Ron Francis’ consistent motto since he became general manager in the summer of 2014 has been all about patience and building a consistent winner by developing a deeper system. I like the plan, and by no means am I suggesting that the Canes just abandon ship and trade a bunch of futures for short-term fixes.
That said, I think the time is now for Ron Francis to act aggressively to speed up the development process and build a team for the playoffs. I say this for 2 reasons that are quite different:
1-The fan base and organization need it. Winning is the simplest and most direct way to boost attendance, and it would do wonders for the core of the fan base that has been living a ‘wait ’til next year’/’have patience’ existence for the entirety of this decade.
2-Aside from what the team needs, I also think it makes a ton of sense given the development and financial situation with the team right now.
More details on #2 are the focus of this post. Consider that:
Some budget should be available
This summer the Canes rid themselves of a whopping $27 million of contracts (EStaal $9.5M; Ward $6.8M; Harrison/Ruutu retainers $1.4M; Liles $2.8M; Gerbe $2.0M; Versteeg $2.3M;Nash $1.2M; Malone $0.7M; Terry $0.9M; Jordan $0.6M). Approximately $5M is immediately respent on existing contracts and also re-signing restricted free agents Nordstrom and Rask, but the Canes should still enter the summer at roughly $22 million less salary than the start of the 2015-16.
With revenue down, I do not expect GM Ron Francis to get the full $22 million to redeploy on new players. A wild guess is that he will get to spend roughly half of it to replace/add players. So my rough math says that Ron Francis could enter the summer with $10-14M of dry powder.
There is work to do at forward
My math says that the Canes could enter the summer with only 8-9 sure things at forward (JStaal, Nestrasil, Nordstrom, Skinner, Rask, Lindholm, McClement, Di Giuseppe and possibly 1 more (Nash front runner) from veterans who could be re-signed). That leaves 3 forward slots. If the Canes had a solid top 9, I think you could make a strong case for going with youth and or just signing veteran depth forwards. But the holes are left by top 6 forwards Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg. And I am also on record as not liking the idea of just promoting everyone up a line and adding lower top 9 forwards or trusting unproven youth to fill out the roster. It is not a recipe to building a deeper team with more options to score. So by my line of thinking the Canes really need to add 2, if not 3, forwards who can play in the top 9 and ideally have a potential to do even more.
Canes have financial advantage for next couple years
The Canes suddenly have an interesting situation financially for the next couple years. With Jaccob Slavin, Noah Hanifin and Brett Pesce rising up so rapidly and all completing the first year of their entry-level contract this season, the Canes have the benefit of filling 3 of 6 blue line roster spots with pretty good players who are making less than $1 million per season. When you toss in Hainsey’s modest $2.5 million salary and Wisniewski’s $3 million salary for 2016-17, the Canes are way under any reasonable budget for building out a good blue line. It is important not to sign too many long-term deals that stretch past when the trio of young defensemen will need to be re-signed for significantly more money, but for the next 2 years if Ron Francis can smartly deploy some of this money to build depth at forward and goalie there is an opportunity to use the inexpensive blue line to help fund a faster development program at forward.
What to spend the money on
First, I am not suggesting that the team abandon the original plan and trade a ton of futures to band aid the current lineup. But I think the time is now for Ron Francis to try to add some young forwards who are past the prospect stage but still young enough to become a part of the team for for a long time. I am on record since the end of 2015 that the timing might be good to try to leverage the wealth of defenseman prospects to balance things out at forward.
The risk of waiting
With an expansion draft looming and the challenges of fitting more than 3 top defenseman in a less-than-salary-cap budget, the opportunity right now could actually be better than it is in 2 years. If a second expansion draft hits in the summer of 2018, the Canes might lose 1 of Faulk, Slavin, Hanifin and Pesce. And with the other 3 on second or later contracts, there might actually be less money available to spend at forward.
The basic plan of patience and building out a deeper prospect pool and system is a good 1, but there is also the need to be opportunistic and pull a few levers to capitalize on circumstances. The circumstances for this summer could actually be favorable for leaning forward a bit and going for it sooner rather than later.