The completion of 42 games of the 2017-18 season has provided a decent volume of information on the viability of the Hurricanes hopes of making the playoffs. I think the return thus far leans positive but also recognize that nothing is decided and that the outcome could tip either way.
The completion of half of a season of hockey also pushes the team closer to the next off-season and provides more input into how that could play out in terms of player costs, team needs, etc.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a short diversion from the here and now of the 2017-18 season and looks at five situations that General Manager Ron Francis will likely face this summer.
1) Re-signing the current third defense pairing
The big item in this regard is the new contract for Noah Hanifin. I think his new contract is become trickier by the day. On the one hand, he is on pace for a solid 14 goals and 40+ points and as of today added “NHL All-Star” to his resume. On the other hand, he did not stick in the top 4 and right now he is basically a good offense-leaning third pairing defenseman with upside from there because of his young age and experience level.
If he prices as a burgeoning top 4 defenseman who also produces offensively, his price is probably in the same range as Slavin and Pesce. If instead, he gets paid as a young player who has yet to really arrive as evidenced by his third pairing status, then Hanifin probably nets a bridge type second deal for 2-3 years in a $2.5-$3.0 million range somewhat similar to what Lindholm and Teravainen received at a similar point in their careers.
So if you stretch a little bit on the low and high end, the potential range is a huge $3 million spanning $2.5-$5.5 million. On top of that Francis (and Hanifin’s camp) need to decide if now is the time to lock him up long-term with a 6-7-year deal similar to Slavin’s and Pesce’s or if a more step-wise and cautious 2-3-year approach is wiser.
Based on the range of possibilities and the difficulty of the decision and potentially the negotiation because of it, how Francis handles Hanifin’s next contract is significant.
Top billing is for the rising young star, but not to be ignored is Trevor van Riemsdyk. Francis’ Justin Williams deal is significant both on and off the ice, but through 42 games, the best deal in terms of performance relative to cost is probably the acquisition of Trevor van Riemsdyk. He has been solid in his third pairing role and also helped provide a stable situation for young defensemen Haydn Fleury and Noah Hanifin who have benefited from it. Van Riemsdyk is earning a very modest $900,000 in 2017-18 but will be due a raise. The fact that van Riemsdyk is playing in the third pairing and is not really producing offensively (currently on a 16-point pace) should limit the salary for his next contract even with arbitration rights and should make it possible to keep him at a salary that fits into a third pairing slot.
How Francis handles the contract situations of Hanifin and van Riemsdyk will impact the lineup for 2018-19 and both the lineup and salary structure well beyond that.
2) The strange interplay of Scott Darling and Cam Ward’s status
Scott Darling is signed for three more years after the 2017-18 season. He is not going anywhere. Cam Ward, on the other hand, becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2017-18 season after completing the second year of his two-year $3.3 million per year contract.
Ironically, the probability of Ward being re-signed depends partly on his own play but quite possibly also on the play of Scott Darling. If Ward keeps the starting job, plays well through the end of the season and helps propel the team in the playoffs, there is obviously a very good chance that he is re-signed. If instead, Ward falters a bit in the second half and finds his way to being a capable #2 but not a candidate to be a starter at 34 years old, then I think Ward’s fate actually depends on Darling’s play. If Darling rebounds and looks like the starter that Francis through he acquired, then Ward fits nicely as a veteran #2. But if Ward looks like a #2 and Darling does not rebound to play like a #1, then I think Francis could be forced to use Ward’s slot to shop for a younger, possibly higher-end 1B to hedge the possibility that Darling just is not the answer.
The situation could become an easy one if Darling and Ward both play well in the second half of the season, and the team makes the playoffs. But if the goalie position proves to be a detractor again and the team misses the playoffs, then how Francis addresses this situation and more pointedly Ward’s slot will be near the top of the list of decisions that he will need to make this summer.
3) Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen
The situation with Aho and Teravainen next summer is very similar to the one for Slavin and Pesce last summer. Both players are already signed through 2018-19 at modest salaries. Aho is on his entry-level deal and earning only $925,000, and Teravainen is on his second deal at a still modest $2.86 million. But like Slavin and Pesce, both players slot near the top of the team’s depth chart. Aho and Teravaine rank first and second respectively in terms of scoring on the Hurricanes, and the duo represents two-thirds of the team’s top line. The expectation is that Francis will move to extend Aho early just like he did with Slavin and Pesce, and he could choose to do similar with Teravainen too. With Aho and Teravainen on target for mid-60s points, the price of each’s next contract seems to be escalating by the day. If one or both pushes up to 70+ points could that push their salaries up into the $7 million or more. It is not an apples to apples comparison, but Leon Draisaitl just re-upped for a big $8.5 million per year coming off a 77-point season.
I think the perfect balance for the Hurricanes could be a modest second half of the season for Aho and Teravainen that sees each finish at about 60 points with that being enough to help boost the team into the playoffs. That could set the stage for next deals in a range comparable to or not wildly higher than Slavin and Pesce’s.
Regardless, just like with Hanifin the potential range of outcomes seems wide right now. Could Aho push up to a Draisaitl type of level and command $8 million or more? Or could he slow just a little and then price out at something similar to Slavin’s salary. Just like with Hanifin’s situation, the swing could be as much as $3 million.
4) The captains
Perhaps the most significant decisions that Francis will need to make this summer will be whether to push forward largely with the same core group or whether he wants to shake things up a bit and retool. If Hanifin, Teravainen, Aho and Lindholm all come in high with their next contracts, Francis could be forced to cut cost elsewhere, but even if that does not happen, I think next summer is the time for him to make long-term decisions on Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk. Both are signed through the 2018-19 seasons but are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents after that. If Francis wants to keep one or both of these players in the fold long-term, next summer would probably be the best time to re-sign them versus playing a game of chicken approaching their unrestricted free agency. If instead, Francis wants to go a different directly, next summer could be high time to get a good return for one or both in trade.
Whereas some of the other situations above are mostly a matter of negotiating and how the players’ 2017-18 seasons finish up, the situations with Faulk and Skinner are very much either (re-sign) or (trade) them.
5) How much room to leave for Charlotte Checkers
Faced with filling multiple depth forward roles before the 2017-18 season, Francis (probably with some input from Bill Peters) chose to build out a veteran fourth line with a checking focus. With the likely departure of Stempniak, Jooris coming off contract and the potential to swing a trade or two, Francis should have the option to keep the fourth line intact, rebuild it with other veterans or leave room for players rising up from the AHL. By next summer, Lucas Wallmark will have more professional experience, and Warren Foegele whose skill set projects well for a checking line will be one year deep in his professional career. If injuries open up some NHL ice time for the AHLers in the second half of the 2017-18 season, Francis might have a better gauge on those players’ readiness. But regardless, Francis will need to make a decision next summer on how much to keep/add veterans versus how much to leave room for the youth movement.
6) Bill Peters
To be clear, I lean positive on Bill Peters right now, but at the end of the day, the proof is in the results. If the Hurricanes make the playoffs, Peters obviously stays regardless of what happens in the playoffs simply because the team will have taken a significant stride in returning to the playoffs. But if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs, I think Francis must do his first serious review of Peters with consideration for whether Peters is the best options for a head coach to lead the team back to the playoffs.
7) One big addition?
If all of the re-signings come in high, Francis could find his off-season budget for new players somewhat limited. And if the team pushes up into the playoffs, that might be completely okay. But IF the Hurricanes miss the playoffs and if Tom Dundon (assuming he is the new owner by then) is willing to invest in winning now, Francis could have an important decision to make looking for one difference-maker that can finally push the Hurricanes above the playoff cut line.
If the goaltending does not work out, does he go back to the goalie well trying to add the best 1B he can find for a medium price? Does the team still need one more difference-maker, ideally a playmaking center, to get the offense to where it needs to be? Or…?
It is not certain that Francis will have much for budget given what will be needed short-term and long-term to keep the team’s young core players, but if Francis does have budget and uses it, the move will be an important one.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Which of these situations do you see as being most critical?
2) Of the batch of restricted free agents due significant raises (Aho, Teravainen, Hanifin and potentially Lindholm), how do you think each will shake out in terms of contract term and salary?
3) Of the long-timers noted above (Faulk, Skinner, Ward), do you think any of the three will depart? Which, if any of them, would you consider parting ways with?