To upgrade or not
Earlier this week, I identified a couple potential areas for upgrades to the current roster. You can find that article HERE.
As a starting point, I do not view upgrading the current roster as a necessity. The Canes currently sit atop the entire NHL which says a lot about the quality of the roster as currently constructed. But other teams are good too, and no doubt some of them will go all in to make upgrades or even just add depth for the long NHL postseason. So in terms of at least exploring options, I identified adding a higher-end scoring wing, ideally a power forward, or adding a steady, right shot #4 defenseman to pair with Jaccob Slavin.
Per yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe, I view the Hurricanes as being within a three-year window (this year plus the next two) with at least the key components of the current roster before new contracts and the salary cap challenges that come with them make it hard to keep everyone. You can find that article HERE.
So it would make sense that the Hurricanes will at least explore all options to improve upon a good team heading into the 2022 NHL Playoffs.
The salary cap limit and options to increase it
Front and center in trying to do that is making the salary cap math work. In years past, the Hurricanes were always well under the salary cap ceiling, so adding players was just a matter of being willing to give up prospects and/or draft picks and take on salary. That is no longer the case. With the addition of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the Hurricanes mostly spent to the cap. The long-term injured reserve adjustment for Jake Gardiner gives the Hurricanes a mere $1.8 million of salary that they can take on at the trade deadline to still be legal salary cap-wise.
That budget presents three options:
1) The $1.8 million available could be enough to add a depth type player without any additional salary cap gymnastics.
2) That same $1.8 million could yield a player in the $3.5 – $5 million range if the Hurricanes can convince a trade partner to keep the maximum half of the salary cap hit and take a $1 million-ish depth player back as part of the deal.
3) Or the Hurricanes can take on significantly more salary if the team makes more of a hockey trade that gives up a player or two with a significant salary cap hit.
While the second option has the potential to yield a higher-end player without giving up anyone from the current roster, the options to pull this off would be limited. First, the team would need to find a trade partner who had salary cap available to do this. Second, the Canes would have to pay some kind of premium in terms of futures for the salary cap relief gained. Though it would require identifying and capitalizing on a limited number of unique situations, finding a way to add a $4 million-ish top 6-capable power forward or a right shot bona fide #4 defenseman to add to the mix could be the biggest roster gain possible.
The third option would have a bigger menu of options, but the question is which player(s) might the Canes consider trading. One player who jumps out is Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He has been trending upward, and his nearly 20-goal and 40-point pace over 82 games represents decent depth scoring. But in a salary cap world $6.1 million is a lot to allocate to a bottom half of the roster forward who provides depth scoring. Kotkaniemi was originally acquired with hopes that he could shift to wing and provide another goal scorer on one of the top two lines. But with that not panning out initially and with Jordan Staal’s line configured as it is now, Kotkaniemi is essentially a great fourth line center with a salary four times what would ideally be allocated to that slot. So that prompts two questions. First, are the Hurricanes confident enough in the scoring depth/balance that is has currently such that they can live with Kotkaniemi slotted on the fourth line and maybe waiting in the wings for an injury or line shuffling to open up a higher slot? Second, even if the Hurricanes’ management is not thrilled with how the Kotkaniemi addition has worked out, would they be willing to swallow their pride and trade him to cut salary and try again to add a higher-end scoring wing?
Other options to cut salary at forward could include Vincent Trocheck or Nino Niederreiter. I would be quite surprised to see the Hurricanes part ways with Vincent Trocheck. With Jordan Staal and his line sputtering offensively, trading Trocheck would drop the Hurricanes to one true scoring line and/or place a huge bet on Kotkaniemi being able to step into that role. I think the risk/reward on that leans too heavy on risk. Niederreiter is the other forward who could free up significant salary to add a forward. Though I do think the Hurricanes would consider including Niederreiter, I think this is less likely because it subtracts a bigger wing who at least theoretically could slot on one of the top 2 scoring lines.
If the Hurricanes are willing to run with what they have at forward, the other possible area for an upgrade could be a proven, steady right shot #4 defenseman to slot next to Slavin. Here again, the Hurricanes tried to address this slot in the off-season, saw that not pan out maybe as hoped but are generally doing okay anyway. Ethan Bear figured initially to be the #4 defenseman next to Slavin and started the season in that slot. But fast forward to today and Bear has been a healthy scratch of late with Brendan Smith stepping onto the blue line at a time when the team has been winning. And Tony DeAngelo has proven to be better than advertised defensively and at least right now has been capable next to Slavin. I am on record as thinking that the Canes are a better team if it can push DeAngelo down to the #5 slot where Slavin’s pairing maybe upgrades a bit defensively and DeAngelo can more so be matched against other teams’ lesser groups and play to his strength generating offense versus focusing on shutting down top NHL scoring lines. So again if the Hurricanes management can stomach cutting ties with a move from the summer, including Ethan Bear in a package to add a higher-end defenseman would stretch the possible salary available to $4.1 million without the trade partner retaining salary and something north of $5 million if the trade partner retained some salary. At least in terms of salary cap, that brings a player like John Klingberg into range.
What say you Canes fans?
1) In trying to keep up with the Joneses (Tampa Bay, Toronto, Florida, Boston, etc.) at the trade deadline, to what degree should the Canes be in aggressive ‘win now’ mode in terms of adding a higher-end player or two?
2) In terms of freeing up salary cap past the $1.8 million already available, which, if any, roster players with significant salaries would you consider trading to make a bigger deal?
3) It is very early, but who would you target and/or what deal would you try to do?