With the Hurricanes sputtering a bit in the here and now, I wanted to use today’s Daily Cup of Joe to look into the future and wrestle with a generally favorable situation but also a situation that Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis must sort out.
Looking back to training camp before the 2015-16 season
Entering training camp last season, the blue line was deemed to be a future strength of the Carolina Hurricanes. The number of young players who were tracking toward filling some kind of role at the NHL level was high. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were just transitioning from college and on a good path but probably thought to be 1-3 years away from being NHL-ready. Ryan Murphy had yet to put it all together at the NHL level but had experience under his belt and potential. Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury were the next class. They showed improvement at training camp and were roughly in the same group with Slavin and Pesce despite being younger. And then there were the 2 marquee players in Justin Faulk who was only 23 years old but already established as a top 4 NHL player and Noah Hanifin who was the Hurricanes’ prize from the just-completed 2015 NHL draft.
The key question at the time was how exactly Ron Francis would build a bridge to that future that looked to be a couple years away.
The Hurricanes blue line today
When you fast forward to today, the timeline has pulled in significantly. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce both hopped into regular NHL roles way ahead of schedule last season, finished the season looking decent in top 4 roles and have since become a top pairing for the Hurricanes. In any discussion of Slavin and Pesce, I think it is important to note that they still have work to do to be a top-end top pairing, but they have both clearly proven capable of learning on the job without dragging the team down. In the second pairing, Justin Faulk is actually having a tough time of it defensively in my opinion this season, and at 35 years old, Ron Hainsey’s role will need to decrease if he stays. Noah Hanifin’s potential and natural ability are still intact as he turns 20 years old on Wednesday, but his development is still very much a work in progress. Murphy has had a lackluster 2016-17 season at the NHL level and might finally be on the way out, but the stable of players projected to one day play in the NHL added Jake Bean with the 13th pick in the 2016 draft. In addition to that, both Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown showed significant progress in training camp the point where both were in the hunt for the final opening day roster spot. McKeown actually won the slot before Francis decided to go a different direction and bring in short-term help such that McKeown could develop at the AHL level.
When you add it up, I think it is like this:
In terms of proven NHL top 4 defensemen for the here and now, the Hurricanes currently claim only 3 – Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce.
In terms of hopeful top 4/5 defensemen hopefully fairly soon, the Hurricanes can add Noah Hanifin, Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury for potentially very soon and also Jake Bean farther out.
Building a bridge
The challenge for Ron Francis is building a flexible bridge that allows the team to be competitive now, fills a gap for an indeterminate 1-3 years and can be fairly easily undone or adjusted once the kids are ready.
Ideally Francis needs to have his cake and eat it too. He needs a player capable of playing in the top 4, probably next to Faulk, at a competitive level that makes playoffs possible. At the same time, he needs to have top 4 ice time at the ready when 1 of the younger players is ready to step up and take it. Though that is pretty much what happened and was successful with Slavin and Pesce last season, I am not a fan of throwing young players into top 4 roles without a plan B that allows them to slide back into a lesser role either temporarily or long-term if it is best for their development.
Ideal would be to have a veteran who is a reasonably priced #5ish defenseman ($2-2.5 million/year) but can be serviceable in a #4 role. In addition, ideally such a player would have a short term on his contract such that when the kids are ready he can move out to make room. In 2015-16, both John-Michael Liles hand Ron Hainsey fit the bill. Liles had a solid season as a serviceable top 4 defenseman and made an underappreciated contribution to the Hurricanes future with his incredible role as Brett Pesce’s defense partner. Hainsey filled a similar role last season and is doing so again playing next to Justin Faulk.
But the issue is that I fear Hainsey might finally be 1 notch too high in the lineup and possibly playing a few minutes too many in terms of ice time. Based on what I have seen so far this season including Hainsey/Faulk’s struggles at times especially on the road, I would not view Hainsey as a viable top 4 defenseman heading into the 2017-18 season. Important to note is that I do think it is possible and reasonable to bring Hainsey back but it would need to be for a bottom pairing/#7 defenseman role with a salary to match that role.
Options to start the 2017-18 season
If one agrees with my assertion on Hainsey, then right now the Hurricanes are short a top 4 defenseman for the 2017-18 season. Again, while it is completely possible that Noah Hanifin rises up or 1 of Haydn Fleury or Roland McKeown makes a fast jump like Pesce and Slavin, building an opening day roster for the 2017-18 season that just assumes this is risky.
And if (and I am hoping not) the current slide continues and the Hurricanes find themselves out of the playoff hunt come mid-March, Francis would have the ability to see the next wave of young defensemen in different roles to get a better gauge of readiness for next season.
But barring the opportunity to assess the situation with some open try outs in March, I think Francis has 2 options.
One option would be to consider adding a veteran #5 with a list of requirements including a below market price salary, short contract term and experience. The idea is to use another veteran to bridge the gap. But with the specific terms across experience, contract $ and contract term, that could be really tough to find.
Another option would be to go into training camp with a true try out that sees whatever inexpensive veterans Francis keeps (from Hainsey, Dahlbeck and Tennyson) plus whatever he might add for cheap and the kids battle for the #4 through #6 slots. If things go well, another Pesce or Slavin story could emerge. If no one emerges on the fast track schedule, the 2017-18 season could very quickly become yet another rebuilding year because of a hole in the top 4 on the blue line.
Right now I am leaning toward…
How the rest of the 2016-17 season plays out could significantly impact this situation, but as of right now my thought is that the Hurricanes need to add a player like Ron Hainsey from 2-3 years ago for a price that is not outlandish if he falls to the third pairing. The price can be a little bit high if the contract has only a 1-year term because it will be offset by the fact that all of the other young defensemen except Faulk are still on entry-level contracts for the 2017-18 season. In addition, a 1-year term would mitigate any price risk.
If the 2016-17 season was not in play, my starting point for figuring this all out would be to give Noah Hanifin a run of at least 6 games (so basically a full 2 weeks) in the top 4 next to Justin Faulk. Based on what I have seen from him playing in the bottom pairing, my gut tells me that Hanifin is not ready yet. But he clearly has the physical capability in terms of size and skating ability, so I think it is entirely possible that if pushed to do more and face a bigger challenge that he might simply just rise up and prove ready (not that much unlike Slavin and Pesce).
When I start digging through other teams’ rosters and salaries to write about the trade deadline, my hope is to also revisit this topic and identify any options for veteran stopgaps to fill out the top 4 on defense short-term.