Today’s Daily Cup of Joe is part 2 of 2 in evaluating Ron Francis’ work for the 2016-17 season and to some degree building for the future. Part 1 which addressed the broader plan and the blue line can be found HERE. Part 2 will look at Francis’ work at the forward and goalie positions.
Building the Hurricanes forward lines
Evaluation: Whereas the blue line had a majority of key components in place both for the 2016-17 season and the longer-term future, Francis entered the summer of 2016 with a forward roster that was still very much a work in progress for 2016-17 and also much farther away from his vision of stocking a roster with good young players. The departure of top half of the roster forwards Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg thinned out a lineup that was already short at the forward position. In addition Francis decided to more or less start from a blank slate for depth forwards. Jay McClement was still under contract, but Francis chose not to re-sign Riley Nash, Nathan Gerbe, Chris Terry or Brad Malone.
My math said that the Hurricanes had only 4 top 9 forwards (Jordan Staal, Victor Rask, Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm) entering the summer of 2016, the hope that the magic that Joakim Nordstrom and Andrej Nestrasil found with Jordan Staal would carry over in the 2016-17 and some kid named Aho.
Francis made 1 of his 2 biggest moves of the summer when he added 22-year old skilled and experienced forward Teuvo Teravainen to the mix. With Chicago trapped in salary cap hell, Francis obtained Teravainen partly by taking on Bryan Bickell’s $4 million contract and partly for second and third round draft picks. Next Francis steered clear of the risky high-end bidding wars and instead picked up veteran journeyman Lee Stempniak for 2 years at $2.5 million per year. The price and minimal term risk were good value for the 51 points that he scored in the previous season. Francis’ addition of fourth-liner Viktor Stalberg paid dividends during his time here and also at the trade deadline when he yielded a third round draft pick.
When I assess Francis’ moves at forward, I give him high marks for not making any mistakes or having any misses. I also give him high marks for getting good value and improving the team with the moves he did make. But in terms of the 2016-17 season, I think the team is still a bit short in terms of true top 9 forwards and especially in terms of top 6 type scorers. That shows in the team’s #20 ranking out of 30 teams in terms of goals scored per game.
But in terms of making step-wise progress, my math says that the Hurricanes will enter the summer of 2017 with 7 top 9 forwards (same 4 as last season plus Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Lee Stempniak) which is up from only 3 this time last year. In addition, the volume of capable depth forwards with some amount of NHL experience has grown significantly with Joakim Nordstrom, Phil Di Giuseppe, Brock McGinn, Andrej Nestrasil, Patrick Brown and Derek Ryan (if re-signed) all in the mix. Say what you will about the results at forward for 2016-17, but the trend in terms of becoming deeper at the position definitely took a significant step forward.
Grade: I give Francis a A-. The number of holes that Francis had to fill at the forward was a significant mismatch with the budget he had. Francis was net positive in each of the moves he did make. He also avoided any costly missteps in the free agent market. He gets downgraded only slightly because the team just is not quite there yet at the forward position and maybe a little bit because he has yet to land a true top 6 forward to balance out the scoring.
What Francis could have done differently/better: Given budget limitations, not much. Ideally, he would have found 1 more crafty deal to add a top 6 scorer (i.e. the Matt Duchene thing), but those deals are tough to get done, and it might also be accurate to say that he did well not overextending in terms of trade payment to get a player.
Evaluation: The Hurricanes found their legs in the second half of the 2015-16 season, rose up the standings and came reasonably close to playing their way back into the playoff hunt despite a miserable start. The biggest Achilles’ heel was the team’s goaltending which ranked at or near the bottom of the league regardless of whether you want to use simple or more advanced metrics. When the 2015-16 season ended, Francis had 1 open goalie slot created when Cam Ward’s contract expired and a 2-year contractual commitment to Eddie Lack. The potential options at the goalie position were many entering the summer of 2016. There was not much in terms of free agents but there were multiple players potentially available via trade partly because of the impending expansion draft scheduled for June of 2017. On June 16, 2016 before the draft weekend and well before free agency opened, Francis re-upped with Cam Ward for 2 years at $3.2 million per year. When the summer ended, the Lack remained in tow, and the Hurricanes entered training camp with the same duo that was not good enough the year before.
The 2 biggest movers in the goalie market during the summer of 2016 were fellow 2015-16 bottom dwellers Calgary and Toronto. Toronto moved most aggressively trading a first and a second round pick for Frederik Andersen. Calgary probably finished second trading for Brian Elliott and also signing free agent Chad Johnson. Both of those teams will make the 2017 NHL playoffs.
The 2016-17 season has been another topsy-turvy 1 for the Hurricanes. Cam Ward and Eddie Lack both started slowly again and again played a role in the team digging a hole early in the season. Ward righted the shift by the start of November and generally played well through about mid-January. With no backup, Peters rode Ward who started 12 out of 14 games in November, 13 of 14 in December and then 12 out of 13 in January. Midway through that last stretch, Ward’s level of play seemed to drop and never really rebounded. Lack finally found a burst of goalie goodness during the Canes magical run in late March, so each goalie can lay claim to at least a stretch of goalie goodness. But when you look at the season in total, the Hurricanes finished tied for 26th out of 30 in save percentage and similarly rate in the bottom third or lower for most goaltending metrics.
In short, the goalie tandem that was not good enough in 2015-16 and was again not good enough in 2016-17.
Grade: I give Ron Francis a C-. It is a results business and Francis did not get results from the goalie that he chose to fill the opening nor did he get results from the goalie that he traded for and committed to the summer before. He gets credit for not having a more costly miss (in terms of salary and potentially trade assets), but when saying he could have made a bigger mistake is the biggest positive, the situation is not good.
What could Francis have done better/differently: The possible combinations and options are many, but in short, after a sub-par 2015-16 season in net, Francis could have at least tried to upgrade 1 if not both of the team’s goalie slots. It would have been costly, but he could have bought out Lack and upgraded that slot or he could have gone a different direction with Ward’s slot.
Interestingly, Francis will be in a similar position this offseason. Both goalies have shown signs of having a higher gear but have not been able to do it consistently enough. But on the whole, if you told me I could take their 2016-17 again or try something different, I would pick different for both and roll the dice.
What say you Caniac Nation?
Am I too harsh on Francis for playing it close to the vest at the goalie position? Are you similarly happy with the strides that Francis and the team made at the forward position even though there is still work to do? Also, if you missed it earlier this week check out also the Monday Coffee Shop which includes polls and discussion questions on the 2016-17 season.