Happy Fourth of July to the US contingent of Canes and Coffee’s readers!
The headline news on Saturday, July 1 which was the start of the NHL’s free agent signing period was obviously the Hurricanes inking former Hurricane Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams to a two-year deal.
But along the way, the Hurricanes also signed four other players.
Here is a look at where these players fit and how they are relevant to the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes.
Josh Jooris – Clues to what Peters wants to do with fourth line
Announced quietly under the cover of the still-booming free agent frenzy and while Canes fans were still taking in Justin Williams return was a fairly significant depth signing.
The Hurricanes signed Josh Jooris to a one year (IMPORTANT=>) one-way deal for for $775,000. As a refresher on the legalese, one-way does NOT mean that Jooris could not be sent to the AHL. One-way simply means that he earns the same salary regardless of where he plays which makes him an expensive AHLer if he ever lands there. So Francis would not be signing Jooris, or anyone else, to a one-way deal if the expectation was anything other than the player playing at the NHL level for the 2017-18 season.
Jooris is fairly versatile checking line forward. The signing looks a little bit like the Viktor Stalberg deal last summer to bring in a skating and defensively solid checking line forward to solidify the fourth line. Jooris is a bit different in that he can play center or wing, but the general idea of adding a penalty killer and solid defensive player for the fourth line still holds. Jooris is a proven NHLer with 173 games of NHL experience but limited scoring production with only 12 points in 54 games in 2016-17.
Past his profile, Jooris brings with him a couple other interesting angles and insight (or at least speculation on my part);
Ray Whitney’s influence? I am not privy to the Hurricanes scouting details obviously, and it will never be announced, but there is a reasonable chance that Jooris comes recommended from Ray Whitney. Whitney is a west coach NHL scout for the Hurricanes who I believe still uses Arizona as a home base. As such, in his work to scout a broad variety of players, one would figure that Whitney probably saw the Coyotes play as much as anyone. Is it possible that Jooris stood out to Whitney as a player with upside and/or a skill set that matched something Peters wanted to add to his lineup?
General direction of the team lineup-wise: In previous years, Coach Bill Peters has shown a propensity to build a bit of an old school, checking fourth line. With limited depth at the forward position especially back two years, it is hard to say whether that mentality for the fourth line was a matter of preference by Peters or whether it was just the only option available given limited scoring-capable depth. The addition of Jooris on a one-way contract does not assure anything but does seem to add one more veteran, old school fourth-liner to the mix.
Help for the penalty kill: Maybe most significantly, I think Jooris adds another option to build out the penalty kill. The penalty kill has been a huge strength under Steve Smith. The team was in the running to lead the league in penalty kill success rate in both 2015-16 and 2016-17 until trade deadline deals depleted his personnel and forced him to tinker mid-season. Though Peters has used top half of the roster forwards on the penalty kill, he and penalty kill coach Steve Smith seem to have a preference to lean heavily on the fourth line. Before the trade deadline, the fourth line of Nordstrom/McClement/Stalberg did the heavy lifting on the penalty kill. Gone are penalty kill regulars Jay McClement and Viktor Stalberg. As a center/wing and a penalty kill regular with Arizona last year, Jooris replaces either Stalberg or McClement on the penalty kill if he is in the lineup.
Roster math: When coupled with Williams’ arrival, Jooris brings the Hurricanes forward count to 12 with Phil Di Giuseppe still in the process of being re-signed. To be honest, I am a little bit surprised (not shocked) to see the Hurricanes add another depth forward still in early July with the potential to opportunistically add a higher-end forward still out there and also a few promising young players who could push for roster spots in training camp. The total of 13 counting Di Giuseppe suggests that any forward additions, including young players rising up, would ideally be offset by a forward subtraction.
The other shoe yet to drop? On Monday at about dinner time headed into a day off (when Francis likes to do his work), Craig Custance and Brian Hedger from suggested that former-Blackhawk/current Golden Knight Marcus Kruger could be on the way to the Hurricanes. That could be an even stronger indication that Peters/Francis want to build a solid checking line at the bottom of the roster and not go the route of populating those slots with higher upside but also higher risk rookies.
Jeremy Smith – The last goalie domino
With the addition of veteran AHL goalie Jeremy Smith on Saturday, the Hurricanes goaltending situation has completed a four-step transformation that matched my original expectations at the close of the 2016-17 season.
The addition of a #1 netminder in Scott Darling to upgrade the goaltending: I was far from unique in clamoring for the Hurricanes to make an upgrade in net. Faced with a similar situation a full year ago, I had adding a goalie as Francis’ most critical decision impacting the 2016-17 season, and I right with Ron Francis and anyone else who tracks the Hurricanes, I put an upgrade in net right back in the same slot for the summer of 2017.
The departure of Eddie Lack: Shortly after the season concluded (and before the team added Scott Darling), I included an Eddie Lack departure in my list of five Hurricanes predictions for the off-season. In short, with only one short stint of solid play in two years in a Hurricanes uniform, Lack was significantly riskier than Ward and with a nearly identical contractual term and salary. Couple that with Ward’s long standing with the team, and Lack was destined to go even before the addition of Darling (when I wrote this article above). The official ending of Eddie Lack’s tenure with the Hurricanes came via trade, not buyout as I originally predicted back in April. But technicalities aside, the deal went down about as I expected with the Hurricanes needing to eat a chunk of Lack’s contract to sever ties with him without any meaningful return for doing so.
The non-qualification of Daniel Altshuller: The need for maneuvering at the goalie position did not stop at the NHL level. The 2016-17 season for the Charlotte Checkers saw AHL rookie Alex Nedeljkovic suffer significant growing pains as part of his transition from Canadian juniors to the AHL as detailed in Jordan Futrell’s season review for the young goalie. The heavy lifting especially during the late winning stretch (when Nedeljkovic was actually down in the ECHL) was actually accomplished by veterans Michael Leighton and the Tom McCollum when Leighton was injured. With Callum Booth rising up to the AHL level from juniors for 2017-18 and facing the same challenge that Nedeljkovic did last season, two-thirds of the minor league goalie slots are extremely young and unproven. That situation prompted me to include a decision on Altshuller in an AHL roster article on May 16. I suggested that the Hurricanes might not qualify and re-sign prospect Daniel Altshuller and might instead cut him loose to make room for another veteran. That is exactly what happened on Monday, June 26 when Altshuller was not qualified and became a free agent.
The addition of Jeremy Smith to provide a veteran option and stablility in net in Charlotte: The final step in the four-step process occurred on Saturday when the Hurricanes signed veteran AHL netminder Jeremy Smith. Smith has only a short 10-game NHL stint on his resume with the Avalanche in 2016-17, at 28 years old grades out as a good AHL goalie.
When asked, Patrick Williams who his a go-to source for all things AHL pegged Smith as a top half of the AHL netminder in terms of potentially filling in at the NHL level in the event of an injury.
Somewhere in the 10-15 range. He has had some bad organizational luck recently.
— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsNHL) July 1, 2017
So Jeremy Smith completes the depth chart for goalies in the Hurricanes organization by providing the veteran option that is needed for stability at AHL level and making it possible for new Coach Mike Vellucci to give ice time to Booth and Nedeljkovic as makes sense and not under duress.
Dennis Robertson – Just reward and building to win
Dennis Robertson was one of the Checkers defenseman who was solid down the stretch as the team pushed up into the playoffs. He is a veteran AHL defenseman who is not likely to get more than a cup of tea at the NHL level, but he is a good AHL veteran and the kind of player that does two things. First is help his team win. Second is provide a good learning environment for young goalies like Nedeljkovic and Booth.
The gap in the AHL depth chart on the blue line: The signing (or re-signing) of four veteran AHL defensemen in Dennis Robertson, Jake Chelios, Philip Samuelsson and Brenden Kichton (see below) who are all 25 or older highlights an interesting situation with the Hurricanes prospect pool. When 2015 draftee Noah Hanifin jumped straight to the NHL from the draft and Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce pretty much did the same from college hockey, it left a gap in the prospect pool for players who would be in the top half of the roster at the AHL level. The Hurricanes do have Fleury and McKeown, but my bet is that Fleury sticks at the NHL level this year. Past that in the under 25 group, there is long-timer Trevor Carrick. There is also Josh Wesley and Tyler Ganly who both project more as bottom pairing AHLers at this stage of their development.
Brenden Kichton – More veteran stability
The story with Kichton is similar to that of Robertson. Kichton brings another veteran AHL defenseman who helps build an experienced defense behind what will be a young forward group and in front of the two young netminding prospects.
Though he just missed overlapping with Hurricanes coach Bill Peters, Kichton is yet another player with ties to the Spokane Chiefs organization that has gradually become a Carolina Hurricanes western outpost.
Roster now reasonably final at the AHL level
If I push Phil Di Giuseppe and Haydn Fleury up to the NHL level to fill out the NHL roster, that leaves a count of 13 forwards, 9 defensemen and 3 goalies at the AHL level. With the Hurricanes also sitting at 47 contracts and within three of the limit, I suspect that there could be room for at most one more addition at the AHL level (on an NHL contract). But for all intents and purposes, what you see is mostly what you will get when the Charlotte Checkers take the ice in October.