Unless the Hurricanes go on a huge winning streak in December, the team will enter 2016 as sellers leading up to the trade deadline. And with the veteran version of the team struggling and the rookies looking okay, there is a decent chance that this process could move into December. I have to imagine Ron Francis is already both fielding and making calls.
The most likely candidates to move are players who are in the last year of their contract and scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this summer. These players could be gone this summer anyway and make good short-term ‘rentals’ for teams trying to make or advance deep in the playoffs.
The list of Hurricanes on the last year of their contract and scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this summer includes Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Kris Versteeg, John-Michael-Liles, Nathan Gerbe, Brad Malone and Riley Nash.
If I handicap who might leave first, I think it is like this:
Eric Staal. I would have guesstimated the chance of Eric Staal re-signing either before or during the season at 70 percent if you asked me this summer. Right now, I would put it at 40 percent. The team’s struggles have not helped. I also think the potential for him to leave via trade and return next summer is there. It is the best thing for the team. It is the best thing for him. And it is the best for both if he returns. This said, if moved I think it is more likely to be later rather than sooner simply because of the financials. A few of the teams who could really use him (Rangers, Canadiens, Wild, ???) have salary cap challenges, so there are likely to be more bidders with more flexibility as more $ click off his current year contract. Staal’s no-trade clause is also an obstacle that most be overcome.
Kris Versteeg. As a versatile scoring forward with plenty of playoff/Cup experience and only a $2.3 million cost, he should garner significant interest from playoff-bound teams looking for scoring depth. Because of his modest salary cap hit, he could be in play sooner rather than later, but with the Canes lack of depth at forward, I think there is also an outside chance that he could be re-signed instead if he wants to stay.
Nathan Gerbe. He could be a useful depth addition for a playoff team, but with him being out injured until early January, he will not be tradeable until he returns. In addition, as a depth forward, he is more likely to be deadline type deal in late February.
Brad Malone. As well as he is playing right now, he is still a fourth-line physical/energy player. The demand for those is modest, so my best guess is that he finishes the season with the Hurricanes.
Riley Nash. He is another depth forward and is not doing much offensively so far in the 2015-16 season. This has him only as a possible depth forward likely to finish the season with the Hurricanes or be traded late for modest a modest return at the trade deadline.
Cam Ward. His $6.8 million cap hit is daunting especially for a goalie who seems to be average at best right now. Might someone like his playoff success/pedigree? Sure. But can they fit even half of his salary ($3.4 million) if the Canes are willing to eat half of his contract? As much as it makes sense to move Ward, I just do not see it happening. There will be other goalie options who are both cheaper and arguably better anyway.
John-Michael Liles. He has had a pretty solid 2015-16 season so far holding down a top 4 role, being at least adequate in it and doing so with young D partners. As a veteran defenseman who is playing well, I think he will garner interest and be traded at some point, not because he is not playing well but because he is playing well. The challenge that his cap hit is $3.9 million which makes it a bit more challenging to fit him into the equation for many teams.
Despite being signed through 2016-17, I think Ron Hainsey is another player who come into play. His $2.8 million cap hit is reasonable for a top 4 defenseman, and he brings the same veteran experience as Liles.
I have been watching to see if coach Bill Peters starts tinkering on the left side of the defense which would be a logical precursor to trading either Hainsey or Liles. Past Hainsey and Liles, only Noah Hanifin is a long-timer on the left side of the Canes defense. Justin Faulk, Pesce and Ryan Murphy are right shots who have been playing on the right side, and Jaccob Slavin who is actually a left shot has been playing on the right side both in Charlotte and with the Hurricanes in Raleigh. Michal Jordan is a left shot and has looked better on his natural side, so he could reenter the mix., but iff the Canes were considering a trade of Liles or Hainsey, I would expect to see 1 of the players mostly playing on the right side to move across first or perhaps Trevor Carrick (left shot in Charlotte) gets a look.
If I had to guess…
I think the first player to go will be 1 of the 2 veteran defensemen simply because I think there are a few teams that need blue line help. The question is whether and how soon Francis would be willing to go even younger on defense.
After that, I think there is a good chance that both Kris Versteeg and Eric Staal will be traded, but I think both of those (especially Eric Staal because of the $) are more likely to be closer to the late February trade deadline.
I think Cam Ward is immovable because of his contract.
I think Francis will consider offers for the depth forwards, but the market for those players can be hit or miss.