It is suddenly February 18 and only 11 days until the NHL trade deadline. Had the Hurricanes 2015-16 season derailed, it would have been easy for Canes GM Ron Francis to just sell anything he could and continue building for the future. But that is not the case. The Hurricanes sit in a strange spot with New Jersey as teams who were not supposed to be hanging around, still are but are not in the top 8 either. This makes it tougher for Ron Francis to decide what to do.
After 6 consecutive years of playoff misses, I just do not see Francis completely blowing things up even if the chances are only remote which has me pondering whether there is a possible middle ground for the impending trade deadline if the Canes get there still where they are right now in the standings.
I think it is like this:
1) I will be absolutely shocked if Francis trades futures for rentals to go for it in 2015-16. It goes against everything that he has been preaching for nearly 2 years now about building a team that can go to the playoffs yearly.
2) Past that, the soon to be unrestricted big 3 free agents who would have significant value on the trade market are all in key roles on the team. Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg make up two-thirds of a key line. John-Michael Liles is a regular top 4 defenseman. Past that, Cam Ward (who I do not think would garner a return if he even it is possible to trade him with his contract) is roughly half of the goaltending starts of late and playing pretty well. Nathan Gerbe and Brad Malone who are out of the lineup would be available but will not yield a big return if there is interest. Riley Nash is the other unrestricted free agent to be. He is in the lineup as a fourth-line wing right now.
There are issues with trading any of the big 3:
His role and the risks: His scoring woes are well-documented, but he is firmly entrenched and a key component of a line that is at least holding its own territorially. Could the team try to drop Riley Nash into that slot and hope that he can provide similar in terms of puck possession and 2-way play especially since you really are not losing a ton in terms of goal scoring? I suppose it is possible, but it is also a risky proposition.
Is there a creative alternative? I think there are a couple ways that Francis could go as compared to just riding out the string with Staal’s contract and then possibly losing him for nothing in July. First would be to use the trade deadline as leverage and press for a ‘hometown discount’ deal to put the situation to bed and get something (a better deal) as a return for Eric Staal. It is not nearly as ideal as trading him and then (if you want to) bringing him back in July, but then we did not expect to still be playing games that matter heading into March. The second option would be to proceed as originally expected and trade Eric Staal. The key would be to get a replacement player in the deal or otherwise use some combination of those or other picks to bring in a replacement. I am not talking about adding another rental but rather a young center who can fill a top 9 slot. Awhile back, I had big dreams for a deal that saw a desperate Canadiens team punting on Alex Galchenyuk who they are seemingly not happy with as part of a deal for Eric Staal to help salvage their season. Sadly, with the Canadiens sinking and Carey Price still out, they have probably already sunk too far to even bid for Eric Staal. But a deal like that could be interesting. It is not as if Eric Staal is scoring right now, so just maybe the new player finds chemistry and a spark and brings the same or better.
His role and the risks: He is similar to his line mate Eric Staal in terms of current role. The 2 are playing pretty good hockey. The line is holding its own. But it is not like they are lighting the world on fire either. Versteeg also comes minus the long history with the Canes. With his reasonable contract that fits nicely in the cap-challenged NHL, he seems even more likely to go than Eric Staal. But the Canes really do not have a player to back fill his slot and add playmaking.
Is there a creative alternative? Could the Canes trade Versteeg and get a second round pick and then flip the second round pick plus another prospect to get an NHL-now forward who might be a step down from Versteeg today but is a young player who fits Francis goal of building for the future while still giving 2015-16 a chance?
His role and the risks: John-Michael Liles has been a fixture in the Canes top 4. He helped Brett Pesce get his feet under him in the NHL as his regular partner early in the season. Since then he has seen a mix of partners including time with Justin Faulk on what would be deemed the top pairing in a balanced set. That top 4 role would seemingly make him a real risky trade.
Is there a creative alternative? About a week ago, I would have been hesitant to risk upsetting the defense in trading Liles especially if the return for him was modest. My view on that has changed a bit over the past week. With Justin Faulk out of the lineup, the Canes defense has been pretty solid for 3 games now and with Faulk out a few more games will give Francis more time to assess what he has. The biggest revelation from this injury-induced experiment has been Jaccob Slavin’s play as a top pairing defenseman in Faulk’ slot. This development makes it at least fathomable that the Canes could survive minus Liles once Faulk returns. Suddenly a top 4 of Hainsey/Faulk, Slavin/Pesce does not seem crazy. Hanifin would anchor the third pairing. The missing piece might only be 4 weeks of schedule for Wisniewski who started skating again but still seems unlikely to help until the very tail end of the regular season at best. Could Ron Francis go with either Murphy or Jordan next to Hanifin? It seems scary for the road-heavy March schedule that could decide the season. The other alternative would be to add a lesser veteran rental defenseman. Christian Ehrhoff is available for a bag of pucks right now. Or the safe play is obviously just to keep Liles and become even deeper on defense when Faulk returns and then again if Wisniewski beats the expected schedule.
Minus the interesting situation for 2015-16, I have written multiple times about a desire to trade D futures to get add 1-2 similar age, similar quality forward prospects who might be able to step into the NHL lineup right now. I think timing would be really interesting for such a deal right now to provide more NHL-now depth at forward in advance of the approaching trade deadline which would at least provide another back fill option if the right deal comes along for either Kris Versteeg or Eric Staal.
Canes GM Ron Francis has earned a reputation for having none of his plans leak out of the offices on Edwards Mill Road, but maybe he put out a small hint in a recent interview with quotes in a TSN article. I think his choice of words in the last paragraph of the article are interesting. He says:
“That hasn’t changed. Our plan is to continue to build and try and get this right for the long-term. If you’re asking me if I’m willing to give up assets or things that we think are important to our future to try and get in (the playoffs) this year then that’s not something we’re willing to do.”
He maintains a commitment to the future but then talks about the trade deadline in terms of not being willing to “give up assets.” Is that an indication that he might be willing to keep what he has, just not spend more? It is hard to guess with Francis, but we will know for certain in 11 days.
I will write about the trade deadline more in the coming days, but at more core, I am morally opposed to quitting on seasons when there is still a chance to make something of it. This makes it real hard for me to endorse an all-out yard sales unless the standings change for the worse over the next 11 days.