Last time around for those catching up after being away from Canes and Coffee and/or Canes hockey either fully or at least partially over the holidays…
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 on New Year’s Day, Cory Fogg’s lighthearted list of Canes player and coach New Year’s resolutions if a fun read.
Fair warning: This is a lengthy read not well-suited for phone reading or for those who prefer their Canes insights in crisp, concise chunks. 🙂
In part 1 ‘Playing Ron Francis’, I walked through:
–Where the Hurricanes are right now — On the outside but in slightly better shape than last year in terms of playoff position.
–Francis’ general plan — Focusing energy and assets nearly fully on building for the long-term and avoiding the temptation of quick/short-term fixes.
–A position by position analysis of the Canes’ current roster identifying potential needs and/or upgrades in the process.
The easy part
When I net it out, two-thirds of the work positionally anyway is a pretty simple and a short conversation.
In net, it makes sense to continue to ride Cam Ward, who is playing well, as much as possible. While I do think that the Canes could potentially benefit from an upgrade at the backup position, I would not come even close to pouring a trade assets or salary dollars into this low priority issue. I like Jaroslav Halak and would take him if he was free. I would pay nothing close to $5 million for this season and next to add him which is exactly why all 29 teams passed on the chance to claim him off of waivers. I said on Twitter that the idea of trading Lack for Halak straight up is intriguing enough to at least consider. Their contract terms line up, so such a deal would be the equivalent of adding about $1.9 million of salary per year for the next season and a half. To be honest, even that is too steep and as tempting, as it is I think I would pass and spend the money elsewhere.
For the goalie position, I think the best course of action is some combination of trying to see if Eddie Lack can get his feet under him and provide a small number of decent games to spell Ward and mostly just riding Ward game in and game out.
On defense, I actually think there is significant room for improvement. A couple weeks ago, I tagged improved play as #1 for the Canes to take another step up in the second half of the season. But I also think that the improvement both needs to and can come from within. For those who read my writing regularly, it is probably becoming repetitive, but I have Justin Faulk pegged as the single player most critical to a winter surge for the Hurricanes. If Faulk can find a higher gear and both lead and anchor a solid second defense pairing while continuing to do what he does offensively, the Canes become deeper and more difficult to exploit via match ups on the road where they have struggled to a 5-10-6 record. That road record offers significant room for improvement over the remainder of the season. In addition, with Noah Hanifin, Ryan Murphy, Matt Tennyson and Klas Dahlbeck already available with potential reinforcements in Charlotte if needed, it seems reasonable that Coach Steve Smith can find something that will work for a third pairing.
On defense, the Hurricanes do need to be better from here out, but it must come from within.
Room for improvement at forward?
I covered this to some degree in part 1, so feel free to skip past it if you hate the long-winded variety of my posts and want to cut to the chase. 🙂
Assessing the current personnel – The 2016-17 core
When I look at the Hurricanes at the forward position right now, it goes like this…
* Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask make 2/3 of a top scoring line.
* Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Lee Stempniak are playing incredibly well together as I guess a third line if you want to number them. Even if they cool as a unit, all 3 players are legitimate top 9 forwards who bring some offensive ability which the Canes need. All will be in the mix somewhere.
* Jordan Staal anchors 1 of the top 3 lines and right now seems to be through yet another iteration of being the engine for a decent line regardless of who is around him. Last season, Joakim Nordstrom and Andrej Nestrasil hopped aboard the Staal train. Right now, it is Elias Lindholm and Brock McGinn.
* Elias Lindholm is proven as a serviceable right wing and has logged ice time with pretty much every set of 2 that he could play with. One could debate whether his broad experience line mate-wise is a negative because he has never really jelled with anyone or a positive because he is versatile and can play with anyone, but regardless, he fits somewhere in the top 9.
* The fourth line of Joakim Nordstrom, Jay McClement and Viktor Stalberg has jelled and seems likely to stay together unless injuries or a need to jump start another line borrows 1 of them. Andrej Nestrasil is also waiting in the wings as an experienced depth forward. The group importantly also makes up 3 of the 4 regular penalty killers at forward.
Assessing the current forwards – The AHL call ups
If you do the roster math, my comments above called out 7 top 9 forwards and then 4 fourth line/extra forwards. Not included in my commentary are Derek Ryan who is currently playing right wing with the Skinner/Rask combination and Brock McGinn who is playing next wing next to Jordan Staal.
First, to be clear, both Ryan and McGinn have performed well since being called up from the AHL and have been part of a good run of Canes hockey. Subtle but incredibly important in their play thus far was how few times either has made noticeable and/or costly mistakes. Both players have generally been sound 2-way players which at an important minimum makes them serviceable in a top 9 role and also enables Peters to keep the fourth line together instead of needing to borrow help from there to solidify higher lines.
So kudos to both Derek Ryan and Brock McGinn for their contribution in the Canes success. Based on those contributions, there is no incredible urgency to replace either 1 of them.
But that said, I think the slots that they are in right now and trying to keep are the 2 roster slots with the greatest potential for an upgrade both for 2016-17 and also for the future.
Derek Ryan: Ryan’s case is interesting. Upon being called up from the AHL, he stepped into the lineup in his natural center position. Initially, he looked capable defensively which is important especially for the center position but really did not bring much in terms of scoring production. In his first 9 games in the NHL this season all in November, he mustered only 2 points, a goal and an assist on the power play. But then in December, well-timed with a Jordan Staal injury, Ryan found a higher gear offensively. In 8 games (mostly during Jordan Staal’s absence, Ryan exploded for 3 goals and 7 assists in 8 games. The outburst was enough that when Jordan Staal returned, Peters found a new place for Ryan alongside the Skinner/Rask duo. The results in that role have been a mixed bag. Ryan is scoreless in 6 straight right now, but there have been multiple games where that line played incredibly well and was just snake bit as far as the score sheet goes.
Ryan is a player that I am watching closely heading into January. Is he the crafty late bloomer who can provide playmaking and scoring at the NHL level on a scoring line line he did in the first half of December? Or is he a player who rode a burst of adrenaline from being called up to the NHL level to a short burst of a higher level of play that is not sustainable. In total, his 42ish-point pace over 23 games now does not scream top line forward, but it might be good enough depth scoring if the top players can deliver.
If I was Ron Francis, I would not be in a desperate rush to replace Ryan, but I do think this is 1 of 2 slots that could be open for an upgrade.
Brock McGinn: Brock McGinn was recalled at the same time as Derek Ryan partly with the goal to just jolt the team to life but also to provide help for the lineup. The duo that was playing together at the AHL level when recalled started together in Raleigh. As noted in my discussion of Ryan above, the new line with the 2 AHLers did not stand out negatively out of the gate. Scoring was light, but the line was not a negative which bought time for both players. Ryan eventually found his way at right wing, and McGinn eventually made his way to Staal’s line. McGinn’s credits thus far include stepping right in on the penalty kill and playing well and also bringing a consistent physical edge and sandpaper style of play consistently on every shift. Also like Ryan, McGinn has been reliable as a 2-way player. For me a strong testament to this and Peters’ trust in McGinn’s defensive play was leaving him with Jordan Staal when the team took to the road instead of reinforcing Staal’s wing for the road with a more proven veteran like Joakim Nordstrom.
So just like with Ryan, McGinn has proven serviceable in a top 9 role during a time when the team is generally winning. There is no big problem here nor is there a desperate need to replace him. But even more so than with Ryan, the question is whether the Hurricanes could get more from this slot especially offensively. McGinn’s 1 goal and 2 assists in 20 games projects to a very meager fourth-linish 12 points over 82 games. Important to note is McGinn’s production is limited partly by his modest 11:40 of ice time per game and the fact that he is seeing penalty kill ice time but not power play ice time as part of that. But even still, the potential is there for a scoring boost in this slot.
The shopping list – Requirements
So while I acknowledge the potential for a creative deal for an upgrade at backup goalie, I think it is a low priority, and I also think the complexity of both adding (new goalie) and subtracting (making Lack part of the deal) adds complexity that makes it even more improbable. And I think the improvement necessary on the blue line is an internal thing.
But I do think Ron Francis should consider options, if they arise, to add perhaps 1 more scoring-capable forward. My requirements for such a player are thus:
1-Offensive difference-maker: The player needs to be a potential difference-maker offensively. With the fourth line playing well, Nestrasil on call if necessary and Ryan and McGinn working so far, the Hurricanes will not benefit by adding a run of the mill, scoring light depth forward. Francis would be looking for a wing (either side could work) ideally with size to balance out some of smaller player already on the roster who can provide an offensive boost but importantly in the form of a 2-way player.
2-Either long-term or cheap: As noted in part 1, Francis has shied away from spending a bunch of futures to add short-term help. I do not see that changing. Ideally, what Francis is looking for is a player who is proven at the NHL level but still young (25ish or younger) to be part of a long-term team who is ideally under contract for 1 or more years past this season such that he is not prone to becoming a short-term rental for 2016-17. I do think it is possible that Francis adds a rental but only much closer to the trade deadline and only if the cost is small. Such a move to add a single veteran short-timer if he thinks it can get his young team up and into the playoffs would admittedly be a compromise on the plan/mantra to date, but just maybe it is time.
3-Cost cannot be a future core NHL defenseman: This is the show stopper that could get in the way of any and all possible deals to make a significant in-season upgrade at forward. The list of players who could theoretically become available is an impressive one. But the asking price, at least the starting one, would be an top 4 type NHL defenseman. In terms of building for the future, the Hurricanes are strong in this regard with Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce playing in that role right now, Noah Hanifin projected to get there and AHL-level prospects Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown also charting a course to that level. But with only 3 players are top NHLers right now, I would be surprised to see Francis make a trade right now that fills 1 hole at forward by opening another on the blue line. For the right player who is not a short-term rental but rather a long-term part of the plan, I think Francis might be ready to dip into his growing stockpile of futures which is where a deal could happen.
Naming Hurricanes trade targets
So obviously there is not an overabundance of proven, scoring-capable forwards who are still young who are readily available via trade. But every so often unique circumstances put players on the market. The 2015-16 season saw struggles and Columbus, a coaching change and some team/player issues make previously untouchable Ryan Johansen hit the market. And more team/player/agent squabbles and a holdout saw Jonathan Drouin shopped last season. So it is possible.
And sure enough the 2016-17 season offers a few more unique situations that could make usually difficult to obtain players available.
The Avalanche are the 2016-17 equivalent of the 2015-16 Columbus Blue Jackets. A team that had some playoff hopes entering the season finds itself minus its coach from last season in a weird transition and in the bottom slot in the Western Conference. If there is a “blow it up irrationally” possibility for 2016-17, this is it. And that is something that Ron Francis should stay very close to because of the possibilities. The core of the Avalanche is a trio of young forwards in 21-year old Nathan MacKinnon, 24-year old Gabriel Landeskog and 25-year old Matt Duchene. Despite their young ages, all are proven NHLers and offensive producers.
As the youngest, MacKinnon seems most likely to be spared from any irrational dealing (but who knows), but the possibility is there that 1 or both of Landeskog or Duchene could become available. Duchene is a speedy and skilled scorer who has consistently scored in the mid-50s including 59 points last season and a 60-point pace right now for 2016-17. He is a natural center but also plays left wing and could slot nicely next to Jordan Staal and add a player capable of making Staal’s neutral zone rushes 2-wide with speed and skill on his wing. Landeskog is another skilled and speedy wing and a proven NHL player and scorer. He could similarly slot on Jordan Staal’s wing or could possibly play on his off side with Skinner/Rask.
Either Avalanche star would add proven scoring in the form of a player with above average ability that fits Peters’ system. Both also meet the long-term requirement as players 25 or younger. And both are signed past 2016-17 – Duchene for 2 more years and Landeskog for 4.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Right now, Toronto is above Carolina but below Philadelphia in the playoff chase. Though theoretically still rebuilding, the addition of Frederik Andersen and his strong play coupled with the arrival of Auston Matthews and the maturation of other Leafs’ youth might have them ahead of schedule just like the Hurricanes. If the Leafs keep winning and stay in the playoff chase, all bets are off, but if at some point they falter, James Van Riemsdyk is a player who could theoretically be sacrificed to add more futures.
Van Riemsdyk is a little bit older than the Avalanche options at 27 years old. He is similarly an experienced and proven NHL scorer. He has a 30-goal season to his credit in 2013-14 and has scored at a 55-60-point pace over the past 4 seasons when in the lineup and not out with an injury. Van Riemsdyk again could slot next to Staal and also provide finishing for the power play in the form of a veteran.
The Coyotes are another team in a similar category as the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes rebuilding with youth. Like the Maple Leafs, the strength of the youth in Arizona has been a stable of young skilled forwards who are already producing at the NHL level at a young age. A young line led by Max Domi in 2015-16 had the hockey world thinking that the Coyotes were close, but 2016-17 has proven to be tough sledding so far. Next to Domi in 2015-16 was Anthony Duclair who at 20 years of age notched an impressive 20 goals and 44 points. A sophomore slump of sorts for the Coyotes and Duclair has rumors swirling that Duclair could become available. Duclair is less experienced and proven than the options above and is not as well-rounded defensively, but his 2015-16 campaign demonstrates offensive upside at the NHL level at a young age. He can play either wing. He would add another skilled scorer to Skinner/Rask and could theoretically play alongside Jordan Staal, but I am not sure there is a fit there for a player still growing as a 2-way player. As an aside and probably more for the trade deadline, former-Hurricane Radim Vrbata is quietly having a decent season amid the team’s struggles and could be a good fit for a scoring right wing for the Skinner/Rask line.
Why a big deal for a young forward is improbable
While it is fun to think about the Hurricanes adding another impact forward to their roster, I think it is also important to note that these kind of deals happen infrequently and the Hurricanes’ chances of doing 1 right now is pretty low. The Hurricanes actually have the currency that most teams would want to part with a proven but young top 9 forward which is a somewhat comparable defensemen. Any of Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce or Jaccob Slavin would be interesting to a team looking to shake things up by trading a top-end forward. But as I said above, my best guess is that Francis will not part with any of the 3 players. There just is not enough proven, ready help behind them (yet), and I think Francis smartly values top 4 defensemen above even good forwards.
So the only way a deal happens is if a team like Colorado first decides they are willing to trade a player like Landeskog or Duchene, makes the first call requesting 1 of the 3 defensemen that Francis will not part with but then after exploring other options forges forward with a plan B that accepts more of a good set of futures. That could again force Francis’ hand to decide if he would possibly be willing to replace the forward with another young forward in Elias Lindholm and then also add more futures or if maybe he while not trading an NHL level defenseman he would part with a promising defense prospect in Fleury or McKeown. The type of players mentioned above will not be acquired without parting with something that it hurts to let go.
What I like/don’t like
I really like Matt Duchene. He is versatile as a wing/center, up at the Jeff Skinner level for raw offensive ability and brings speed that fits how Peters wants to play. At his age and contract status, he would NOT be a 2016-17 fix but rather another part of exactly what Francis is trying to build. I like Landeskog a tiny bit less but see him similarly. I am not as high on Duclair because I view him more in the unproven category especially in terms of rounding out his 2-way game even though he does have 1 good NHL season under his belt. I am also not as high on Van Riemsdyk. He meets the ‘proven offense’ requirement but being a bit older and with only 1 year remaining on his current contract, he does not as perfectly meet the ‘long-term’ requirement.
As we push closer to the trade deadline in late February, the volume of names swirling around will likely grow, but as I said above, Ron Francis is unlikely to be a big player in this market that aggressively spends futures for short-term upgrades. I think it is very possible that Francis lets the 2016-17 play out with only minor if any lineup tinkering. But the exciting thing is that the kind of trade that I think Francis would be looking to make is not so much a trade deadline rental deal but rather 1 of those deals that just drops out of the sky all of a sudden.