Informal Cane and Coffee watch party at Bond Brothers Beer in Cary for Canes vs. Isles at 7pm on Thursday.
With a small core of commitments and a decent number of maybes, a group will be watching Thursday’s game at Bond Brothers Beer in Cary. What pairs better with Canes hockey than local beer and fellow Caniac company? Please consider this your invitation to join us and also invite a friend or two.
Win streak significantly decreases the urgency for Ron Francis
What a difference a week makes. Barely over a week ago, the Hurricanes were mired in a four-game losing streak and had dipped below .500 for the first time this season. Fast forward to today, and the Hurricanes used the last loss overtime to start what is now a five-game points streak. After 16 games, the Hurricanes are now two games above .500 and are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference if you do standings based on games above .500 to account for differences in games played.
With the team now trending upward, the sense of urgency for General Manager Ron Francis to do something to improve the team team is low. I would go so far as to say that allowing a bit longer to assess the current lineup makes the most sense. But at the same time, Ron Francis’ job is to constantly at least explore options to make his team better and especially for 2017-18 to see if there is anything he can do that improves the team’s playoff prospects without stealing too much from the future.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe attempts to assess the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes thus far from the viewpoint of Ron Francis and with consideration for options to upgrade the team.
The state of the team after 16 games
The recent point streak significantly chances the lens for viewing the team to something more positive, but a few weaknesses do exist.
I think an interesting starting point is to say that the biggest weaknesses right now are pretty much in line with expectations entering the season. Coming off of a 2016-17 season that saw the team finish 21st in scoring and an offseason that did not add a scoring line catalyst, one had to figure that the scoring by committee approach would have some ups and downs and challenges. Worth noting is that the team’s biggest addition at forward, Justin Williams, is scoring at an impressive 67-point pace. I still do not view Williams as being a pure catalyst, but he just does so many little things that improve the chances of scoring. Regardless of any debate about type of player and team needs, Williams has been incredibly productive offensively which is obviously a positive thing.
But even with Williams’ scoring pace and the recent upswing, the team is still 20th in goals right now which is basically the same as 2016-17. And intermittent inability to generate much offensively has been front and center during the few downturns. The Hurricanes have been held to only one goal in regulation in five games and not surprisingly have an 0-3-2 record in those five games.
The goaltending thus far has been up and down but is trending up and has generally been a positive of late.
The blue line is most interesting and maybe most surprising. For as much as the future of the blue line has been hyped in these parts for awhile now, the defense was not a strength out of the gate. In between watching big, mobile defensemen cover large swaths of ice with ease and in a hurry, they just made too many of the glaring mistakes that quickly end up behind the goalie. Part of that was the third pairing when Trevor van Riemsdyk was out for a few games. And another part of that was Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin starting slow at least in terms of defensive acumen. But coinciding with the recent winning run, the blue line has been increasingly better. Only 16 games into his rookie season, Haydn Fleury is taking at least some of the minutes in the top 4, and Noah Hanifin’s game has quieted defensively while rising offensively playing some minutes in the third pairing. And a small bonus was a short and limited two-game appearance by Roland McKeown that suggested he might be ready to provide the depth needed on the right side where left shot Klas Dahlbeck too often looks like a fish out of water.
The most glaring weakness is the power play. Both units are regularly struggling to even get into and set up in the offensive zone. And even when that happens, things just look static in terms of movement and minus enough activity in front of the net. The penalty kill has not suffered as much, but it is also a work in progress with limited work (which is a good thing) because the Hurricanes have taken so few penalties.
Potential needs and upgrades
So again recognizing that the current winning trajectory affords Francis the time and ability to be patient, I think two types of players could boost the Hurricanes right now.
First is a carry over from summer. When one looks at the set of Canes centers, one more catalyst/playmaker could help. Worth noting is that Jordan Staal is producing at a higher level thus far. When I evaluate the Hurricanes other three centers I think that Kruger is a good player but very limited offensively, Victor Rask provides depth scoring but does not really drive offense and Derek Ryan is serviceable but maybe not much as an offensive center. After watching 16 games, I stand by my summer assessment that the need was for more of a scoring line catalyst.
Second is one true power forward who can play at 2017 NHL pace, plays his best without the puck on his stick and goes to the front of the net out of sheer habit, not coach’s orders. Such a player would fit neatly on the power play and could also be a good complement for some of the Hurricanes skill players whose first nature is to play in space not drive into it.
Worth noting is that there is a chance that the Hurricanes have both of these in Charlotte. Lucas Wallmark maybe is not a pure playmaker but could potentially bring more offensively from the center position. Valentin Zykov fits the bill as a net crashing power forward with enough skill to finish.
The most likely path forward
Especially given the complexity and the one step forward, one step back nature of player for player trades, I think the most likely path forward is that Francis continues watch, evaluate and wait as long as the team is pushing forward without creating a deficit in the standings.
Further, I really do not see much opportunity to do a smaller, less expensive deal that helps the team. The Hurricanes are reasonably okay in terms of depth players at both forward and defense. For me, room for potential improvement is really only possible with making a move that inserts a player into the top half of the depth chart.
Shorter version: Best bet is that Francis will continue to be patient.
Trying to add without subtracting
Late November/early December usually marks the unofficial opening of the NHL trade market. Once teams reach the quarter pole for the season, general managers who are not happy with what they built look to make upgrades and/or cut losses on players who are not working out. The challenging part of doing deals in November and/or December is that teams are still playing for the current season such that most trades are player for player not prospects for players. As such, a deal generally requires giving up something from one area of the roster to add something different. Because of this, it can be challenging to make an upgrade without just trading a downgrade in another area.
Specifically for Ron Francis and the Hurricanes, the team’s strength at least in terms of having trade assets is the blue line. But the issue here is that despite being a position of strength trade possibility-wise, the team really does not have a ton of proven depth such that they can just shift players up the depth chart. Fleury stepping into and looking decent so far in a top 4 role is an interesting development in that regard. If Fleury proves top 4 ready on a regular/extended basis, the Hurricanes are suddenly up to having five top 4 defensemen and could theoretically deal from this strength. The challenge is that the team does not have much for NHL-ready depth to refill the bottom pairing. McKeown’s short two-game audition looked promising and Trevor Carrick could potentially be ready after honing his game in the AHL, but the risk is that after solidifying the third pairing for the 2017-18 season, it reverts right back to 2016-17 levels (which were not good) as new players are inserted. The positive right now is having an experienced player in van Riemsdyk to anchor the pairing and support youth next to him.
At forward, the situation is trickier. The Hurricanes have increased depth with Brock McGinn surging offensively right now, Derek Ryan now settled in at the NHL level and depth in the form of Josh Jooris and Marcus Kruger added over the summer. But in terms of pure top 9 forwards, I lean toward saying that the team is still short a player or two offensively.
So what kind of deal could provide an upgrade offensively without being too big of a downgrade elsewhere?
At a basic level, I think the Holy Grail for Francis would be if he could somehow trade from an area where he has duplicates, add a higher-end offensive player and not create a new hole in the process.
So let’s try…
I think the biggest area of duplicates right now is what I would call ‘serviceable top 9 forwards who are average or less offensively.’ Until someone else breaks through, the Hurricanes have Jeff Skinner, probably another player or two who push through the 50-point ceiling (Williams, Staal and Teravainen are on pace right now) and then a stockpile of 35-45-point players. Could a young player with at least medium scoring fetch something of value? I think so.
When I consider the Hurricanes forwards both today and into the future, the player who jumps out to me is Victor Rask. He is an established NHL player despite being only 24 years old. He has NHL size, is sound defensively and has proven capable of providing at least depth scoring. But especially on a team that has Jordan Staal as its top center and could use more of a pure playmaker opposite him, I am not sure Rask is a great fit for the Hurricanes’ needs. Signed for $4 million per year for four more years, he could be a good fit for a team with a pure scoring top line that is willing to sacrifice some offense for two-way acumen in a second or third line.
The blue line is tougher to figure out. I am not sure there is a player who is truly expendable. As noted above, the Hurricanes continue to have a bright future on defense, but week to week it is still uncertain whether the group is has fully arrived or is still a work in progress subject to ups and downs. Also noted above is the fact that the team does not yet have ready depth with NHL experience. Any departure is likely to create a hole that could be difficult to fill from within.
But in the name of making hard choices based on what we have seen in 2017-18, could Justin Faulk be the player to go? At a conceptual level, trading Justin Faulk is really hard to swallow. He is only 25 years old despite being an established top 4 NHL defenseman. He is the harder to find right shot and also heading into 2017-18 was underrated as a back end scorer. In terms of profile, this is not the kind of player that a general manager would want to trade. But I think the on ice reality of Justin Faulk continues to have a significant gap below the conceptual goodness. He too regularly makes errors in terms of positioning and/or stepping up to play the puck and just has not played at a top 4 level defensively on a consistent basis for awhile now. Also worth noting is that Faulk’s actual salary rises to a hefty $6 million for the last two years of his contract.
It would be hard to pull off, but I think what would be interesting is if Francis could net a true offensive catalyst in the form of a top 6 center in return for Faulk and then somehow trade Victor Rask plus something else to get a steady but unspectacular right shot top 4-capable defenseman.
In total, such a series of moves could actually see the Hurricanes improve across the board. Adding an offense-leaning center in place of Rask could provide the offensive boost needed. And replacing Faulk with a simple bread and butter steady top 4 defenseman with less offensive upside could actually help solidify the defense. Trevor van Riemsdyk is power play-capable on the right side and could step into Faulk’s slot there.
I have long voted ‘no’ on including Justin Faulk or any other established by young Hurricanes blue-liner in a deal for a forward. I said no on Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins last summer and also Matt Duchene for months. But with the emergence of Haydn Fleury and the steady play thus far of Trevor van Riemsdyk, I think the depth is such that a series of two deals could maintain the team’s blue line depth while upgrading the offense. Further, the longer Faulk goes without finding an extended stretch strong play without the puck, the more I discount certainty that its return is a certainty. But with scoring so hard to come by in today’s NHL, even the serviceable version of Faulk defensively combined with a return to his high-end scoring ways is a valuable player who is hard to part with. So while I am still torn, I think I am ready to more openly considering offering Justin Faulk in a deal to boost the offense.
As noted above, I believe the most likely near-term path forward is just waiting, and given where the team is right now, I am okay with that course of action possibly combined with spending a little bit of NHL ice time to audition AHL players who have specific skill sets that might fill needs.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Who is in or Bond Brothers on Thursday night?
2) What type of deals, if any, should Ron Francis consider to improve the team now that we have a 16-game read on the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes?
3) Would you consider trading Justin Faulk (or another young defenseman) if such a deal could net a high-end scoring forward?