With the big even weeks of the NHL draft and the start of free agency behind us, I spent a few minutes looking back through all of the deals completed with the aim of picking a few that I would steal for the Carolina Hurricanes if given the opportunity.
I largely voted ‘no’ on the vast majority of high-end forward free agents even before the prices and term o their deals went through the roof, so not surprisingly, I pass on pretty much all of that mess. Here is a short list of deals that I would steal if given the opportunity, not necessarily in order of priority:
NHL free agent signings
Brian Campbell to Chicago for 1 year at $2.25M (counting bonus): First, to be clear, there is no possible way that the Hurricanes could have had Campbell for this price or even a higher one. He took a huge hometown discount to make the salary cap math work for a return to Chicago. But in the sake of thoroughness, he would be a great veteran depth add for that price.
Riley Nash to Boston for 2 years at $900k/yr: I am a bit surprised (not astounded) that the Hurricanes did not retain Riley Nash. I really like his flexibility (C/RW, PP/PK/ES) and skating ability that fits to some degree on any line. He provided more depth scoring (16 even strength points and 22 points total) than other fourth line options. The fact that he can play center would have at least made it possible to push Jay McClement to the #13 slot and out of the lineup (which is what I think ideally would happen) and replace the penalty kill slot vacated by doing so. The fact that Francis instead added a wing in Viktor Stalberg all but locks McClement into the C4 slot.
Chad Johnson to Calgary for 1 year at $1.7M: All of Calgary, Toronto and Carolina were non-playoff teams in 2015-16 with holes at the goalie position. The Flames and Hurricanes struggled statistically at the position in 2015-16, and the Maple Leafs created a hole when they traded James Reimer at the trade deadline. It will be interesting to benchmark these teams against each other both in 2016-17 and beyond with a special focus on goaltending. Toronto went all in landing arguably the best goalie available via trade or free agency this summer when they traded for Frederik Andersen and locked him to an expensive 5-year deal. Calgary also moved aggressively adding Brian Elliott from St. Louis via trade and extending and then adding depth in the form of free agent Chad Johnson. The Hurricanes chose to stand pat re-signing Cam Ward and at least tentatively heading down the path of rolling out the same goaltending tandem from 2015-16 for 2 more years.
The situation in total will be interesting to watch unfold, but back to Chad Johnson…On the surface, he looks like a bit of a journeyman backup goalie from a category that is a dime a dozen. He is 30 years old with only 101 games of NHL experience and a resume that includes 4 teams in the past 4 years. But looking narrowly at his 2015-16 campaign, I would have liked to take a short commitment, low risk flyer on him if I was not going to instead shop from the premium category. (His $1.7 million, 1-year contract is exactly that low-risk deal.) In 2015-16 playing for a Sabres team that was still young and gradually finding its way defensively, his 2.36 GAA and .920 Save % are impressive. In less than a full season in the starter’s role after Robin Lehner’s injury, Johnson also notched an impressive 22-16-4 record which is pretty solid 94-point pace over 82 games.
I would not have added Chad Johnson to get to 3 goalies, but if I could have simultaneously signed Johnson for that deal and traded Lack for a late round draft pick to make the swap happen, I would do it. Acknowledging that Johnson is not a sure-thing upgrade, I would take my chances on Johnson over Lack coming out of each’s 2015-16 season, would love to pocket $1 million savings for 2016-17 and also like the idea of having only the current season committed to the second goalie slot. If Johnson played well, he could be re-signed; otherwise, I like the idea of having an open slot heading into next summer and the expansion draft.
Trades are a bit trickier because it requires making some assessment of what the Canes equivalent would be to get the deal done. For example, I would have loved to add Taylor Hall to the Hurricanes first line, but the price would almost certainly have been Justin Faulk to trump New Jersey’s offer. I am on record as thinking that is a reasonably fair deal but not one that I would have made.
Frederik Andersen for first and second round pick and new contract (5 years at $5M/year): There are a couple caveats for this deal. First, it would have required Anaheim to take Lack to offset some cost which seems reasonable since they later ended up with Jonathan Bernier in what seemed like a 2-part deal. Second, I would have pushed hard to trim the new contract (which would have been required to make trade obviously) 5 years to 4 years. Finally, parting with a first and second round pick is really hard. Important to note is that the first-rounder that the Leafs gave up was actually the #30 overall pick, so if the Canes had to include a higher first round pick, the ‘value of the picks’ math suggests that it would have significantly decreased the other pick to be only a third or maybe even a fourth-rounder to total comparable value.
My simple thinking is that hockey is a young man’s game and that the current version of the Carolina Hurricanes is closer to being a playoff team than some realize. And from that starting point, I would not skimp on goaltending right now.
The immediate objection (and on that I do think is worth considering) is Alex Nedeljkovic. On that note, a reasonable average-ish guess is that Nedeljkovic is still 2 years away. After 7 consecutive playoff misses, I just am not willing to concede 2 more if I do not have to. I also think that people overestimate how much of a sure thing Nedeljkovic is. To be clear, he has done exactly everything that one would hope from his development up until this point and is exactly on the right path toward being an NHL starter. That said, the probability of a great Canadian juniors goalie turning into a great NHL goalie is probably still 50 percent at best. Cam Ward’s expiring contract in 2 years (or it could have been Johnson or someone less expensive if Francis new he was going to add Andersen as a #1) leaves a goalie slot for Nedeljkovic right on schedule. Nedeljkovic would still be on the last year of his entry-level deal that year making it at least financially viable to carry both Nedeljkovic and an expensive starter for his first year. If Andersen took a 4-year deal, that would leave only 1 year that could be really problematic. If Andersen is playing well, he could easily be traded. If not, that last year would be tough financially but only 1 year.
My informal survey from conversations that I have had says that I am probably in the significant minority on being willing to take the Frederik Andersen deal even amended down to 4 years, but I just am not willing to risk missing the playoffs in 2016-17 and possibly beyond because of an unwillingness to at least try to address an identified weakness because help is on the way likely in 2-3 years.
It might surprise some, that of all of the activity this summer there really is only a handful of deals that I would take. One of those (Campbell) was clearly not available. Two of those are an either/or to go a different direction in net. And the last (Nash) is fourth-line tinkering that is not likely to be the difference between playoffs or not anyway.
If no one votes strongly against the Andersen deal in the comments, I will be disappointed. I am 60/40 on this one and completely get the merits of the other side of the argument.