Today’s daily post will be the first of a few “Playing Ron Francis” posts leading up to the busy time for building the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes roster.
It is just a hunch, but the short version of that post is that Francis positive comments on Ward are largely posturing for a better negotiating position in pursuing various goalie options via trade.
Today, I will take a shot at playing Ron Francis in this process.
First, it is important to set some goals which for me would be:
1) Add a goalie capable of being a #1 and NOT being the weak link if the rest of the team proves good enough to push for the playoffs. Eddie Lack is already under contract, but his 2.81 GAA and .901 Save % in 2015-16 do not inspire confidence that you can just count on him to be a solid #1 and add an inexpensive backup to the mix. Rather, the goalie that Francis adds could be the single most important decision he makes for the 2016-17 season.
2) Do not overspend in terms of futures. The Canes have a ton of extra draft picks over the next 2 years and also some second-tier prospects from which they can draw. I am fine with spending some of this currency but not going into desperation mode.
3) Be careful overcommitting on term and $ amount. In a light market for free agent options, there is at least the possibility that someone pays James Reimer long-term as if he is in the tier just below the elite goalies. That is too risky for my blood as is any contract for $5M+ for an extended term.
My priority list
It partly depends on trade cost and also salary, but at a basic level, I like the following goalies:
Frederik Andersen: He is a big, modern era goalie who is only 26 years old and reasonably proven as a starter. The risk with him is his arbitration rights, but I would take my chances on a 2-year commitment to add the goalie who might be the best available.
Marc-Andre Fleury (IMPORTANTLY AT A DISCOUNT): Fleury is coming off consecutive strong seasons both in terms of results and underlying numbers. He lost his job only because he was injured. But his $5.8 million salary for 3 more years is a bit daunting. I love him at $2.9 million if the Pens retained the maximum one half of his salary. I actually do not like him that much for $5.8 million for 3 years.
I am not a big fan of Ben Bishop simply because as a near-elite goalie, I think he will cost too much to justify in trade assets considering that he will be an unrestricted free agent next summer who could be easily be gone after only one season. I am not a big fan of James Reimer simply because as the best available free agent goalie in a weak market, I think someone (Calgary?) will overpay to win his services to the tune of something like 4 years at $4-5 million per year which I think is too much for his pedigree. Important to note is that I would consider Bishop or Reimer if market conditions change and I am wrong in terms of what one of them would cost. I also like Jake Allen from St. Louis, but a recent article suggested that the Blues were content pushing forward with 2 goalies in 2016-17. I would also love Andrei Vasilevskiy, but I will be very surprised if the 21-year old becomes available instead of Ben Bishop.
Plan B and a wildcard
If I could not land any of the options above for a reasonable price, then I would look to signing a free agent preferably on a 1-year deal. This minimizes any risk of getting it wrong and leaves it open to shop for a goalie either during the season or next summer when the expansion draft is nearer. If no option to add a thoroughbred emerges, I think Chad Johnson is an interesting wildcard for the right price on a short-term deal. Johnson is a 30-year old journeyman backup who finally received a chance to start regularly in Buffalo last season when Robin Lehner was felled by injury. On a young team that was mediocre defensively, Johnson posted impressive numbers. He was an impressive 22-16-4 with a 2.36 GAA and .920 Save % basically playing at a playoff cut line pace. I think there is a reasonable case to be made for Cam Ward in a plan B scenario depending on salary and term, but I lean toward moving on.
Important to understand the game of musical chairs
In trying to get an above average goalie but pay a modest price, I think it is incredibly important to understand the math. My math says that there are at most 5 teams shopping for #1 type goalies this summer. Those include Calgary, Carolina, Toronto, Dallas and Winnipeg. Even that number could be inflated. If Toronto continues to play the rebuilding game, the Leafs might be inclined to absorb a bloated contract and get a return for doing so. Dallas has 2 netminders under contract for a whopping $10.4 million for 2 more years each. The Stars would probably need to buy someone out and then still spend modestly which could take them out of contention for some options. And Winnipeg has Pavelec signed for 1 more year at $3.9 million and might be inclined to shop the leftovers/bargain bin with the intent of making a bigger move next summer. When you net it out, it is something between 2 and 5 teams shopping in earnest.
With the potential trade options driven by an impending summer of 2017 expansion draft, there could be a decent supply of options. Reimer, Ward and Johnson present 3 free agent options. Marc-Andre Fleury seems nearly certain to hit the trade market after goalie Matt Murray backstopped the Penguins to a Stanley Cup win. And then there are Anaheim, Tampa Bay and St. Louis in jeopardy of losing a good goalie for nothing next summer. That makes up to 7 goalie options that could be available this summer.
When you net it out, the goalie market could very well turn into a buyer’s market if a couple players come off the board quickly and other GMs still want to preempt the expansion draft despite a lack of buyers.
Even if the market and sorting out process moves slowly, I think it is important to keep tabs on the volume of shoppers and the volume of sellers and capitalize if there is an oversupply as I suspect. Or if everyone pulls back because the prices are too low, then I think I lean toward plan B knowing that more of these GMs will ultimately need to lower their prices or risk getting nothing next summer.
So how would I play the game?
If I was Ron Francis, I would kick the tires on Ward, Reimer and Johnson to get an idea of what their salary requirements are at least initially, but I would not move on any of these players. Then I would make calls to Anaheim, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Tampa Bay to see if they are looking to move a goalie. I would even go so far as to put forward an initial low ball offer for my goalie of preference (Andersen for me).
Then I would mostly sit and wait. Per the musical chairs game noted above, I think obtaining a goalie will be largely about patience and opportunistically preying on whichever GM is most anxious to unload an extra regardless of price.
I think the best possible scenario could be Dallas NOT buying out Niemi or Lehtonen in the next few days followed by Calgary moving first to obtain one of the higher-end goalies (i.e. Bishop or Fleury) via trade. At that point, the list of buyers shrinks significantly, and the Canes have the ability to point at James Reimer as a good option who is free in terms of trade value and possibly reasonably priced now because of lack of bidders. I think sometime between when the draft ends and free agency opens, Francis could have the most leverage to obtain a top priority like Andersen inexpensively or possibly parlay the chance that he could to get Reimer for a discount.
So in short, I think the talking happens during the draft but that unless a GM caves on price early that a deal would actually happen sometime after the draft in the few days before or after free agency opens.
How does it ideally end?
So basically it is a bunch of exploratory conversations and friendly low ball offers starting before the draft and culminating with a bargain acquisition sometime after the draft when GMs realize that there just are too many sellers and not enough aggressive buyers.
Give me Frederik Andersen for a crazy cheap deal of a second round pick and a mid-tier prospect. Or give me Marc-Andre Fleury for very little in trade and only $2.9 million in salary when the market for him dries up and the Pens need to just take the best offer and move on. Or give me James Reimer at an astonishingly low $2.5 million per season for 2-3 years after Calgary goes a different direction and no one else steps in to bid up his price.