In this recent post, I wrote about the ongoing try out that would happen over the remainder of the 2015-16 to help Canes GM Ron Francis assess what he had heading into the summer and what he needed to add to build a roster for the 2016-17 season.
The blue line
The picture f0r 2016-17 is fairly clear and reasonably set on the blue line in terms of who with only some work to do sorting out pairings. Justin Faulk, Ron Hainsey, James Wisniewski, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin are under contract for the 2016-17. That makes 6 who would figure to be the opening game starting lineup if healthy. Ryan Murphy is also a restricted free agent and Haydn Fleury moves up and enters the potential mix this summer. Michal Jordan is an unrestricted free agent who has been a serviceable third pairing defenseman of late and Trevor Carrick is the highest rated AHL defenseman who has yet to get a look at the NHL level.
When you net it out on the blue line, the group is mostly set and there is even young depth below that. Francis could go shopping for a veteran depth defenseman to fill a #7 slot at the NHL level, but he could just as easily go with what he has and be fine.
Ron Francis will need to add a goalie to go with Eddie Lack who is already under contract for next season. I think Francis’ choice for his second goalie will prove to be the most important move that he makes this summer. It is an important project, but also a fairly straightforward 1. Francis needs to add a second goalie capable of being a starter.
But that is where things get murkier. Assuming none of these players are traded, my math counts 7 sure thing 2016-17 forwards in Jordan Staal, Joakim Nordstrom, Andrej Nestrasil, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm and Jay McClement. That makes 7 out of 13 needed to ice a team and have 1 extra.
In the post noted above, I had a big list of Nathan Gerbe, Chris Terry, Riley Nash and Brad Malone (all have expiring contracts) as veterans on try out right now. Added to the mix are Phil Di Giuseppe who is already under contract and will definitely be with the team at the NHL or AHL level and any AHL call ups. That list has so far included Brock McGinn, Derek Ryan and Brendan Woods and could grow.
From the list, I think Phil Di Giuseppe (who was already a front runner because of his play during the 2015-16 season in a top 9 forward role and his offensive ability) and Riley Nash are the 2 in the process of cementing slots for the 2016-17 season.
Phil Di Giuseppe
He is the 1 (and only in my opinion) who entered the March try out as a player expected to play his way into lineup for 2016-17. As a player already under contract and on a 2-way deal, there is at least the possibility that he plays his way back down to Charlotte based on his play and additions that Francis makes this summer. But on a team that needs 5-6 NHL forwards and does not have much ready in the prospect pool, Di Giuseppe seems to be as much of a lock as possible because of circumstances.
But more significant than backing his way into a spot because of situation, he continues to impress and dig his feet in at the NHL level. I wrote recently about how he is the best complement on the roster for Jeff Skinner because of his ability to match Skinner’s pace and the fact that he brings enough skill to score. Since the trade deadline, he has 2 goals and 3 assists in 5 games playing Robin to Jeff Skinner’s Batman. His 15 scoring points in 35 games represents a modest 35-point scoring pace over an 82-game season, but given his modest ice time, minimal power play time (until recently) and potential upside as a skilled player only 22 years old and 35 games into his NHL career, it is reasonable to think that there is upside from there.
The other side of the coin with Di Giuseppe is that he has proven to be much more solid on the defensive side of the puck than I originally expected for a player touted more as ‘skill and scoring’ than ‘ 2-way.’ With his decent skating ability, consistency finishing checks and 2-way play, he is not necessarily out of place playing on more of a checking line if that is where he falls in the depth chart after the Canes add players next summer.
Whereas I would have said that Di Giuseppe was a front runner and nearly a sure thing going forward because of his age, upside and contract status, I would not necessarily have said that about Riley Nash. As a 26-year old depth player whose contract expires at the end of the season, he is very much in the group of other veteran depth forwards who might/might not be part of the future.
I think his development over the past couple years and his play over the past 6-8 weeks have greatly increased the probability that Riley Nash is re-signed. I also think that he could be the only 1 from the group of veterans that also includes Chris Terry, Nathan Gerbe and Brad Malone.
The reason is twofold. First is how versatile he has become. If you peel back the top level that sees him as a run of the mill depth NHL player and track through his development over the past couple years it really is a great story for role players continuing to refine their game even as a mid-20s NHLer. When Riley Nash first made it to the NHL, his skill set and list of potential roles was pretty limited. He was a good-skating, decent 2-way center with potential offensive upside. He would have slotted as a decent young fourth line center or possibly a third-liner who was light on offense in a pinch. But he was soooooo limited. He was not a rugged enforcer type that you sometimes want from a fourth-liner. He was significantly below average in the face-off circle such that you really could not trust him with defensive zone draws in key situations. He was not part of the penalty kill or power play. When you net it out, he was an incredibly vanilla serviceable third/fourth-liner who did not really do much beyond fill up a few even strength minutes as long as you were careful about what situation he was used in.
If you fast forward to today, Riley Nash is the complete opposite as a versatile depth forward who can do all kinds of things. He is still a natural center but has proven serviceable in a right wing slot if necessary. His face-off acumen has improved dramatically such that he is now a decent option as a right shot even for important defensive zone draws. He had a solid stint as a penalty killer on an effective penalty-killing unit. And more recently, he has stepped into and played very well as a forward playing the point on the Canes power play.
In a nutshell, Riley Nash has become exactly what you want in a #11-#13 depth forward with his ability to step into a large number of roles. When you look at his offensive production and consider him in a fourth-line role (that is important), it gets even better. He is playing at a 27-point pace (over 82 games) which is good secondary scoring from a fourth-liner and even more impressive is the 2 goals and 3 assists that he has on the power play since Justin Faulk’s injury.
The challenge with Nash is understanding where he slots on a good hockey team and adding enough players above him to mostly keep him there. At a contract similar to his current 1 (earning $1.15 million this season), I think Nash is a valuable depth player. If the team is healthy and players are doing well, he could slot on the right wing on the fourth line and present another option for both special teams. In the event that he is hot or there is an injury, he has the potential to fill in on a higher slot in a pretty versatile while.
If I had to bet on only 1 unrestricted free agent forward re-signing, I would put all of my chips on Riley Nash because of his strong play in a bigger audition recently and the significant versatility that he has developed over the past couple years.
Looking forward to 2016-17
It is jumping the gun a little bit, but if I was building forward lines for next season based on what the team has right now, the way that I think about it is like this:
Ideally, I think what Francis should do is try to add 3 forwards who are all capable of playing in the top 6 and then let a try out decide who plays where and make that continue through the season. The days of drafting a player and then anointing players with NHL roster spots needs to end. Let the young players come and win a spot. So for my lines above, 1 would expect that Di Giuseppe would push really hard for that third line slot that Lindholm is in. He has actually been better in that slot in 2015-16 and could win it. That could push Lindholm up to the top line if he plays well and finds chemistry with whoever else ends up there. But if the Canes add 3 NHL-capable forwards next summer, then Lindholm needs to be ready to push really hard to make sure he gets the slot next to McClement. And I would expect Nash to play hard to earn 1 of the slots next to McClement and push someone else to #13. The team is probably a couple years away from having a true version of this ‘everyone tries out’ approach to lineup-building like happens in Detroit, but I think we could get finally get the ‘lite’ version of it next fall.
Regardless, I think Phil Di Giuseppe and Riley Nash are the 2 depth forwards doing the most right now to make sure they are part of that fray next September.