Important note: This article continues a series from last week. It is not so much focused on the near-term trade deadline, though it obviously could come into play. Rather, it is more aimed at the summer, the start of the 2017-18 season and longer term.
I diverged a bit over the weekend, but last week, I started down the path of working through the Carolina Hurricanes roster with the aim of identifying areas for possible improvement. While these are obviously areas that could be addressed for the remainder of the 2016-17 season, the focus is more so for pushing forward into the 2017-18 season.
In part 1 my review of the blue line basically said that the Hurricanes need to add another top 4 defenseman to bridge the gap until 1 or more of the current prospects is ready to assume such a role. If Justin Faulk was traded as pondered in Monday’s Daily Cup of Joe, the need would then be 2 top 4 defensemen.
In part 2 which looked at the forwards, I said that ideally the Hurricanes needed 2 more top 9 forwards importantly who were not ‘good enoughs’ but rather were the type of players who could drive and boost scoring.
The all-important last third of the season could have a significant impact on final grades for the Hurricanes in net, but right now I think it is like this…
Ward struggled out of the gate, and he has also been less impressive since the start of January, but he was incredibly good in the middle and even during the recent stretch has at least been up and down. Especially if you make a modest adjustment for the fact that Cam Ward’s play might even be a bit better if his work load was decreased to a normal level. Again, the last third of the season could have a lot to say, but right now I would describe his play as clinging to ‘good enough.’
The bigger problem was been the team’s inability to get anything productive out of the #2 goalie slot. Where to start? Has Eddie Lack just not been good enough to be trusted with anything? Does Francis then take the fall for extending him for 2 years at nearly $3 million per year before he even played for the Hurricanes? Is Peters largely to blame for just not having either a knack or enough guts to use his backup effectively? Is it partly on goalie coach David Marcoux who has a role in helping both goalies be ready to go when called.
Regardless, of how you prefer to assign blame, the situation has been nothing short of a dumpster fire. And going forward, the Hurricanes must find a viable option to be at least a viable #2 goalie if not more ideally a 1B. I was tempted when Curtis McElhinney crossed waivers in early January and was claimed by Toronto. I was also all in on taking on modest risk and contract to add Andrew Hammond when he was on waivers this weekend.
Thus far, Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis has been watching and waiting. There are a number of possible reasons for this, and though I disagree on letting Hammond slip past, I think there is validity to some of the reasons for passing. First and foremost, Francis and his scouting team must make an assessment of the available players relative to the current option of Eddie Lack. It makes no sense to pull a third goalie and another contract into the mix if he is not better than Lack. Second, it might just be that Francis wants to preserve as much flexibility as possible and explore more significant upgrades. Timing might not help the 2016-17 season, but the impending expansion draft could make additional options available both before and after Las Vegas selects 3 goalies.
But complexity, options and timing aside, as of right now, being significantly better in the #2 goalie slot is another area for improvement going forward.
The final shopping list
When I net it out from the first 2 articles and the goalie assessment in this 1, the Hurricanes have needs and/or could improve in 4 positions – 2 top 6 forwards ideally with the ability to drive scoring not just be a complementary player, 1 top 4 defenseman who hopefully pairs well with Faulk and a 1B or #2 goalie who can at a minimum spell Ward and collect some points in the process.
Important to note is that it might not be necessary to make all 4 upgrades to push into the playoffs. We obviously do not know how the 2016-17 season will end, but the team is in the mix at least with the current roster, and it is reasonable to expect the young roster to improve year over year even with no additions.
Looking forward to the 2017-18 season, if you could give me a legitimate, proven, scoring top 6 forward and a decent veteran top 4-capable defenseman and some semblance of adequate play out of Eddie Lack, I would be happy and take my chances betting on a playoff berth.
More detailed descriptions
Top 6 forward #1: I really think the Hurricanes are short at least 1 dynamic scorer who can drive a scoring line and balance the offense. Per my post on the forwards, the Hurricanes current top 9 is light on players who make the offense go. In fact, I think 1 could make a decent argument that Jeff Skinner is the only player who really meets this requirement. That is why I have been obsessed with Matt Duchene. Players of this age and caliber hit the trade market 1-3 times per season. The alternative of trying to add a similar player via free agency is dicey. More often than not the options require overbidding on both salary and term frequently for players who are on the other side of their prime. In addition, even if Francis had the dough to spend, luring these players is challenging when you are 7 years removed from your last playoff appearance. The alternative is to wait for these players to emerge from the prospect pool. That is actually the preferred way to bolster the lineup, but because it can take years, at some point there needs to be a balance of developing players with filling a couple holes some other way. Importantly, I think we might finally be getting to the point where the holes are actually only “a couple.”
Proven top 4 defenseman for the short-term: Whereas the forward need above is a long-term roster boost, the need on defense is more of a bridge to buy a flexible period of time of 1-3 years while the next wave of young defensemen rise up, hopefully ahead of schedule, and seize roster spots. As long as the team does not have to overpay in terms of trade value for a short-term need, I would be fine with adding a veteran with only 1 year remaining on his contract (2017-18) to basically take Ron Hainsey’s place and see if better/different chemistry can help boost Faulk’s level of play. I also like the idea of re-signing Hainsey as a #6/#7 with an appropriate salary for that role. I think his days of playing regular top 4 minutes are quickly passing, but a veteran for the third pairing or possibly injury depth is not a bad thing.
Top 6 forward #2: Let me start by saying that I do not think it is likely that the Hurricanes will add 2 top half of the roster forwards from outside the organization. That is probably asking too much, and I am okay with that. I think it would be fine to have 8 ‘mostly certains’ in the top 9 and 1 spot left for Derek Ryan, Brock McGinn, young prospects and the fourth-liners to battle for in next fall’s training camp.
#2 or 1B goalie: We will see how the 2016-17 season wraps up. It could a ton of different directions with regard to netminding. With a couple games, some rhythm and some trust is it possible that Lack gets his feet under him and finishes strong? How will Ward finish the season after arguably being overworked through the middle of it? As teams position for the expansion draft, is it possible that a bargain becomes available in a buyers’ market? Last summer, I pegged Ron Francis’ decision on what to do at the goalie position as top of the list impacting the 2016-17 season. It is very possible that the same will be said during the summer of 2017.
Give me a legitimate, dynamic top 6 scorer to pair with Sebastian Aho, a capable top 4 stay-home/responsible defenseman to pair with Faulk and something viable for the second goalie slot and I will take my chances with that roster and hope for upside surprises in terms of production and NHL-readiness from the growing prospect pool to find the level above that.