Once the clock struck noon, the action was fast and furious at the opening of NHL free agency. In the first hour alone, over $300 million (total over all years) of contracts were handed out. Not surprisingly, Hurricanes GM Ron Francis sat out the frenzy part of the day. Remember last year, the Canes lone signing on July was to re-up Riley Nash for 1 year at $1.1 million.
But as time clicked on and the big names dropped off the board, Francis did eventually step into the fray. First, he signed depth forward Viktor Stalberg to a 1-year deal for $1.5 million. Then later, he added right wing Lee Stempniak on a 2-year deal at $2.5 million per year. And along the way, he signed AHLer Andrew Miller to help fill the roster in Charlotte and provide additional system depth with some NHL experience.
First it is very important to note that this assessment on July 1 is an interim one. Last summer, Ron Francis’ biggest and best deal came on September 11 when he capitalized on the Blackhawks’ salary cap challenges to add Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom basically for nothing. Even though the Canes roster is reasonably full (once Rask and Murphy sign) and maybe needing only a depth defenseman, it is still within the realm of possibility that Francis makes another move or 2 that significantly changes things.
Staying the course and avoiding stupidity and/or high risk
Amidst all of the blinking lights and exciting transactions, I think importance of my latter item “avoiding stupidity” is underappreciated. Had Ron Francis completed exactly zero deals so far this summer, I still think he would have the edge on at least 8-10 NHL GMs who are negative for the summer in a measurable way because they did horrible deals or in a delayed way because they have signed a 6-7 year deal for a ton of money that has a pretty high chance to come back to bite them later. There might be a debate to be had about the merit of Francis having more of a sense of urgency if he wants to win in 2016-17, but his steady and methodical approach is a good recipe for staying out of trouble.
Ron Francis’ summer thus far can also be characterized as perfectly on task for his primary goal and mantra since he became GM which is to build a better and deeper organization that not only makes it back to the playoffs but importantly does so in a way that is sustainable. Francis gained a good number of futures at the 2016 NHL trade deadline and entered the summer with the possibility to spend some to add players. He did use a second and a third round pick in the deal for Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell, but in return he added a 21-year old established NHL player. At most the net was a loss of 1 ‘future’ but it is also important to note that the future he added was much higher-end in the form of an existing player. At the draft and with trade winds swirling, Francis and his team clicked off 9 picks in 7 rounds including 3 extra picks (1st round, 3rd round, 3rd round) with the offset being only a seventh-rounder that they traded away. Then on July 1, Francis chose to add 2 players from free agency instead of using futures to acquire players via trade.
In terms of avoiding potentially risky deals, it is impossible to give Francis anything less than an A. In terms of staying focused on building a deeper organization and a sustainable youth-driven path to success, it is also impossible to give him anything less than an A.
Solid additions for fair prices
In terms of evaluating the Hurricanes 2 NHL-level additions from the most basic level of are they good players and is the price fair, the story is also positive.
Incredibly good production per $: When looking at all of the free agent signings that happened on July 1, the Canes made easily the best deal of the day based on a simple metric of price for offensive production last season. Of the unrestricted free agents at forward, only 6 players scored more than 50 points last season. Four of those players came from the elite and expensive category – Kyle Okposo 64 points – $6M for 7 yrs, Loui Eriksson – 63 points $6M for 6 yrs, Milan Lucic – 55 points – $6M for 7 yrs, Frans Nielsen -52 points – $5.3M for 6 yrs. Mikkel Boedker was slighly less expensive with 51 points for $4M for 4 yrs.
Lee Stempniak cost $2.5 million for a low-risk 2-year deal. His point total last season – 51 points.
When you look at the rest of the landscape, his price looks even better. There is a tier of 40-49-point players that mostly went for premiums. David Backes and Andrew Ladd both offer mid-40s points for the crazy-long 6-year commitment at $6M for 6 yrs and $5.5 million for 7 yrs respectively. Below that there are a handful of pretty good players who offer mid-high 30s points for a price still higher than Stempniak. Familar face Eric Staal garnered $3.5M for 3 yrs for 39 points; Troy Brouwer did even better netting $4.5M for 4 yrs for 36 points; David Perron comes in at $3.9M for 2 yrs for 36 points; Jamie McGinn comes in at $3.3M for 3 yrs for 39 points.
There is always a subjective argument about which players are better for which reasons using a broader array of statistics and non-statistical ratings, but there is really no way anyone could argue that anyone did better in terms of adding scoring (based on 2015-16 actual statistics) per $ invested than Ron Francis did when he added Lee Stempniak for only $2.5 million per year for 2 years.
Broader statistics also positive: Also worth noting is that Stempniak has scored well for recent seasons with the stats crowd in terms of possession stats generally winning the possession/shots for battle when on the ice across a number of different situations with different teams and line mates.
Fills a Hurricanes need: I am on record since April as thinking that the single most powerful addition that the Canes could make at forward would be to add a proven playmaking center. My rationale is that such a player could bring scoring himself and equally importantly boost a couple of the Canes young wings who have yet to find a higher gear scoring-wise at the NHL level despite having a decent set of tools. I stand by that assessment. But there was almost no one on the free agent market with this skill set. I think Frans Nielsen is a very good player and a very good fit for my wish list. But as much as I would have liked to add him, I am glad that it was Detroit and not Carolina who committed for 6 years at $5.25 million for a 32-year old.
If a playmaking center just was not an option at a reasonable price, I think Stempniak is the next best thing. He is a right wing which is a weak spot for the Hurricanes at least in terms of first or even second line scoring totals. He had about a dozen more points than the Canes other options at the position. He is also another right shot for the power play. Finally, though his modest 5-11 195-pound size might not suggest it, Stempniak plays and wins in the dirty areas where goals happen the most. Watch his highlights. A high percentage of his goals come from winning battles near the crease.
Fourth-liner who fits Peters’ system well: As a fourth-liner with the potential to step up to the third line, Stalberg is not a flashy or exciting addition. His 20 points in 75 games for the Rangers last season is not eye-popping. But his high-end speed in the form of a big body at 6-3 209 pounds makes for a good forechecker and also a player with good enough hockey sense and wheels to bring solid 2-way play.
I actually like Riley Nash better for this slot because of situational stuff, but in evaluating Viktor Stalberg as an individual player, he is a solid, proven fourth-line player whose skill set fits Peters uptempo system very well and who adds a bit more needed size to the Canes lineup.
But the burning question is if it is enough
Strong grades for the future but another serving of ‘patience sandwiches’? My starting point is that Canes GM Ron Francis was sound in his decision-making and commitment to the long-term. On top of that, I think the 2 players he added are both good players for a good price. The team is better tonight than it was this morning.
Both of those things project very well for the Canes future. In an environment that prioritizes patience and the longer-term future over the 2016-17 season, I think Francis’ moves so far this summer grade out incredibly well. But Canes fans have been eating patience sandwiches for 7 years since the summer of 2009. Many of us are sick of them. And even more significantly, a bunch of people stopped buying them last season as evidenced by the drop in attendance. And while there is a core group of fans who gather enough hope from young players with potential like Noah Hanifin and Sebastian Aho, most of the people who were previously in the empty seats last season could mostly care less about young promising players or patience. They will return when, and only when, the Hurricanes start winning and make the playoffs again.
2016-17: So after giving Francis A’s for building for the future and making good signings, I quickly jump to my burning question which is whether Ron Francis has improved the team enough to make a run at the playoffs for the 2016-17 season.
I think the answer is that Ron Francis is relying very heavily on some combination of young players improving upon what they did in 2015-16 or Bill Peters and his system coaxing more out of last year’s model.
In goal, right now the Canes are now set to return Cam Ward and Eddie Lack. The duo was better in the second half of the season but for the season on total, they were below average and a minus in terms of pushing for the playoffs.
On defense, right now much of the same group is set to return but importantly minus veteran leader and mentor John-Michael Liles. On the one hand, it might be reasonable to think that the kids will be even better in their second year. On the other hand, Wisniewski’s buy out (assuming no significant addition) leaves the Canes both incredibly thin and incredibly young on the back end with no margin for error in terms of sophomore slumps or development setbacks.
At forward, the team sees the most changeover, but it is unclear if the team is just younger, cheaper and different or actually significantly better. Goaltending aside, one of the Canes’ biggest challenges last season was assembling any semblance of a pure scoring line. Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom were incredibly good once united and clicking, but even the good version of that line is scoring-lite for top 6 line. And the Canes were never able to get much more than depth scoring from any other line. If you consider the swap to be Stempniak and Teraviainen for EStaal and Versteeg, the scoring totals are not significantly different, and I would argue that the team is still really light on players who would be counted on to be first-line scorers on a playoff type NHL team. Basically, the hope is that some combination of chemistry, system, player fit, a better power play, better puck movement from the back end or something else need to boost a significant portion of the Canes roster up from what they scored in 2015-16 for it to work.
How would you rate Ron Francis’ work so far this summer?