It is that time of year when I start receiving an increasing number of emails and Twitter messages asking about likely availability of certain Canes players, potential interest in acquiring certain players and specific trade suggestions. I have already written a decent amount about the Carolina Hurricanes possible maneuvering this summer.
When I do the math for building a roster for 2016-17 and importantly to compete and win in 2016-17 (not go with a slower rebuilding schedule), it seems inevitable that building out the forward ranks will require a trade or 2. The market especially for mid-tier proven NHL scoring forwards is thin and of course there is competition for these players and also the issue of inflated prices in the free agent market. Ron Francis’ has a nice war chest of draft picks that he can and likely will draw upon to add a couple key players to his roster, but when trying to add proven top 6 forwards it is nearly impossible to do so without also giving up good players in return.
That begs the question of who the Canes might begrudgingly consider trading to improve at forward and overall? Fort Knox Francis is generally mum on any meaningful specifics for stuff like this, so this is my opinion and expectations and NOT a report on what Francis has said or even hinted at.
Jordan Staal. First, there might/might not be a matter to clear up about his desire/willingness to stay. The fork in the road was the departure of brother Eric Staal just before the 2016 NHL trade deadline. While that situation was disappointing and obviously not the original plan when Jordan came to Raleigh, I expect that more is being made of this than the reality. In the NHL, players do not just get to pick where they want to play and if they want to be traded at any point in time. That is not how it works. And even if Jordan Staal were to leave, there is nothing close to a guarantee that he could be reunited with his brother. My hunch is that the summer will be good timing for Jordan Staal to reset mentally and return to be the same leader that he was in the second half of the 2015-16 season.
If instead Jordan Staal voices a desire to be traded and in Ron Francis’ estimation it is best to just remove him from the situation and push forward, that obviously changes things. But if my expectation is correct that after a summer adjustment Jordan Staal is ready to go as a Hurricanes leader come training camp, I actually rate him as the #1 untouchable player on the roster. He distances himself slightly from the next tier simply because the Hurricanes are so short at the forward position and he can fill an every situation/any match up role anchoring 1 of the top 2 lines. As such, I think Jordan Staal would be the hardest player to replace short-term.
Noah Hanifin. I actually slot Hanifin only as a third pairing defenseman entering the 2016-17 season, but mark him as untouchable because of his incredibly high upside and ceiling. It is unwise to trade a 19-year old with a raw skill set to be a top pairing defenseman.
Jaccob Slavin. See Noah Hanifin. This might sound strange, but if I were handicapping the 2016-17 season and looking for value odds on who will be the team’s best defenseman next season, I would take Jaccob Slavin. It is important to first acknowledge that a couple of the elder defenseman would be higher probability bets, but I think Slavin’s combination of mobility and rapid improvement defensively has him trending upward at the fastest pace right now. I do not think it is at all impossible that he could be the team’s best (yes best) defenseman by the second half of the season. Like Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin’s ceiling is incredibly high. It would be unwise to trade that upside at this early juncture of his career when the return is modest.
Justin Faulk. I was torn on whether to put Faulk in this category or the ‘nearly untouchable’ category. Ultimately, I think Faulk’s role as a young but experienced leader on the blue line and his rare forward-like goal scoring make him too valuable to give up. The Canes do need scoring, but I actually think a 15-18 goal defenseman boosts scoring as much as a 25-30 goal scoring forward. It is not that hard to find another 15 goals even from a depth forward. The only thing that makes me hesitate slightly is the Canes current and future depth on defense and the fact that Faulk could return the top line forward (ideally center) that the Canes desperately need. On a player role level, such a deal would be risky but maybe feasible. It is when you add in the leadership and the scoring boost that it just falls apart for me. So while I think that the Oilers asking for Justin Faulk for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins plus is not outlandish, I would be very surprised to see Faulk included in this or any other deal. He instead is part of the core that leads the Hurricanes forward.
Alex Nedeljkovic. He is tracking exactly how the Canes would have hoped when they selected him in the second round in the 2014 draft. The Canes are just starting to build goalie depth in the system, and he is the closest to NHL ready (but still probably 2 years out). It would take a huge deal for a top player to pry him loose.
Sebastian Aho. Aho is a bit like Nedeljkovic except at forward obviously. The Canes are light on depth both for the current NHL roster and the future at the forward position and desperately need to add more skill and scoring the lineup. Aho projects to be exactly that and actually rates higher than the #35 pick that the Canes used on him in the 2015 draft. In an exchange with Corey Pronman from ESPN on Twitter recently, he agreed that Aho would probably go in an 8-14 range if the 2015 NHL draft was redrafted today. The Canes shortage of what Aho projects to bring to the lineup makes him nearly impossible to pry loose.
Begrudging trade chips
So I started by saying that I thought that there was a high probability that Ron Francis would need to tap the trade market to get a top end player or 2 and pay in real players or high-end assets to do so. Then I started down the road of listing a bunch of players who would not be available. That begs the question of who is. The short answer is that I think Ron Francis will need to spend from his strong position on the blue line both in terms of the current lineup and the pipeline. To be clear, I am in no way negative on any of the players on this list (quite the opposite actually), nor am I trying to just unload any of them to move on. Including these players on the list of trade chips is simply facing the reality that you have to give up something of value to get a high-end player back in trade. It is also important to note that I do not think Francis will sell off all of the depth on defense. Rather, I think he would part with at most 1-2 of the players named.
Brett Pesce. Per my other post, I have him slated as possibly the most valuable Canes trade chip who could actually be available. The positive read on him is that he is a 22-year old defenseman who was serviceable in a top 4 role for most of the 2015-16 season after making the jump almost straight from college to the NHL. With decent skating ability a well-rounded game and a decent NHL frame, he could project to be legitimate top 4 defenseman who will only get better. That obviously carries significant value. I make him available only because he sits right in the middle in terms of future potential and current value. I put him below Faulk as an established leader and proven NHLer and Hanifin and Slavin simply because I think each’s upside is so high. I would actually rather keep Pesce than any of the other prospects (he is only 2 years older but already somewhat proven), but the issue is that for the right team his trade value would be higher and what is needed to land a good NHL forward versus the lesser value of run of the mill ‘good NHL prospect with no experience.’
Ryan Murphy. His development has been gradual, but I think his skill set continues to track toward being a ‘today’s NHL’ (think skating and scoring from the back end) half of a good third pairing. I would be fine with keeping him for this role, but at the same time, he is the oldest of the current wave of defensemen at 23 years old, was leapfrogged by 3 players (Hanifin, Pesce, Slavin) this summer and slots as a #7/depth defenseman and fourth right shot defenseman (behind Faulk, Wisniewski Pesce) for 2016-17 and probably going forward as well with McKeown being another right shot defenseman.
1 of Trevor Carrick, Haydn Fleury or Roland McKeown. I think Francis will want to maintain his depth on the blue line, so I would be surprised to see him completely raid the current roster and also depth. Of the 5 players and prospects named in this section, I could see Francis parting with 2 of them for the right deal, ideally 1 from the player (Pesce, Murphy) and maybe 1 from the prospect (Carrick, Fleury, McKeown). I also think it will be very hard to pry loose Fleury or McKeown unless they are part of a big deal. Francis’ preference would be to spend from draft picks instead.
1-3 of extra first through third round draft picks acquired in trade. The Carolina Hurricanes have all of their own picks from the first 3 rounds in each of the next 2 drafts and also a whopping 7 extra picks. Just like with the blue line prospects, I do not see Francis spending the cupboard bare, but I think he could use 1-2 of the 3 extra first and second rounders and up to 2 of the extra third round picks.
Unlikely to go unless it is part of bringing a high-end forward in return because of shortage at forward
My math counts only 8 sure things at forward for the Hurricanes 2016-17 roster right now, and the team needs more scoring. Because of that, it does not generally make sense to trade away forwards that would simply open up another hole that needs to be filled and therefore be a sideways trade. Could it be possible that a lesser forward is traded as part of a deal to add a higher-end forward? Sure. Could there be a deal to trade a higher-end Canes forward to add multiple forwards in his place? I guess. But at the end of the day, Francis will primarily be looking to trade from other positions (defenseman, prospects, picks) to add forwards and not the other way around. Because of that, I would be surprised to see any of these players traded
Jeff Skinner. He is the closest thing that the Canes have to pure offense. He made significant strides in his 2-way play last season. It does not make sense to trade him unless you are somehow getting multiple scorers back in return.
Victor Rask. Again, the Canes need more forwards. Even with a raise, he should be a reasonably budget-friendly middle of the roster forward. The Canes need more of these not less, so trading him would require a big return and offense coming back.
Elias Lindholm. Unless it was part of a deal that brought a high-end/top 6 forward back, Lindholm fits the bill as a relatively inexpensive top 9 forward with potential scoring upside. The Canes need more of those.
Joakim Nordstrom. With his chemistry with Jordan Staal last season, his value to the Canes is significantly greater than it would be to any other team as a depth forward. In addition, his new $1.2 million 2-year contract is budget friendly. It is not so much that he is a vital core player as that he is worth much more as a roster player than a trade chip.
Andrej Nestrasil. Reference Joakim Nordstrom. It is expected that Nestrasil will again be part of a Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom top 2 line at a price less than $1 million. I would be shocked to see another team offer enough to pry him loose.
Phil Di Giuseppe. Di Giuseppe is a depth player who has not really carved out a permanent role yet. In that regard, if a GM really wanted him included as part of a bigger deal that saw the Canes add a top 6 forward, Di Giuseppe would be available. But otherwise, he fits as another ‘we need more forwards’ keeper.
Ron Hainsey. Not at forward obviously, but I think Ron Hainsey is a bit similar and also unlikely to be traded. He is a good veteran minute-eater for the top 4. I think the hope would be that the kids continue to develop such that he might be re-signed next summer, but for now, I think he is sort of the glue player until the kids are ready to move up the depth chart.
If someone asks
I do not think there is anyone on the roster that Ron Francis will be anxiously looking to unload, but I think there are a couple players who he might part with fairly easily.
Eddie Lack. Yes. I can count and realize that he is the only NHL goalie under contract which makes it odd to think that he would be available. While I think Lack could be part of a good tandem for 2016-17, I also think that if Francis could just take a mulligan on the 2-year $2.75 million commitment that he made to him before he even played in Raleigh, I think he would. $2.75 million is pretty good 1A/1B type salary, and put simply Lack’s numbers did not hit that level in 2015-16. There is some risk having to play the open market, but if asked whether I would rather have Lack or $2.75 million to shop other options, I would take the cash right now.
Jay McClement. As much as I like and respect Jay McClement, I continue to think that Riley Nash is a better and more flexible option (likely for same price) for that slot. McClement could have value to a team that wants a veteran fourth-liner who can kill penalties. If someone came calling, I think Francis would listen.
James Wisniewski. Wisniewski is actually reasonably priced for the 2016-17 season. His actual salary (which is what matters for the Hurricanes) comes in at only $3 million which is significantly below the $5.5 million cap hit for his front-loaded contract. First of all, his cap hit instantly scares off half of the NHL that is cap-challenged. Even for teams that could hold his contract, I would not expect Wisniewski to have much value in the offseason following a season missed completely to injury. But if someone wanted a veteran right shot defenseman and was willing to take the risk, I think Francis would listen.