The discussion/comments for yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe on the expansion draft ‘breezy’ brought up the possibility of trading Jake Gardiner for Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen. The comment reminded me again of something I have kicked around a few times but have yet to dedicate an entire article to which is the possibility of finding underrated diamonds in the rough if you will on struggling teams.
The Hurricanes have made quick progress in the Tom Dundon era with Rod Brind’Amour at the coaching help pushing into the playoffs in three consecutive years. And at least during the regular season, the team was in the upper echelon of the NHL in 2020-21. But the last step remaining to make a run at the Stanley Cup is the most challenging one. The team is now pushing up against the salary cap with young players scheduled to be re-signed for a higher cost which adds pressure in terms of time and also budget.
No doubt Seth Jones would make the Hurricanes, or any team, better. But trying to win bidding wars for clearly high-end players is difficult and fraught with the peril of the winner’s curse. And even if the Hurricanes could win a big bidding war for a high-end free agent or trade option, it would be really difficult to make the salary cap math work.
Somehow the team needs to find a way to make improvements at something less than market value.
Enter today’s Daily Cup of Joe — Trying to find diamonds in the rough from downtrodden teams who with a change of scenery could find a higher gear.
As a disclaimer before jumping into this, the proliferation of goalies on today’s list does not mean that I would not consider re-signing Petr Mrazek nor does it mean that I think the team should move on. Because he is a known quantity, I actually like Mrazek as a 1B if the price and term are right. If he wants less competition for #1 starts or wants and can get a bigger contract, then the Canes will obviously need to find another option.
In terms of the NHL in the here and now, the Buffalo Sabres are the very definition of downtrodden. The team now seems destined to be forced to trade Jack Eichel who was supposed to be the centerpiece of becoming better. And the team finished dead last in the NHL last season. Obviously that means that there are a number of not-so-good players that would have no place on a Hurricanes roster, but could there be a player or two who just need a change of scenery?
Ristolainen reminds me of former-Hurricane Noah Hanifin. He has a great physical skill set at 6 foot 4 inches tall and 218 pounds with good skating ability. His draft pedigree as a the eighth overall selection in the 2013 NHL Draft would have him pegged as a likely top 4 defenseman. And based on that skill set and draft pedigree, that is mostly where he has played in Buffalo. But he has pretty unanimously struggled in that role based on simple stats, more advanced stats or the eye test. My assessment from watching him over the years is that much like Hanifin, he just makes too many mistakes defensively. But on a better team with forwards who play both ends of the ice and in a #4 slot next to a partner who is the stronger half of a pair (i.e. Jaccob Slavin), could he have a higher gear? He has only one year left on his current contract, so the risk in terms of it working out would be a modest one. If he works, the Hurricanes would need to re-sign him, but that also creates the option to do a one-year trial and punt if it does not work out.
A recurring theme on this list will be goalies from poor defensive teams. Over the past couple years, all of Petr Mrazek, Curtis McElhinney and James Reimer have arrived down on their luck a bit (maybe less so for McElhinney) and fared well playing behind the Hurricanes defense. Add Alex Nedeljkovic, and the Hurricanes are four for four in terms of having goalies who were not sure things succeed. No doubt, the goalies themselves deserve their fair share of credit, but is it also possible that the situation is providing a boost? Buried beneath the mess that has been the Buffalo Sabres the past couple years are decent numbers for Swedish goalie Linus Ullmark. In 2019-20, he posted a 17-14-3 record with a 2.69 goals against average and .915 save percentage. In 2020-21, he posted an even more impressive 9-6-3 record with a 2.63 goals against average and .917 save percentage while the team was burning to the ground. Ullmark is 27 years old with a decent amount of NHL experience which is maybe perfect. He will be an unrestricted free agent.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings clearly entered the 2020-21 season in rebuilding mode and figured to struggle a bit competitively. But the exceeded at least my expectations in terms of being competitive and actually gave the Hurricanes fits.
Veteran goalie Jonathan Bernier played a significant role in that. He had a solid season in net posting a .914 save percentage and 2.99 goals against average playing behind a team that was generally sub-par defensively. He seems like he has been in the NHL for 20 years, but because he broke in so young, he is only 32 years old. If Petr Mrazek moves on, could Bernier be a steady veteran #2 from a very similar mold as McElhinney and Reimer before him?
The Ducks are maybe not a team that people think of first when naming rebuilding teams, but finishing 30th out of 31 teams ahead of only the Sabres in 2020-21 suggests they maybe should be. With a mix of a few good experienced players but a new group clearly on the way, it is not clear to what degree they are up for selling off some valuable assets to fully commit to a rebuild, but the possibility is definitely there.
Keeping with the goalie theme and aiming for a blockbuster, what about John Gibson? As is usually the case, the exact timeline and commitment to the rebuild is unclear for the Ducks, but finishing above only the Sabres in 2020-21 suggests they could be a couple years out. If so, might they consider trading franchise netminder Gibson to add pieces for their rebuild? His $6.4 million salary does not fit into the equation with Alex Nedeljkovic now due for a much bigger raise after his stellar rookie season. But if Nedeljkovic’s salary pushes up into Jordan Binnington territory north of $4 million per year, might the Hurricanes consider selling high on Nedeljkovic and moving on? The match could be an interesting one. The Ducks would get an immediate replacement in Nedeljkovic who maybe brings a little more risk because of his limited track record, but the upside is there. The Hurricanes would sell high on Nedeljkovic’s 23-game success in 2020-21, add a high-end goalie who is a veteran but still in his prime and only add $2-2.5 million of salary to do so. The ceiling for Gibson when he is on is high enough to make him a possible difference-maker/X factor. I also think the salary could be a wash because I think with a veteran in Gibson, the second goalie could be a true #2 who costs $1-$1.5 million whereas I think with the younger Nedeljkovic, the safer bet would be to add a 1A/1B type like Mrazek or similar who probably costs between $2.5 and $3.5 million. Gibson’s six-year remaining term on his contract at $6.4 million per year does carry some risk, but at 28 years old, the contract is up before he reaches the back half of his thirties.
On somewhat better teams a few years back, Rakell was twice a 30-goal scorer. His numbers the past couple years have not been great, but could he be rejuvenated on a better team and on a line with Aho or Trocheck. He is only 28 years old, so he should not be fading age-wise, and he is signed for only the 2021-22 season at a cap-friendly $3.8 million. Due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2021-22 season, he figures to be a trade deadline offering, so it seems reasonable that the Ducks might let him go early for the right return.
Also in the category of one-year help is Hampus Lindholm. If Dougie Hamilton moves on, Lindholm could provide proven top 4 help. He is a left shot which maybe is not ideal, but with the market for proven top 4 defensemen always tight, maybe he is a good enough option. Lindholm missed a large chunk of the 2020-21 season with a broken wrist but has been a steady top 4 defenseman for awhile now and is only 27 years old. Signed only for 2021-22 at $5.2 million, he represents a reasonably priced option to build out the top 4. At 27 years old, the potential is there for him to become a longer-term part of the mix if his first season goes well.
Toronto Maple Leafs
First to be clear, my intent is not to take a swipe at the Maple Leafs by including them with this group of struggling teams. As a team, they are clearly above this group. But I think the general theme of players being pulled down a bit by their current circumstances could actually apply to Frederik Andersen.
Things seemed to start well enough for Andersen in Toronto with consistent save percentages of .918, 918 and .917 in his first three years respectively. But he has dipped in the two years since, bottoming out at .895 in 2021-22 and losing his starting job to boot. As an unrestricted free agent, it will be interesting to see how much his market value has dropped based on the current negative trajectory. At 31 years old and declining the past two years, Andersen would definitely come with some risk, but I see two potential reasons for upside. First, for as much skill as the Maple Leafs have, the group in total is heavy on players who are offense ‘wow’/defense sometimes at forward. In addition, the blue line has largely been yearly patchwork due to the challenges of having so much money tied up in the forward group. I think the Leafs’ success in terms of the standings overstates how favorable the team is for a goalie. Second and somewhat related, Toronto is a tough town in which to work through rough patches. The spotlight shining through the microscope can get very hot. Might the Hurricanes be an upgrade defensively? And might a bit lower key market also help Andersen get back on track? He would definitely come with some risk, if he loses the game of goalie musical chairs as a free agent and becomes available for a 1A/1B price for a shorter term, could he be set to rebound?
What say you Canes fans?
1) From this list of possible ‘diamonds in the rough’ which 1-2 players are most intriguing to you?
2) If Petr Mrazek moves on, which, if any, of the goalie options do you like from the four listed here?
3) From the Sabres, Ducks and Red Wings, are there any other players you would consider?