The past week or so of Daily Cup of Joe has stepped through the list of seven Canes players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this off-season and considered individually whether each should be re-signed or replaced and under what terms contractually.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers a set of random thoughts on that same topic.
The starting point for all of these decisions is recognizing that the Hurricanes need to make moves to improve this off-season but will be somewhat limited budget-wise in doing so. The starting is also (in my opinion) that the team needs to bet on the current core for the most part, so aside from hopefully making gains from young players just continuing to grow, the transaction-driven improvements will need to come from lesser-cost players who mostly fit into the middle or bottom of the lineup.
With that starting point, here are some thoughts that impact my keep or replace decisions for the list of unrestricted free agents.
With Dougie Hamilton the burning question is what are you going to do to improve or even break even if you let him go? That is a tough question. The Hurricanes do not have the extra top 4-capable depth that the team had a few years ago, so letting Hamilton go requires back filling his slot with at least one other top 4 defenseman. With a thin market for such players in free agency this year, that is a challenging proposition. Don Waddell has been very adept at adding top 4 defensemen via trade. Hamilton himself arrived that way. The team was also able to add Joel Edmundson in the Justin Faulk trade. And most recently the team added Brady Skjei at the 2020 trade deadline. So part of deciding whether or not to pay a small ransom to re-sign Hamilton is understanding what the options/costs are to replace him. Letting Hamilton go and then mostly trying to go with the current group plus another depth defensemen or two is a non-starter for me. I thought the team’s blue line defense took a modest step back in 2020-21, and I do not see any of the players below the top 4 as being capable of stepping into a top 4 role on an every game basis. As such, the decision on what to do with Dougie Hamilton is very much dependent on what the other options are.
The results from this situation are the single biggest decision/move that the team will make this summer.
The second goalie
I think the second goalie slot is also critical and potentially tricky. Nedeljkovic’s strong play is obviously a positive but could complicate the goalie situation in a couple ways. First, he went from being like to slot as a low-experience backup with a salary south of $1.5 million to being a player who with arbitration rights could get paid closer to a true #1 salary. With the Hurricanes tighter on salary cap budget, it could be challenging to shoe horn another 1A/1B goalie contract into that equation. Further, Nedeljkovic’s rising could have the effect of pushing Petr Mrazek out if he prefers less competition for starts and thinks he can get it elsewhere. From there, it could become tricky. There are a number of #1 or #1A/1B netminders available, but especially if Nedeljkovic’s salary creeps up, it is not clear any of them will fit the budget. So the challenge for Don Waddell is filling the second goalie slot with a player who could potentially be a #1 if needed but doing so at something closer to a #2 price.
The fabric of the team
Changeover of players during the off-season is inevitable for any NHL team, so some number of players coming and going is an every year event. But with Brind’Amour’s coaching style that leans heavily on building a group, is who/how many are let go something to watch more closely? The players who could depart are an interesting set this summer. Dougie Hamilton has been an integral part of building a fun, likeable group and has been a key component on the blue line. Jordan Martinook is a fan and locker room favorite wearing a letter as an every man’s hero. And if you had to name a player most like Martinook, Brock McGinn would be a good choice. Petr Mrazek was also front and center both on the ice and as part of the new attitude as the team surged up into the playoffs. If one looks at each player as a a separate, mutually exclusive decision, is it possible that the team let’s go too much of the fabric of the team and in the process diminishes the ‘we are in this together’ element that I think has been core to the success?
Trying to free up some budget
Per where I started, the aim is to find a way to get better. In general, that means spending some money. If the team finds a way to keep Hamilton, that plus the new Svechnikov and Nedeljkovic contracts will eat up a bunch of any possible budget to make upgrades. It is one thing to say that the team needs to add a player or two from outside to improve. But it is another thing to accomplish that if the team is right up against the salary cap. Not signing Hamilton could definitely free up some budget, but remember that he would need to be replaced by a top 4 defenseman which would minimize any savings.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think it is possible to part ways with Dougie Hamilton and replace him without significantly downgrading both top-end quality and also depth? If so, are you counting on Waddell making another blue line trade…or?
2) Do you agree with my assessment that the second goalie slot is critical? Or do you Nedeljkovic is ready to be an old school #1 such that the backup slot is less important?
3) What, if anything, do you make of my concern about possibly damaging the core/fabric of the team if too many players who have been at the center of the turnaround depart at the same time?
4) As you think about the free agent decisions to be made, do you have any other bigger picture things that you think should be considered as part of that process?