With 2 days off before the next Hurricanes game, today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a bit of a diversion looking forward to the summer of 2017.
The summer should offer Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis a little bit of budget and also a unique market opportunity to further bolster his roster for the 2017-18 season. Important to note is Francis’ mantra about building through a strong and deep system and his flawless consistency avoiding temptations for short-term fixes and instead sticking to his words. So it is not as if the Hurricanes will storm the free agent market, spend up to the salary cap and take on a couple big, long-term contracts for big money.
But he will have a little bit of budget by virtue of current players coming off contract and also a unique market environment to spend it.
Recap of the summer of 2016
Last summer, Francis’ biggest deal saw him spend most of his budget doing the Blackhawks a salary cap favor and taking on Bryan Bickell’s contract and in return obtaining Teuvo Teravainen as compensation for doing so. Sticking with his mantra, Francis chose to spend his salary budget to add another young player to the opposite spending young futures to add an old player to the mix. Francis did part with a second and a third round pick too to add Teravainen, but when the dust settled on the summer, Francis clung tightly to his 2016 draft picks parting only with a second round pick in the Teravainen deal (and also a third round pick in 2017), did not part ways with any prospects and went up 1 young NHL roster player in Teravainen. His lone free agent addition prior to the start of training camp was Lee Stempniak who came for a modest price and term at $2.5 million for 2 years.
Along the way, he significantly cut salary costs from the 2015-16 season. Gone were 2015-16 salaries of Eric Staal at $9.5 million, Cam Ward at $6.8 million (replaced with $3.3 million), Kris Versteeg at $2.35 million salary, John-Michael Liles at $2.75 million salary and James Wisniewski at $5 million (replaced by 2 years at $1 million for buy out). (All amounts are actual salaries not salary cap hits.) The contracts coming off the books totaled an astounding $26.4 million. Only a fraction of that money was redeployed with Ward’s new contract for $3.3 million per year, Stempniak’s 2-year deal at $2.5 million per year, Wisniewski’s buy out cost and some inexpensive young players to back fill the openings.
Thus far the result has been a 2016-17 team that is as good or even a little bit better than the 2015-16 through the midway point of the season at a cost that is significantly less. The Hurricanes salary cap hit is the lowest in the entire NHL at $57.7 million and more than $7 million below the next lowest team. (per CapFriendly)
In a dream world, Francis would use the massive $15 million in salary cap space available to him to add 2-3 top-end players. But that is not going to happen. Instead, Francis continues to build his roster and prospect system to do well in a real world that sees the Hurricanes continue to leave salary cap ceiling room on the table.
Looking forward to the summer of 2017
The contracts coming off the books at the end of the current season are not nearly what they were in last summer, but the situation is again favorable in terms of players coming off the books for amounts that are more than what it will cost to replace them.
Ron Hainsey at $2.5 million, Bryan Bickell at $4.5 million and Jay McClement at $1.1 million represent 3 players who would be considered depth players for the 2017-18 season. The total of $8.1 million will be more than enough to either re-sign these players or replace them with similar quality. Francis will need to spend some of that to re-sign Teuvo Teravainen for more than the $832,000 he is earning right now on his entry-level deal, but as long as he does not catch fire scoring-wise in the second half of the season, I would expect a contract similar to Elias Lindholm’s at 2-3 years at $2.5 to $3.0 million per year.
That still leaves a decent chunk of money, probably $4-6 million to spend and still be on par with the team’s 2016-17 salary commitments.
With all of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin due for raises from their sub $1 million entry-level deals in the summer of 2018, Francis will need to keep some money in reserve. But I think Francis could add veteran or 2 with a higher cost as long as he is on a short-term deal that does not creep too deep into the next contracts for the trio of young defensemen.
Las Vegas as a trade hub
The expansion draft wild card has the potential to offer a greater number of shopping options for Francis in a couple ways:
1) Teams with good players who they cannot protect
Deeper teams may be unable to protect all of the players they would like to. The result could be a trade market that sees bargains to be had from teams that would rather trade a player for something than lose him for nothing in the expansion draft.
2) A Las Vegas draft and trade situation
I was talking to Canes and Coffee feature writer Cory Fogg at the Canes game on Tuesday. My hunch is that Las Vegas’ emphasis in their first year will be to maneuver the expansion draft and the building of their team to focus on the future. If correct, I think this will mean a couple things. First, Las Vegas will select a reasonable number of players solely because of their trade value to other teams. More specifically at the goalie position which should be rich with decent options, I think Las Vegas will draft at least 2 if not 3 tradeable goalies, trade them for futures and then collect even more futures when they take on 1-2 of the bad goalie contracts out there (Halak, Niemi or Lehtonen, etc.) and receive even more futures as payment for doing so. If Francis is willing to spend some futures to do so, I could see him picking up a player or 2 from Las Vegas via trade.
If my expectation is correct Las Vegas will be a market place in itself but of a much more active variety than the broader NHL trade market these days that is tamped down by the complexity of making salary cap math work in any deal.
What is Francis likely to do?
First, I think Francis is likely to mostly stick to his mantra which is to build with youth through the system. So he will not go bonkers spending a bunch of futures to add an aging veteran. But he might spend futures to add a young player who can help both now and long-term (the Matt Duchene story again).
With the 1-year window before new contracts will kick in for Pesce, Slavin and Hanifin, I could also see Francis taking on a good veteran player with 1 or maybe 2 years remaining on their contract at a high price to spend the money he has available but not commit it long-term. Depending on the quality of the player he is taking and how bad the contract is, Francis could actual receive not pay trade value in the form of futures just like in the Bickell/Teravainen deal.
And though I do not think Francis will stray far from the primary plan, I do think that if the 2016-17 team does not make the playoffs that Francis might lean forward just a little bit and spend a modest amount of trade value and or salary to boost the 2018 playoff hopes.