On Monday night on Twitter, I had a short exchange on the possibility of signing free agent Jiri Hudler. Jiri Hudler along with the situations of Kris Versteeg (signed to play in Switzerland) and Radim Vrbata (signed 1-year, $1 million deal to play in Arizona) are part of this year’s crop of decent free agent forwards who lost the game of musical chairs and became $1 million options in the process.
Couple pretty good veteran options on the cheap
There are increasingly some pretty good players available for virtually no-risk contracts for $1 million for 1 year. Hurricanes summer signee was exactly 1 of these players last year when he converted a player try out contract into a 1-year $800,000 contract and then proceeded to put up 53 points. Only 2 seasons ago, Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata combined for a whopping 139 points. Certainly their primes are behind them, but for their going rates this summer, both seem like reasonable buy low options for depth scoring.
Ron Francis’ choices thus far
Thus far, Ron Francis has shown a bias toward spending depth player ice time on youth from within the Hurricanes system. Last summer, he acted early and committed to Chris Terry and Michal Jordan for 2 depth roles and mostly went with what he had otherwise. We will not know for sure until it is all said and done, but my best guess is that Francis will go that route again this summer unless he pulls off another late trade.
Rationale for this approach
There are a couple advantages to going this route. First, it sets a precedent that there is ice time to be earned by playing your way up through the Hurricanes system. That drives motivation at the lower level and matches how things should ideally work throughout the entire organization. Second, this approach allocates ice time to young players at the NHL level. The only way they can get better at the NHL level is to play there. And the only way for Ron Francis and Bill Peters to figure out who makes the grade is by giving them a chance. If slots are always completely full of veterans, the rookies by default do not perform at the NHL level because there is not enough room to play them there.
The case for Hudler and similar players
At the same time, I think there is a strong case for taking advantage of the plummeting prices for the late summer free agent leftovers. First, at the price for which they are being signed, it is pretty easy to just slot them at #13 or #14 if the rookies rise up or even trade them if they fall too far on the depth chart. Even the worst case scenario of having such a player as a healthy scratch or jettisoned to the AHL is bearable. For 1 year at about $1 million, the cost is nothing close to catastrophic. In the new NHL where you do not need to allocate 1-2 fourth line slots for enforcers, I think the way to go is to build a fourth line that is just as capable as the third line if possible for a fourth line cost. Having veteran skill at the bottom of the roster also helps skill/scoring type young players be able to step into a good situation where they can play with other scoring-capable players. The result is a deeper team with more scoring options and depth and also a better roster situation for rookies without having to bump them up into the top 6.
The key is avoiding dead weight
Critical to this approach is keeping the roster free of underperforming players who need to be buried on a fourth line. As noted above, today’s NHL does not require teams to keep limited role/minutes players on the fourth line as policemen, but it is still common to have limited role/minute players still buried there because of bad contracts. I am on record as preferring Riley Nash over Jay McClement as a fourth-line center, and I think McClement is limited in terms of what kind of line can be built around him. McClement is a prototypical old NHL fourth-line center and does kill penalties, but I would much rather have someone who can skate centering 2 good veteran players who might score some.
What say you Canes fans?