the deal with the Canes as part of the package to get the defenseman he really wants.
The super heist is Francis taking a gamble that the Canes are better this season and giving up his first round pick for 2017 along with other futures and/or someone like Ryan Murphy.
The lesser heist is a deal that sees the Canes begrudgingly part with good young defenseman Brett Pesce and a slightly lesser set of futures (i.e. second round pick in 2017 plus another prospect or pick).
So shorter version is that Chiarelli needs to strike out on any/all options to land a top 4 defenseman with Nugent-Hopkins or Eberle, be smart enough not to up the offer to Hall but then be willing to unload Nugent-Hopkins for mostly futures partly because he wants to respend that money on Lucic.
I put the odds of the total chain of events at 10% but then Ron Francis has already pulled a rabbit out of the hat a couple times.
UPDATED AFTER TAYLOR HALL WAS TRADED FOR ADAM LARSSON THIS AFTERNOON
Was there a deal to be done by Ron Francis?
I think there was. Faulk would have trumped Larsson, so there is a very strong chance that Francis could have had Hall if he wanted to part with Faulk to get him. As I said above, I think this is actually a pretty fair trade, but I would not do it. I do not think the Canes defense is ready to absorb his loss, and he is a core part of the team and a leader to boot. So I am on board with passing on that trade. That begs the question of if Francis could have won Hall with less. I do not think so. Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli was locked in on adding a top 4 (ish?) defenseman above all else to the point where a package of players that was worth more would not have mattered. I think you could make a case that the Canes could have offered a package of Pesce (also top 4 ish?) plus a couple futures that would have been worth more than Larsson, but I do not think it would have mattered.
Does this mean Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is no longer available?
The fact that the Oilers obtained the defenseman that they coveted decreases the desperation/urgency on the part of the Oilers. And with the deal actually cutting a small amount of salary, the Oilers will not be strained by the salary cap at least for 2016-17. Even if they pursue Milan Lucic as expected, they can easily get under the salary cap. So that suggests that the urgency to move Nugent-Hopkins this summer either for salary reasons or as a trade chip to add a defenseman is gone.
No doubt this decreases the probability that he gets traded.
That said, I am not sure he fits in the long-term picture. He is slotted as a third line center at a price of $6 million per year. With Leon Draisatl coming off his entry-level deal next summer and Connor McDavid requiring a small fortune for a long-term deal the next summer, salary cap pressure is on the way. It might also be that with 2 franchise type centers anchored in the first and second slots long-term that Chiarelli is just ready to move on from Nugent-Hopkins. In this scenario, things could actually be better for the Canes because it might no longer be imperative that a deal include a top 4 defenseman.
So I think the odds of Nugent-Hopkins being available this summer did decrease, but I would not declare it an impossibility.
A couple related polls: