Today it was announced that Ryan Murphy was returning to the Hurricanes after completing his conditioning stint with the Charlotte Checkers. With Eddie Lack, Bryan Bickell and Jordan Staal still on injured reserve, he fits on the current roster of 23 without sending someone else to Charlotte. A Jordan Staal return would force someone else to return to Charlotte though I think most likely the Hurricanes would reassign either Brock McGinn and Derek Ryan and roll with 8 defensemen for now.
The musical chairs and more options stage
The Hurricanes final slot on the blue line has been an interesting journey for only being 25 games into the NHL season. With Murphy injured to open the season, Ron Francis added blue line depth not once but twice in the couple days between the preseason finale and the regular season opener, adding Jakub Nakladal as a free agent and Klas Dahlbeck as a waivers claim. And that was after he had already added Matt Tennyson during the summer.
The front part of the season saw a mix of Nakladal and Dahlbeck rotating into and out of the lineup without much success. The third pairing in total was ‘meh’ at best and sometimes worse. Also significantly, Noah Hanifin was not benefiting from the revolving door in the slot next to him either. Then Ryan Murphy returned to the lineup and took a quick run of 4 games next to Hanifin before being pushed into the background and ultimately deported to Charlotte for a conditioning stint. Francis rid himself of half of the new options when he terminated Nakladal’s contract on November 14. Next Matt Tennyson, who was signed over he summer presumably to be a #6 or #7 defenseman at the NHL level, stepped into the mix. The fourth time was a charm, as Tennyson seemed to instantly stabilize the third pairing. Francis has already rid himself of Nakladal whose contract was terminated.
The top priority
The top priority for Coach Bill Peters is to build the lineup that gives him the best chance to win hockey games on a nightly basis. That lineup very clearly includes Matt Tennyson right now. Even that is up in the air a bit as Matt Tennyson is suddenly dinged up and a morning skate check for Wednesday afternoon.
If healthy and capable of playing, I will be very surprised to see Tennyson lose his place in the lineup if he continues his current level of play.
Other considerations – The expansion draft
While the top priority is very clearly trying to win hockey games, there are a couple of other considerations that are floating in the periphery and not to be completely ignored. First is the expansion draft. The rules will require the Hurricanes to expose 1 defenseman with either 40 games of NHL experience in 2016-17 or a total of 70 games NHL experience in 2015-16 and 2016-17 combined.
Right now, the only player under contract who would qualify is Justin Faulk. Faulk obviously will not be exposed in the expansion draft, so Francis has between now and June to manufacture an alternative. All of the players mentioned in the mix above plus Ron Hainsey are theoretically options.
Klas Dahlbeck: He already meets the 70-game requirement but is not signed for 2016-17. Extending his contract by 1 year would make him an option.
Ryan Murphy: Murphy is signed for 2017-18, but he would need to play 31 more games at the NHL level in 2016-17 (to get to 70 over 2 years) to qualify.
Matt Tennyson: Tennyson would need to play 28 more games to make 40 games in 2016-17 and would also need to have his contract extended for 2016-17.
Ron Hainsey: Hainsey is another player that the Canes might be willing to make a commitment to for next season and at the same time risk losing him to the expansion draft. Hainsey already meets the experience requirement but would need a new contract for 2017-18 to qualify.
The possibility also exists for Francis to add a defenseman via trade later who meets the expansion draft requirements to shield Justin Faulk.
Other considerations – Ryan Murphy
Another consideration is the long-term for Ryan Murphy. Suddenly approaching 24 years, still without a regular role in the Hurricanes’ lineup and being hunted down by another small pack of Hurricanes defense prospects, Ron Francis needs to figure out if/where Murphy fits in the equation.
After another miss trying to stick in the lineup, the possibility that Murphy will ultimately become trade fodder is increasing. As a right shot, skating defenseman, Murphy should still have modest value to a team that still sees his upside and maybe is lighter on blue line prospects than the Hurricanes.
Again, winning trumps all else, but there might be a need to get Murphy a couple games at the NHL level to showcase him, hope that goes well and then collect whatever value can be had for him via trade. Best bet might be a “change of scenery” trade that sees Murphy traded for a comparable age, comparable upside forward who has also yet to stick at the NHL level.
Best guess for a path forward
Though it is by no means a sure thing, with each day that passes without Ryan Murphy carving out a place in the lineup, I think the chances of him being traded increases. I put the chances at 50/50 that he is still with the team come mid-January.
As long as he keeps playing well, the #6 slot next to Noah Hanifin belongs to Matt Tennyson. He has been good himself and also helped Hanifin find a higher level of play. That wins a place in the lineup.
Francis has enough options to provide an expansion draft shield on the blue line. I think he just lets the 2016-17 season play out and then considers re-signing 1 of Ron Hainsey, Klas Dahlbeck or Matt Tennyson to make available for the expansion draft.
Things get interesting if Ryan Murphy draws into the lineup but not because of an injury to Tennyson. This could suggest that the Hurricanes are trying to showcase him to be traded.