If you have been away from Hurricanes hockey and/or Canes and Coffee for the holidays, here are a few links to catch up quickly.
Here is a short menu of 6 top CandC articles from the past 2 weeks including articles on Jeff Skinner, Sebastian Aho, PNC Arena beer options and more.
If you just want a quick recap of the past week, Andrew Schnittker’s ‘Hurricanes week in review’ from January 1 has you covered.
Finally, if you missed it yesterday, Cory Fogg’s lighthearted list of Canes player and coach New Year’s resolutions if a fun read.
With the flip of the calendar to 2017 and the Carolina Hurricanes still in the playoff hunt, I will take a shot at playing Ron Francis in terms of the 2016-17 season importantly with consideration for the future as well.
Carolina Hurricanes moving up the standings
After a slow start and then a bit more sputtering, the Hurricanes have ridden a near-perfect 10-0-1 mark at home since the last home lost to Anaheim on November 10 up the Eastern Conference standings. As of a week or so ago, the winning seemed to matter little with every team above them riding a winning streak. All of except the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets have cooled at least a little bit, and most significantly the Philadelphia Flyers have come back to Earth and at the same time back to within shouting distance of the Hurricanes.
Right now, if you adjust for games played by giving 1 point for each game in hand, the Hurricanes are 3 points behind the Flyers for the final playoff spot and also 2 behind the Maple Leafs and 1 point behind the Lightning. That is better but not tremendously slow than the team’s 6-point deficit on January 1 of last year.
When you net it out, the Hurricanes are again on the outside looking in with multiple teams to pass, but the gap is smaller which puts the Hurricanes very much in the thick of the playoff race. This at least opens the door to Ron Francis considering a move or 2 at some point to bolster the team’s playoff chances if the team can improve or at least stay where it is in the standings.
Ron Francis’ mantra, long-term plan and track record
Regardless of where the Hurricanes are in the standings at the trade deadline, what happens in the standings and any holes caused by injuries, I would be utterly shocked to see Ron Francis be a big spender between now and the trade deadline to increase playoff hopes.
Since day 1 as General Manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, his mantra has been to stock the system with depth and build a deep organization whose next return to the playoffs is done in a sustainable way that sees regular playoff appearances. And thus far, he has avoided any and all temptations for quick fixes that might boost the short-term at a significant cost to the long-term. At both of the recent trade deadlines, Francis has sold off anything not bolted down to add prospects and picks, and even in the summer, he has been frugal in the free agent market and avoided trading young for old. His biggest free agent signing last summer was Lee Stempniak for a very modest 2 years at $2.5 million per year, and his biggest trade was obtaining a young long-term part of the lineup in 22-year old Teuvo Teravainen by spending most of his salary budget to take on Bryan Bickell’s contract to help Chicago clear cap space.
Do not expect any wild deviations from this plan that emphasizes youth and patience over experience and winning at all costs now.
So is there a scenario in which Francis would make a trade?
With the disclaimer above noted, I do think it is possible that Francis does a deal or 2 this winter that impact the team’s playoff chances but only under limited circumstances. First, I think Francis would consider doing a deal that trades some of his stockpile of futures that are 1-3 years away from NHL-ready if he can land a young player who can help in 2016-17 but equally importantly is part of a much longer-term solution. Without getting off track and writing part 2, if Colorado general manager Joe Sakic decides that he is unhappy enough with his current situation and wants to blow it up by trading a good young forward who is under 25 years old and the price is right, I think Francis would be interested. And while I do not think that Francis will win any expensive bidding wars for older players, I do not think that it is out of the question that he might shop opportunistically and inexpensively if the Hurricanes can stay in the thick of things a bit longer.
Assessing the Carolina Hurricanes current lineup
Aside from just opportunistically considering any good young player (again Colorado comes to mind) who might become available if a struggling team goes ‘blow it all up’ mode and starts throwing babies out with bath water, I do think there are a couple areas that Francis might target based on the current roster.
If Ron Francis was the type of person who wanted to walk around and pat himself on the back or say ‘I told you so’ (which I do not think he is), the name Cam Ward would be coming out of his mouth daily right now. Many were not impressed with his decision to forego other options or even exploring them really when he re-signed Ward before the big NHL draft get together. I am on record as disagreeing with the decision to re-sign Ward. Through 36 games, re-signing Ward for a modest and low-risk 2-year deal at $3.2 million looks brilliant. Ward has been a work horse, played his way up into the pack of NHL goalies below the top tier and most significantly has been somewhere between good enough and absolutely great consistently for all but the first few games of the 2016-17 season.
The backup position is the huge question mark right now. Eddie Lack started slow again and now has not played in nearly 2 months due to a layoff from a concussion. While it is possible that a fresh start helps Lack reset and find a higher gear, his viability as a backup who can spell Ward and win games right now is a wild guess with first clues coming when he finally gets another start.
Could the Hurricanes upgrade the backup goalie position? I think yes. And an option in Jaroslav Halak just flew across the waiver wire free for pick up this week. But as I said on Twitter that day, I would have been shocked to see Francis take on a nearly $5 million salary for the remainder of this year and also next season just to upgrade the backup goalie slot. With Francis’ budget, that money can be much better spent elsewhere if it is available at all.
So while I think the Canes could improve in net behind Ward, I do not see it as a burning need.
I have written on end about the need for the second defense pairing to solidify if the Hurricanes are going to take the next step up in the standings. With Slavin/Pesce continuing their run as a strong, albeit young first pairing, that leaves Hainsey/Faulk as the second pairing. I am on record as saying that they just have not lived up to expectations thus far, but before Faulk’s current injury there were signs for hope. Top 4 defensemen are incredibly expensive. In addition to already having Hainsey and Faulk for now, the Hurricanes also have a well-stocked pipeline with Noah Hanifin projected to play in such a role at some point and then a next wave of Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeown, maybe Trevor Carrick and then later Jake Bean also with pedigree to be similar.
With the current personnel, the blue line in total still has the potential to be a position of strength for the Hurricanes down the stretch in 2016-17 with the current personnel. And with the volume of young players who might compete for slots very soon, there just is not enough need right now especially considering that any addition might just necessitate a trade later to make room again.
The current players need to figure it out on the blue line, and importantly it is not at all unreasonable for Francis to think this is a viable strategy for winning in 2016-17.
I think it is fair to say that the forward position continues to lag behind the blue line in terms of building both a quality roster and depth behind it. But that part of the rebuilding process has made significant strides with the accelerated development of Sebastian Aho and also the Teuvo Teravainen trade.
Maybe most telling is the slotting of Andrej Nestrasil and Joakim Nordstrom this season. With Nestrasil maybe still trying to get going after last season’s injury, he has been bumped all the way to the healthy scratch/#13 slot after playing in the top 6 with Jordan Staal last season. Similarly, Joakim Nordstrom is playing very well right now, but he has been bumped down to a fourth line slot which is exactly where he slotted on the Blackhawks team that he came from.
But even with forward depth improving, I think tCoach Bill Peters’ current lineup that has reasonable balance 4 lines deep could offer a couple possibilities for upgrades. Right now, Derek Ryan is slotted away from his natural center position at right wing on what I would call the Hurricanes top scoring line (though Aho/Teravainen/Stempniak might stake a claim to that description if they keep up their scoring ways). Ryan was hot and scoring in bunches when put into that role and has generally played well in that slot. If he keeps up his 45ish-point pace, he keeps his spot, but if his 6-game scoring drought is a sign that the call up adrenaline rush is wearing off, Peters might need to find another option for the right side of the Skinner/Rask duo.
The other AHL call up who has become a regular is Brock McGinn who is playing left wing on a line centered by Jordan Staal. I am on record as liking McGinn’s style of play and what he has brought on a regular basis since stepping up into the NHL lineup. And he has also become a regular on the team’s stellar penalty kill. But the conversion to more than ‘serviceable for now given the options currently available’ to more of a regular in a top 9 role would require more than his current 12-point scoring pace over 82 games (1 goal and 2 assists in 20 games). Right now, I would say that McGinn is making a really strong case for a fourth line/penalty kill spot long-term, and I am watching to see if he can bring more of his junior level scoring prowess to the NHL level to become more than that.
To be clear, I do not see Francis shopping desperately to add a forward especially of either the expensive or short-term rental variety, but I do think that is the position that Francis would likely target if he was going to fire only 1 bullet. A scoring-capable top 9 wing ideally with size could improve the 2016-17 roster and also become a longer-term addition.
The potential shopping list
When I net it out, I think the list of needs right now is short. For the right price that does not disrupt other parts of the lineup, I think Francis would consider adding a scoring-capable top 9 wing and would even spend considerably from his futures to do so but only the acquisition fits into the long-term equation (i.e. is 25 years old or younger and is under contract for 2 or more years).
In part 2 of ‘Playing Ron Francis’ within the next couple days, I will take a shot at identifying a few players who might be available who could make sense, again only at the right price for the frugal Francis.