In his first three seasons as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes Ron Francis has always been a trade deadline seller. Through a three-year run of mostly selling off whatever was not bolted down in late February, Francis has built the team’s prospect pool from something that regularly rated in the bottom five in the league to one that is now appearing at or near the top five in the league.
But the summer of 2017 represented a transition point that saw Francis more aggressively add players with a ‘win now’ goal. Francis’ move to add goalie Scott Darling in April hoping to improve the Hurricanes’ weak goaltending was a step in that direction, but adding then 35-year old veteran Justin Williams on July 1 even more so put a stake in the ground in terms of trying to shift from rebuilding to contending.
Expectations right from the beginning of the 2017-18 season were that Francis could again buy to win at the trade deadline if the team was still in the hunt and the addition of a player had the potential to push the team over the hump and into the playoffs.
But for multiple reasons, expectations are the Francis would play only at the low stakes end of the trade deadline frenzy and would not be a bidder for any of the big names available at high prices. The first reason is simply that spending a bunch of futures for short-term gain would break a consistent run of not doing so. Another reason is Francis’ stated goal to build primarily from within.
And while I agree that the most likely scenario is that Francis does something in between nothing and minor in the sense that he parts with at most mid-tier prospects or picks is most likely, today’s Daily Cup of Joe will indulge in big game hunting and actually try to lay out an argument that it could make sense for Francis to make a bigger play leading up to the trade deadline.
What I think Francis will NOT do?
First is to say that I doubt that Francis will pay a fortune for a pure rental who would hopefully help the team make the 2017-18 playoffs and would then become a free agent in the summer and leave. In my opinion, that just flies too much in the face of Francis’ master plan to build from within and stockpile young talent. Probably the biggest name in that pure rental category is Evander Kane. His skill set as a power forward who can skate and score would actually be a nice complement for the Hurricanes’ forward group that could use another injection of size and a player who does his best work at the top of the crease in the offensive zone. But with the asking price alleged to be a three or four piece set heavy on high end futures, I would be surprised to see Francis as a top bidder even at a reduced price.
But what he might do is…
What I think might actually make sense is nearly equally outside of the realm of possibilities that most people are considering. But give me a couple minutes to lay out a few different elements of the Hurricanes’ current situation that seem to be somewhat unrelated and then take a try at putting them together into an interesting puzzle that builds a case for Francis to surprise everyone and do a sizable deal.
Element #1 — There is a precedent already set for ‘win now’ moves’
By adding veteran Justin Williams this summer, Francis did signal a shift toward at least considering moves that focus on the here and now. Granted, that move did not require spending futures which is significant, but it does maybe at least suggest that Francis has shifted from ‘build for the future at all costs’ to more of a balance with winning now.
Element #2 — Francis gets the importance of the veteran leadership element
Also courtesy of the Williams’ deal but then reiterated to some degree with the additions of Trevor van Riemsdyk and Marcus Kruger, Francis showed a bias toward adding NHL playoff pedigree. He and the team in general has talked at times about the importance of having at least some players with experience making and winning in the playoffs.
Element #3 — The Hurricanes need an offensive center but might just already have him in the system
This past summer, second on my wish list only to adding a goalie was adding a playmaking type of center to boost the offense. That obviously did not happen I think at least partly just because there was not a deal to be done, but maybe also partly because spending a bunch for a short-term need maybe did not make sense.
Coach Bill Peters and the team in general is on record as thinking that Sebastian Aho could eventually shift to the center position. And after rapidly rising up the team and broader (Corey Pronman from The Athletic has him ranked #4!) prospect rankings, in short order since being drafted in June, Martin Necas oozes the skill set of a good playmaking center.
So looking forward, the team might already have what it needs at center position.
Element #4 — The Hurricanes have salary escalation challenges on the way, but they do not really start in earnest until after the 2018-19 season
For the 2018-19 season, the Hurricanes will see Jaccob Slavin’s and Brett Pesce’s new contracts kick in and in the process increase their combined compensation by roughly $7 million. In addition, Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm will need new contracts for next summer. But when one factors in a couple expiring buy outs and a couple players coming off contract, the escalation for 2018-19 could be a modest $5 million. But if then fast forward to the summer after the 2018-19 season, another round of salary escalations potentially of a larger magnitude come into play. That summer, all of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Haydn Fleury will need new contracts. Aho and Fleury in particular will be coming off of their sub-$1 million entry-level deals and could see escalations in the Slavin/Pesce range or even higher for Aho.
The upshot is that even though the Hurricanes are near the salary cap floor right now, the team’s salary cap availability is partially spent already in the future, but the big jump does not occur until after the 2018-19 season.
Element #5 — If new owner Tom Dundon wants to make a splash, the time frame leading up to the trade deadline could be the time to do it
It is no secret that one of the things that Tom Dundon needs to do in leveraging the ownership transition is to try to jolt life into the large, dormant portion of the Carolina Hurricanes fan base. On the one hand, the primary evaluation point of any near-term deals is always from a hockey team building mentality. But any deal done while the ink is still dry on Dundon’s purchase of the team could also carry a fairly significant marketing gain in terms of winning back fans who walked away at some point.
At first glance, those five elements might seem somewhat random and unrelated. But when I put the puzzle pieces together and the broader picture comes into focus, I actually think they could combine to make a case for adding a higher-end, veteran wing who is not of the 2017-18 rental variety but also is not signed long-term.
Enter Max Pacioretty (who I am on record as liking) and how he magically impacts each and every one of the five elements listed above.
Element #1 — Win now: In the simplest of terms, Max Pacioretty is a really good hockey player who could help any team win. He is a natural goal scorer which the Hurricanes could use, and he is also a flexible player who somewhat like Justin Williams can play on any kind of line and in any situation. He would clearly be a positive in terms of making an extra investment in trying to make the 2017-18 playoffs.
Element #2 — Another dose of leadership: The Hurricanes significant problem with consistency screams out for more leadership and veteran help. As a captain in the hockey hot bed of Montreal and as a member of a team that has reached the playoffs in recent years, Pacioretty would add another dose of veteran leadership to the mix for the stretch drive.
So those first two elements are related and a bit from the ‘no duh’ category.
But then I think it becomes even more interesting…
Element #3 — The young offensive centers: If the hope and expectation is that one or both of Sebastian Aho who is 19 years old and Martin Necas who is 18 years old will be centering a top scoring line in the near future, one might ask what would be ideal ingredients to help facilitate this challenging transition into a huge role at such a young age? As much as anything, I think flanking at wing with a veteran who is proven in that role and complementary in terms of skill set could greatly improve the young players’ chance of success. In that regard, I think the Hurricanes’ current lineup is light in terms of help. Justin Williams would qualify, but I am not sure anyone else really does. Jordan Staal could be a great help, but not if the aim is to move one or both to center which puts them on a different line. Jeff Skinner is a dynamic scorer, but with his unique style of play, I just do not see him as a great complementary player for a young playmaking center. Elias Lindholm is also maybe a decent fit but not so much the pure, proven veteran.
If I look at it more directly for Aho who could possibly be on the fastest track to the center position, I think ideal would be to keep him with Teuvo Teravainen because of their natural chemistry and then augment that line with a complementary left wing. Again, I just do not think Skinner is it. I think the ideal target is a proven veteran, who is a capable or better finisher, who adds more size to the line and who also brings the two-way acumen needed to be successful defending other team’s top lines. That by definition is Max Pacioretty.
Element #4 — Contract term and cost: I already said that I did not think Francis would pay a bunch for a 2017-18 rental who is likely to then disappear during free agency this summer. But I think I differ from most people who want a long-term deal in any expensive addition. In today’s salary cap NHL, it just is not possible to keep everyone and it can also be risky to have too many long-term contracts that inhibit flexibility if you need to change course or retool. I think there is actually a case to be made for two years being a perfect contract term for a higher-end forward addition. That period of time does a few things. First is that it offers two years (or a guess two tries if year one fails) to get into the playoffs and have the young roster experience and learn what it takes to do that. Put simply, if the Hurricanes traded a bunch for Pacioretty or another veteran who stayed only two years but helped the team get into the playoffs, I think that would be a win. Second is that a two-year commitment would end when it was time to re-sign Aho, Teravainen and Fleury, so it would not have to inhibit that and could be a way to cut costs a bit if needed. Related to that, it could create some options and flexibility for retooling a bit heading into the 2019-20. Francis would see all of Skinner, Williams and Pacioretty scheduled to become free agents after the 2018-19 season. Maybe it is not the worst thing that Francis would have the option of deciding which of those three were most critical to the Hurricanes’ success going forward and then keeping only one or two of the three.
Element #5 — Tom Dundon making a splash: Especially if it led to a 2017-18 playoff berth, adding a player like Pacioretty in January or February would clearly make a statement and greatly increase the buzz around the team after years of quiet.
Netting it out
By no means would he come cheap, but I continue to think that Ron Francis should be calling Marc Bergevin each and every morning to say ‘hi’ and make sure he is very close to Bergevin when he next does something rash on the trade market.
I pegged the Hurricanes chances at 35-40 percent in my Wednesday Daily Cup of Joe article on the Hurricanes’ playoff chances. Readers voted similarly and interestingly the statistics-based models seem to also be coming in around a 40 percent mark. Max Pacioretty is the kind of big addition who could move the needle in terms of playoff hopes. He is a great hockey player who like Justin Williams could make any kind of line better and would add more tested leadership to the mix.
Finally, looking past the current season, I think he could be a tremendous help to a young center breaking into a top 6 center type role.
What say you Canes fans?
1) On a 1-10 craziness where 0 says it makes perfect sense and 10 tries to commit me to the hockey luney bin, where do my Max Pacioretty hopes rate?
2) Do you think for the right deal (not necessarily Pacioretty) that Francis would spend big in terms of trade collateral and shop above the depth level? Or do you think the party line that Francis might add inexpensive depth but that is all is on target?