Coming off a disappointing 2014-15 season that saw the Carolina Hurricanes finish fifth from the very bottom of the NHL and exit the playoff chase about the time the calendar flipped to 2015 if not sooner, the team obviously needed to improve if it wanted to be more competitive and stay alive longer in the 2015-16 season. Canes GM Ron Francis did make some moves to improve over the summer, but in his defense, his budget was light and his focus farther out than 2015-16 season. After losing Andrej Sekera, Jiri Tlusty and Tim Gleason at the trade deadline and buying out Alexander Semin during the summer, Francis made arguably his biggest move for the 2015-16 when he added James Wisniewski in exchange for Anton Khudobin. I liked the move at the time, but any chance to see what Wisniewski could do for the Canes lineup was squashed real early when he tore his ACL on his first shift. To replace Khudobin, Francis added Eddie Lack. Lack had the potential to boost the team if he could seize the starting role and play like he did in leading Vancouver into the playoffs last season. While Lack did eventually get his feet under him and has been better of late, Ward was the starter early and at least a 50/50 participant recently, and Lack has yet to become a difference maker for the Canes.
Kris Versteeg as the centerpiece…with Chicago more of less paying the Canes to take him
But among Francis’ limited activity during the summer was 1 trade that has had a huge impact on the 2015-16 season. We obviously do not yet know how it will ultimately turn out, but I do not think it is too early to call it a success relative to 2014-15 with the team playing much deeper into the season still in the Eastern Conference pack and doing so with a younger lineup. At the time it happened, the trade for Kris Versteeg received good reviews for simple reasons. First, the Canes desperately needed at least 1 more offensively-capable veteran forward. Versteeg fit the bill. Second and equally importantly, the Canes actually got paid futures instead of paying futures to get the deal done. With the Blackhawks running out of time and needing to clear cap space to sign Marcus Kruger, Francis managed to add Versteeg and be compensated to do so. The Canes gave up 2015 seventh-rounder Jake Massie, a fifth round pick and an older defense prospect (Dennis Robertson) who really did not have a spot with the Canes received a higher third round pick in return. I would argue that the third round pick is at slightly more valuable than the modest collection of futures that the Canes gave up.
Joakim Nordstrom as the ho-hum addition
But it gets better. In addition to adding an offensive forward that the Canes needed and paying nothing to do so, the Canes also picked up Joakim Nordstrom. At the time of the trade, he was an after thought and not an exciting part of the deal. He was basically a fourth-liner who actually did not have a fourth line slot on a deep Blackhawks team which is what made him available. He had a reputation for being solid defensively but probably being too limited offensively to play on a higher line. And coming to the Canes, he figured to compete for 1 of the last 1-2 roster spots or possibly end up in Charlotte.
Both filling vital roles in the top 6 at forward
When you fast forward to the Canes and their success over the past 6-7 weeks, both Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom have played huge roles.
While Kris Versteeg might have been a depth/third-liner on the Blackhawks, he has been a serviceable first line forward on the Canes and also a regular part of the power play. He leads the team in assists with 20 and is on pace for a respectable 50ish points.
Joakim Nordstrom has also played a vital role being one third of Jordan Staal’s line that has been arguably the Canes best line night in and night out during the run of winning hockey. Nordstrom’s scoring pace is modest, but on a Canes team light on top-end forward talent, he has been good enough to play on a second line that has been incredibly good defensively playing against other teams’ best lines as much as possible and chipping in some offensively. Another positive with Nordstrom is his contract situation. Whereas Versteeg is an unrestricted free agent this summer and could be a short-timer, Nordstrom will come off his $600,000 contract as a restricted free agent. With his scoring totals, the Canes will surely make the modest qualifying offer and be able to make him a more permanent part of the team for a reasonable price.
When you look at the 2015-16 Carolina Hurricanes through 47 games and consider how much better the team has fared relative to the 2014-15 season thus far, that single trade has driven a significant amount of the team’s improvement in the standings. I think the only other thing that rivals that trade in significance is the ahead-of-schedule development of the kids on D.