If you hate the really long posts, JUST RUN – RUN AWAY NOW!
The background to understanding the potential availability of the 2 players starts with understanding the players currently in the Hurricanes organization both at the NHL level and below.
Canes are suddenly deep at all levels on the blue line
2016-17: With the ahead of schedule rise of Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and to some degree Noah Hanifin (who many did project as a first year NHLer), the Canes are suddenly deep on the blue line for 2016-17 and beyond at the NHL level. For 2016-17, the top 6 is reasonably set with Justin Faulk, Ron Hainsey, Jaccob Slavin, James Wisniewski, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin. Ryan Murphy has enough experience and gained progress that he could reasonably slot as the #7 defenseman in which case the boat is full at the NHL level if everyone is healthy.
Equally promising is the next wave of Canes prospects on the blue line especially the duo who will graduate from Canadian juniors and move up to either the AHL or NHL next fall.
2017-18 and beyond: A couple spots do potentially open up for the 2017-18 season when veterans Ron Hainsey and James Wisniewski’s contracts expire, but the Canes have a deep and promising collection of players who could be ready to step in by that time.
Trevor Carrick was again the blue line leader in Charlotte when Hanifin never made it there and Pesce and Slavin were short-timers. He had a solid year offensively with 42 points in 70 games, logged a ton of minutes with top pairing responsibilities and match ups and continued work to round out his defensive game for the NHL. Because the other players unanimously excelled and stayed at the NHL level, Carrick saw only a short 2-game stint in the NHL but held his own in the 2 games. With 2 full AHL seasons under his belt, Carric is the gray beard of the group, but does not turn 22 years old until July.
Haydn Fleury who was the Canes 2014 #7 overall pick showed improvement and played well enough to stick around late in the NHL training camp last fall before returning to juniors. He notched 12 goals and 29 assists in 56 games for the Red Deer Rebels and also logged ice time on the top pairing for Canada’s U20 team at the world tourney during the winter. It is not fair to demand a Pesce/Slavin/Hanifin accelerated schedule from a young defenseman, but Fleury is clearly tracking toward being the NHL defenseman that he was drafted to be. He is yet another from the mold of big (6-3, 207 pounds), mobile defenseman built for today’s NHL.
Roland McKeown who was a second round pick for the Los Angeles Kings in the same 2014 draft has similarly progressed well during his 2 years in juniors. For the 2015-16 season, he posted 42 points in 59 games for the Kingston Frontenacs, logged ice time next to Haydn Fleury in the U20 tourney and put up an astonishing 12 points in 9 playoff games before being eliminated. In a 2014 redraft he would be 1 of the players to make a big jump from his original second round position.
When you net out the math, the Canes go 7 deep for 2016-17 and have 3 promising options to fill a slot or 2 in 2017-18 when Hainsey and Wisniewski’s slots will open up if not re-signed.
Put simply, the blue is a position of strength today and also of future additions.
Meanwhile at forward…
Meanwhile at forward, I counted 8 sure things at forward for the 2016-17 roster in my recent post. I intentionally left the 3 openings as the top line not because I do not think it possible for Jeff Skinner or Elias Lindholm to win 1 or both of these slots but rather to emphasize the need to add scoring-capable players for the openings not simply depth forwards.
The Canes do have a couple young players who could seize roster spots, but slotting any of these as sure things in the top 6 is more gambling than projecting at this point. And Francis of course has the summer free agency period as 1 avenue to fill out his roster at forward. But in a limited market with other bidders, I think it will be challenging, expensive and maybe even impossible to build out a scoring line from the limited pool of free agents.
More likely, if Francis wants to improve the Canes 27th-ranked offense, it will require him to be active in the trade market. He has accumulated a stockpile of extra draft picks that he can draw upon as trade assets and probably will. But to add proven, scoring-capable top 6 forwards, it almost always takes more than a small pile of draft picks and players who are multiple years away from the NHL.
With the big contracts off the books and most players signed to reasonable deals, I think there could be a market for for most Canes players, but trading a forward to fill a hole at forward is a sideways trade that serves little purpose. If Ron Francis wants to shop for immediate scoring help especially in the form of proven but young players, it will likely take parting with 1 good player to get another in return.
Therein lies the challenge. It makes sense that IF Francis goes down this road, he would trade from his overstock on the blue line to add help where he is short at forward. When you work through the defensemen, I think it goes like this. Ron Hainsey and his reasonable salary cap hit, could fit on a team needing veteran depth on defense but that is not the kind of player that garners a top 6 forward in return, and he also provides veteran minutes for the Canes. James Wisniewski is an interesting case. With the Canes youth developing so quickly, he could be expendable and with some financial savings (his salary is $3 million for 2016-17). But coming off a knee injury and with a big $5.5 million cap hit, Wisniewski would have appeal to only teams with extra cap space and even then probably not a ton of value until he reestablishes himself after a full season off. I view all of Justin Faulk as the young but already proven leader, Jaccob Slavin as the best mix of most capable today but also with high upside of the kids and Noah Hanifin possibly with the highest ceiling as being pretty much untouchable. That leaves Ryan Murphy, Brett Pesce and possibly defense prospects without NHL experience.
I have written multiple times that I thought there was a reasonable chance that Ryan Murphy could/should be part of a deal to acquire an NHL-ready or at least near-ready forward. I touched on the possibility of trading defensemen for forwards in a post back on December 2 and even suggested rebalancing at the prospect level on November 3 early in Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin’s development and before Jaccob Slavin even emerged. So the theme of reaching into the Canes depth on defense to add more/sooner help at forward is not a new one at Canes and Coffee. Murphy would not bring a top 6 type forward by himself, but he could be part of a package to land such a player or traded for a comparable forward prospect who could play in the NHL in 2016-17.
NOT a ‘give up on him’ scenario: Also important to note, I would NOT discard Ryan Murphy for second-tier futures (i.e a random draft pick or lower-end prospect) just to move on. While he has yet to carve out a permanent place in the NHL, his skill set as a skating defensemen with the potential to generate offense is exactly what is needed in the NHL. I also think that he has improved over the past couple years. Even though he may have been leapfrogged on the depth chart by younger players and carry some risk at 23 years old, I do not at all put him in the category of “just move on.” Actually, depending on how things shake out with possibly trading another defenseman and also building for 2017-18 when both James Wisniewski and Ron Hainsey could potentially be gone after their current contracts expire, Murphy could provide needed depth. With even just step-wise improvement like the past 2 seasons, Murphy slots pretty well as the offensive/puck-carrying half of a third pairing.
But you have to give up something to get something: All of this said, IF Ron Francis can get a forward prospect of comparable experience, talent and upside, the Canes clearly need more help and have less depth on that side of the ledger. As an example (depending on what the Hurricanes scouting staff thinks of him), I threw out the name Kerby Rychel awhile back. Rychel is a promising power forward who was drafted #19 overall by Columbus in 2013. He has NHL experience but like Murphy has yet to stick at the NHL level or reach the high end of his potential. Alternatively, if Ryan Murphy can be a part of a package to land a proven top 6 forward, Francis has to consider it.
The even harder player to consider dealing but who could make sense is Brett Pesce. I think he could have significant appeal to a wide number of teams. With a capable partner and chemistry in John-Michael Liles, he proved capable of playing regular minutes in the top 4. He also took on penalty kill responsibilities and looked capable in that role. He might not be as pure of a skater and puck mover as Noah Hanifin, but he skates well, can play with pace and has decent puck handling ability and offensive instincts especially jumping into the rush. And with 2 years remaining on his entry-level deal at a bargain cost of $809,000, he could be very interesting to the collection of teams that need help but are salary cap-constrained (think Chicago, New York Rangers, etc.).
Pesce would have significantly different value for different teams based on how they project his future and to some degree the importance of his 2-year cap hit. If you consider him to be simply an early bloomer #4/#5 that he was last season but without much upside from there, he is a valuable player in that role especially given his age and short-term cost. But if he is instead viewed as a 21-year old with NHL skating ability and size and project him taking a couple steps upward from his strong 2015-16 rookie season, his value is significantly higher.
I will save detailed trade possibilities for a later post, but Edmonton needs a ton of help on defense mostly on the right side. Pesce would be a significant upgrade as a #5 with the potential to play his way into the top 4. Chicago’s inability (on multiple tries even) to find a #4 defenseman was part of their downfall this year. This summer, Chicago will again try to do the impossible and squeeze under the salary cap while retaining as many players as possible. As a right shot with a $800k salary, Pesce could be an interesting option at #4 next to Hjalmarsson. The Blackhawks could slot him there and have a look for half of the season. If all goes well, they are set. If it does not, he is still fine as a third pairing defensemen or theoretically could even go to the AHL on his 2-way contract. The burning question with Pesce is whether he is capable of being an every-game top 4 on a top team. Name any other cap-challenged team that needs help on the blue line and 2 years of Brett Pesce at $800k is enticing if their scouts believe his at least serviceable play in the top 4 in 2015-16 is just the beginning.
From a Canes standpoint, moving Brett Pesce might also make sense in terms of staggering contracts financially. All 3 of Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin and Brett Pesce are scheduled to be restricted free agents at the same time in the summer of 2018. With Faulk already signed long-term at a little under $5 million, it could be challenging to re-sign all 3 if they all play well. If Fleury and/or McKeown progress, ideal might be to swap 1 of them into the mix with an entry-level contract that stretches 1 years farther before a second contract.
It is also possible that Francis could go with the youth already at the NHL level and offer up some of the promising young players on the way. As is always the case, Ron Francis has not offered much for hints, but my thought is that he would prefer to keep Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury because of their potentially high upside. I just do not think it is possible to get enough real value for them when they are still in the vague “prospect” category. I therefore think that Francis would be more likely to spend from his big collection of draft picks than part with McKeown or Fleury before seeing them in training camp and at either the AHL or NHL level in 2016-17. If Francis does reach down in the blue line prospect pool, I think he would be more likely to part with Trevor Carrick. But again, I think the preference would be to part with draft pick futures not players.
With a few diversions along the way, the intent is to continue a string of posts playing back seat GM and building the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes roster.