With the NHL draft completed over the weekend, the Carolina Hurricanes and the rest of the NHL will move on to the next phase of the NHL summer – free agency.
If you were away from hockey for the weekend, Sunday’s Canes Chronicle has links to individual pages for each of the Canes top 6 draft picks with a small collection of profiles and other articles from across the internet.
If you already understand NHL free agent legalese or just do not care to read it, please skip below the ——— where I address Canes specifics.
My favorite source for legalese and also NHL contract status is General Fanager which is a primary source for this article.
Types of free agents
At a basic level, there are 2 types of free agents:
Restricted free agents. Restricted free agents have limited, if any, ability to go to other teams unless the team with their rights gives them up intentionally. It is reasonably common for NHL teams to intentionally give up rights on aging AHLers who no longer fit in the team’s long-term plans. It is also possible for a restricted free agent to receive an ‘offer sheet’ (and accept it) from another team, but this is incredibly rare for a couple reasons. First, the team who owns the player’s rights has the ability to simply match the offer and keep the player. Second, the acquiring team must pay significantly in the form of future draft picks. Finally, though it does happen occasionally, NHL GMs have generally played nice in terms of not chasing other teams’ players for fear that the favor will be returned.
Shorter version: If the NHL team with the rights to a restricted free agent wants to re-sign that player, they are generally able to do so because of the limited options available to the player in that situation.
Restricted free agent re-signing process: The NHL rules lay out a specific schedule and process for re-signing restricted free agents. By tomorrow, NHL teams must ‘qualify’ their restricted free agents. The terms vary slightly by player depending on years of experience, but at a basic level, the ‘qualifying offers’ are formula-driven and generally require the team to offer a 1-2-deal equal or with a slight increase to the player’s previous contract. If the team chooses not to make this qualifying offer, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent who can sign with any team. Importantly, in this scenario where the original team chooses not to qualify the player, the team that signs the player does not incur any costs in terms of draft picks for signing the player.
For players who are qualified, the team keeps the ‘rights’ to the player.At that point a couple things can happen. The player can simply accept the qualifying offer. This happens fairly commonly for AHL-level or sometimes depth NHL players. If the player does not accept the qualifying offer, the team still has the player’s rights and the 2 sides can negotiate a different deal. This is the norm for NHL-level players coming off seasons that justify a higher contract than the qualifying offer.
The best example on the Hurricanes right now is Victor Rask. Tomorrow, the Hurricanes will qualify him for something like $1 million, but both sides know that his next contract will be significantly more than that. So tomorrow’s qualification is simply a formality that starts the negotiation process.
This process can last throughout the summer. There is no incredible hurry for the deal to get done, and it is not completely out of the ordinary for these deals to stretch into July or even August. There are a couple possible exceptions to the 2-party negotiation process. Some players with enough experience qualify for arbitration in which both the team and player put forward a number and an independent arbitrator then sets a salary for the player. In some cases at certain salary levels, the team can walk away from the deal, but most often the arbitrator’s decision becomes the next contract. As mentioned above, players can receive ‘offer sheets’ from other teams, but those are uncommon. And the last bit of leverage for a player is simply to not sign a contract, hold out and not report to training camp. The most fortuitous example of this in Canes history is when Keith Primeau held out and was eventually traded for Rod Brind’Amour because of it.
Unrestricted free agents: Unrestricted free agents who have met certain year and games played experience requirements become free agents who can pursue offers from any of the 30 NHL teams.
Unrestricted free agent signing process: The process for re-signing unrestricted free agents is much simpler. Starting 2 days ago (Saturday), teams and unrestricted free agents could begin talking. On July 1, free agency officially opens and players and teams can then negotiate/sign deals freely.
The schedule/calendar for free agents
We are rapidly approaching the busy season for free agents. The schedule goes like this:
June 25: Unrestricted free agents could begin talking to teams.
June 27: Restricted free agents must be qualified.
July 1: Free agency officially opens for unrestricted free agents and unqualified restricted free agents (who also become unrestricted free agents).
Basic goals and limitations for the Hurricanes organization
The basic goals of sorting out the Hurricanes personnel puzzle below is as follows:
1) Build the best possible team for 2016-17 (with consideration for budget and without over-leveraging the future to do so).
2) Have enough experienced/NHL-ready AHL depth to back fill the NHL roster in the event of injuries.
3) Allocate slots, roles and ice time to top-rated prospects to best fit their development.
4) Fill out the rest of the AHL roster with some veteran depth to help the team competitively and create good situations for the developing youth.
5) Maintain some flexibility by staying below the 50 contract limit. Basically, NHL teams can only have 50 players under contract. This includes NHL players, AHL players on NHL contracts and also prospects who are signed to NHL contracts even if those contracts are not in effect for the current year because they are playing in a different league (i.e. overseas or Canadian juniors.)
Rough math suggests 22-23 players each for the NHL and AHL (possibly a few more at the AHL with some playing in the ECHL). With a couple other players signed by not at the AHL or NHL level for 2016-17, that should put the Canes between 46 and 48 contracts.
Carolina Hurricanes unrestricted free agents
The biggest unrestricted free agent for the Hurricanes was Cam Ward who has already been re-signed. The Hurricanes have also re-signed Derek Ryan to a 2-way deal with the expectation that he is currently slotted to be the Charlotte Checkers captain again if he does not seize an NHL roster spot in training camp.
Other unrestricted free agents include Nathan Gerbe, Riley Nash, Brad Malone, Chris Terry and AHLer T.J. Hensick.
Best guess is that the Hurricanes will part ways with all 5 unrestricted free agents with the possible exception of Riley Nash who I continue to like as an inexpensive skating depth forward with a ton of versatility. Chris Terry (like Michal Jordan who is discussed below) would be a great re-sign if he is unable to net a 1-way contract from another team and is willing to return on a 2-way contract.
Carolina Hurricanes NHL-level restricted free agents
The decisions to be made on restricted free agents are more numerous.
NHL-level players virtually certain to be re-signed
Victor Rask will be formally qualified tomorrow, but his deal will need to be negotiated. My best guess is that his next contract comes in somewhere between $3 and $4 million per year. I would be thrilled with a 3 or 4-year deal for $3 million per year but think that fair might be a bit higher at between $3.5 and $4 million based on his age and play thus far.
Ryan Murphy will also be formally qualified tomorrow, but his deal will also need to be negotiated. As a player who split time between the AHL and NHL the past 2 seasons and who has yet to rise above a third pairing/depth role, I expect his next deal to come in between $800,000 and $1.2 million probably for 1-2 years. Such a deal would give the Canes a depth defenseman at a reasonable price and Murphy a short enough term that he can earn a bigger contract if he becomes an NHL regular and rises up the depth chart. I have Murphy pegged as a potential trade asset, but if he does return, he is nearly certain to stick at the NHL level.
(Note: Technically, Michal Jordan could be considered an NHL-level restricted free agent, but I will instead address his situation below.)
Best guess for end result at NHL level
If the team does part ways with all 5 of the unrestricted free agents, the current NHL roster has 2 goalies 7 defensemen (includes RFA Ryan Murphy to make 7), 11 forwards (includes RFA Victor Rask and also assumes Sebastian Aho makes the team).
When you net it out, at the NHL level, the Hurricanes roster is currently short only 2 forwards who could be acquired via free agency, trade or possibly having a young player or 2 (not counting Aho who I assumed in) win a slot. My hope is that 1 of the 2 forwards will be a top 6 forward who must be obtained via trade or free agency and that the final depth forward that could be Riley Nash or a similarly priced ($800,000 – $1.4 million) or a player obtained from elsewhere.
The current Charlotte Checkers roster
Right, now the Checkers expected roster would include:
Forwards (8): Derek Ryan, Andrew Poturalski, Brock McGinn, Valentin Zykov, Clark Bishop, Lucas Wallmark, Erik Karlsson and Sergey Tolchinsky.
Defensemen (6): Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeown, Trevor Carrick, Josh Wesley, Tyler Ganly and Jake Chelios.
Goalies (2): Alex Nedeljkovi and Daniel Altshuller.
Needs: At a minimum, the current roster needs 5 forwards and 1 defenseman, but if it does not impact the 50-contract limit, a couple extra bodies would be preferred to back fill the roster in the case of injuries at the AHL level or call ups to the NHL level. The group is also very young especially on defense, so inserting a couple AHL veterans, ideally with some NHL experience, would be helpful. This would create good balance in Charlotte and also provide a few NHL call up options who are known commodities in Raleigh.
Pool of AHL-level restricted free agents
The number of players coming off contract and becoming restricted free agents for the Hurricanes this summer is huge.
Forward: Not counting Derek Ryan who has already been re-signed, the team has 8 forwards who are restricted free agents. The list includes Brendan Woods, Dane Fox, Anthony Camara, Patrick Brown, Zach Boychuk, Justin Shugg, Brody Sutter and Carter Sandlak.
Defensemen: On the blue line, the list of 4 restricted free agents includes Michal Jordan (who played at NHL level in 2015-16), Danny Biega, Keegan Lowe and Dennis Robertson. That does not include Rasmus Rissanen who has already signed to play in Finland in 2016-17.
Goalie: Rasmus Tirronen is a restricted free agent.
Best guess for an end result at the AHL level
Important disclaimer: I do not track the Checkers nearly as closely as I do the Hurricanes, so my rankings are a bit of a guess that could differ from the organization’s rankings.
Defensemen: I think Michal Jordan will be offered a 2-way contract. Because of his accumulated NHL experience, he would be a very strong depth/#8 type defenseman to provide a stable partner for 1 of the kids in Charlotte but also offer an experienced recall option if the team has injuries at the NHL level. Regardless of if Jordan is 1 of them, I would expect the team to re-sign 2 or 3 of the veteran AHL defensemen to balance the AHL roster. My wild guess for pecking order would be Michal Jordan (only if willing to take 2-way deal), Dennis Robertson, Keegan Lowe and then Danny Biega. It is also possible that Francis adds a veteran AHL defenseman who is an unrestricted free agent, but Francis might have a tough sell luring such a player with the difficult path to the NHL from Charlotte because of the Canes depth at the position.
Final answer: I will take Robertson and either Lowe or Jordan to boost the AHL blue line to 8.
Forward: At forward, the Canes have many more openings. My expectation is that Aleksi Saarela will either stick at the NHL level or return to Finland, so I am not counting him in the AHL mix. If he did decide to play in North America, he could require 1 of the open slots. The team will need to either keep or add 5-7 forwards. My wild guess for pecking order for the restricted free agents would be Patrick Brown, Brendan Woods, Brody Sutter, Dane Fox, Justin Shugg, Anthony Camara, Carter Sandlak and Zach Boychuk. As much as I like Zach Boychuk, I fear that his departure at the trade deadline as a loaner foretold his more permanent departure from the organization this summer.
With the Hurricanes work in progress effort of building depth at the NHL level, I also think it is very possible that the team adds a veteran AHL/NHL depth player or 2 with NHL experience to the mix from outside of the organization via free agency.
Final answer: I will take 2 veteran AHL/NHL free agent signings plus Brown, Woods, Sutter, Fox, Shugg and Camara to provide up to 14 forwards for Charlotte.
Goalie: Nedeljkovic should hop in immediately and see the most ice time in Charlotte, and the Canes will also want to keep Altshuller who had a strong run in December in the mix in Charlotte. Whether or not the Canes re-sign Tirronen will be a function of both if the team wants to have 1 veteran in the system and also what the rating is on his development now as a 25-year old.
Check on flexibility for 50-contract limit: My tally (someone holler if he/she gets a different count) without Tirronen is 48 contracts. That includes 22 at the NHL level, 24 at the AHL/ECHL level and also Nicolas Roy who will return to juniors unless he surprises and makes the NHL roster and also Aleksi Saarela who is likely to return to Finland if he does not make the NHL roster. Francis could gain a tiny bit more flexibility by going 1 fewer at the AHL level as that total is 24 players for my version.
The recent 2016 draftees would not need to be signed this summer unless 1 of them makes the NHL roster or a US or European player wanted to play in the AHL instead of overseas or US college/Canadian juniors. But sometimes the preference for top picks is to get the deal done such that they at least get their signing bonuses locked in and the team avoids any risk of having them not sign later and re-entering the draft. So if Francis decides to lock up any of Jake Bean, Julien Gauthier or Janne Kuokkanen early those contracts would also count against the 50-contract limit and might cause him to go 1 fewer on older AHL players.
Ron Francis’ to-do list
As far as Hurricanes free agents go, the single biggest item is re-signing Victor Rask with Ryan Murphy right below that. From there, I think he is in a good position to lure 1-2 quality AHL/NHL depth players by virtue of the fact that the Canes lack of forward depth creates a reasonable chance to earn NHL ice time.