On Friday July 1, the NHL market for free agents officially opens. Per rules implemented a few years ago, teams and free agent players have had the ability to talk since last weekend, but Friday marks the big day that deals start happening.
In case you missed them, here are a couple posts from today also leading into tomorrow’s free agent frenzy:
Then a surprise buy out of James Wisniewski which I wrote about HERE forced me to start rewriting this and part 2 of my draft preview.
Part 2 which identifies options and prioritizes targets will follow either late tonight or tomorrow morning.
The current roster situation
Hurricanes GM Ron Francis has already made a couple moves, but the team still enters this next period of the NHL summer still with a couple needs to build out the 2016-17 roster.
Goalie: With Cam Ward re-signed for 2 years, the team is set in terms of having 2 goalies, but there is still a possibility that Francis looks to make an upgrade this summer. Unless Francis can simultaneously pull off a signing and a trade, free agency seems like an unlikely path to upgrading in net because signing a player would push the roster to 3 players.
Defense: My original draft of this late Wednesday night said that the Hurricanes were reasonably set on defense. Counting Ryan Murphy who is a restricted free agent, the Canes had 7 experienced NHL defenseman and a top 6 that was pretty locked in. That all changed when late Wednesday afternoon that the Hurricanes had bought out James Wisniewski. I posted my quick thoughts on that move HERE.
In terms of getting back to 7 defenseman, the Canes have seasoned AHLer Trevor Carrick and a couple promising kids moving up from Canadian juniors in Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown. There is also an outside chance that this could pull Michal Jordan back into the mix even though he was not qualified earlier this week and became an unrestricted free agent because of it.
But most likely, I think this makes it even more likely that Francis adds a veteran depth defenseman. If done correctly, the move could kill 2 birds with 1 stone. First, as relates to the 2016-17 roster, it would provide an experienced #7 to round out the roster. Second and importantly, if the right kind of player is added in terms of recent NHL experience, he could serve as a necessary shield for the expansion draft next summer to prevent the Canes from having to expose a good young forward. I wrote about this expansion draft-created need to add an inexpensive, veteran blue-liner who played a bunch (70+ games) last season. While this is something that could be addressed later, it could make sense to take care of both things in 1 signing now. If Francis does do work on the blue line (which might not be necessary at all), it is likely to be inexpensive depth and could be delayed until after a deal creates another slot.
Forward: This is where there is clearly work still to be completed. Ron Francis has said publicly that he would still like to add a top 6 forward. I am on record from very early in the offseason as liking Ryan Nugent-Hopkins because more specifically than a top 6 forward, I think the best fit is a playmaking center. My rationale is that such a player could bring 50-60 points but equally importantly help boost 2 young wings (and Canes have multiple with ‘boostability’) by 10-15 points in the process creating another scoring line out of thin air. I wrote about this generally without going full Ryan Nugent-Hopkins man crush all the way back on May 12 which was before the Canes added Teuvo Teravainen who is yet another promising young forward who could use some help reaching his scoring potential. It is important to note that playmaking is not exclusive to the center position. Via Cory Stillman and then Ray Whitney, the Canes had a run of many years that saw Eric Staal primarily as a scorer with a bit more of a pass-first player on his left side. It will be interesting to see what direction Ron Francis goes with this important addition.
Counting Sebastian Aho and Victor Rask who is a restricted free agent who is nearly certain to be re-signed before the summer is up and a top 6 forward, the Canes would be at 12 forwards without a ton of likely depth options at the AHL level. My best guess is that Francis will also shop the inexpensive options ($1.2 million per year or less) to add a 13th forward. I continue to think that Riley Nash and the versatility that he brings is a good fit, but regular unrestricted free agents, unqualified restricted free agents and a few buy outs create sizable pool of players for Francis and his scouting staff to sift through. While there is some risk of not getting the best player available by waiting for a #12/#13 depth role it is not as if there will not be other options.
I also think that Ron Francis’ is in a good position to add 1-2 AHL/NHL fringe forwards on 2-way contracts to provide depth down to the #14/#15 slot. In my post about the Canes decisions on restricted free agents earlier this week, I noted that he seemed to go light on forward offers and leave room to add 1-2 from outside the organization.
Compiling the shopping list
When I net out a shopping list, rank it for importance and assess it for probability of seeing action soon, it goes like this:
1) Top 6 forward. It seems unlikely that Francis will step forward and win a big bidding war for a ton of term and a ton of dollars on day 1 of free agency, but this caliber of player is not usually what is left when August rolls around.
2) An upgrade in net. This may or may not happen at all, but it has the potential to be significant if it does. In one of my first posts after the conclusion of the 2015-16 season, I had Francis’ decision on a second netminder listed first in importance for building the 2016-17 roster. He might or might not have made that decision when he chose to re-sign Cam Ward. My optimistic hope is that he somehow manages to make another move though it is admittedly more complicated needing to both add and subtract a goalie to get back to 2.
3) NHL depth forward. I think there is a high probability that Francis will add 1 additional NHL-level depth forward. Ideal is to get a player who prices out at a fourth line price but has some potential to do more than that offensively. Since Francis will be opportunistically shopping for a bargain and since the prices often fall in August, I think there is a good chance that this process could drag into the summer. I continue to like Riley Nash for this slot because I like his versatility, decent scoring ability for a fourth-line role and how well he fits with what the Canes need, but there could be merit in waiting to see if one of the losers of the game of musical chairs who is really more of a pure top 9 forward becomes available for a similar price.
4) AHL/NHL fringe forwards on 2-way contracts. The Hurricanes lack of depth at the NHL level and in terms of high-end prospects (Aho is already penciled in as an NHLer) should create an enticing opportunity for fringe AHL/NHL players who cannot get a 1-way NHL contract and instead are tasked with taking a 2-way contract but assessing teams/situations for where they have the best chance to rise up to the NHL level. Because of this favorable situation and the space that Francis left in terms of contracts/AHL slots, I expect he will be looking for 1-2 diamonds in the rough to start at the AHL level and offer experienced #14/#15 NHL depth in case of injuries. Because the terms of these contracts are low $/low risk and also reasonably set, Francis could do such deals at any point during the summer. Best guess is that he will spend his phone time on bigger things for the first few days of free agency, but this could come into play fairly soon.
5) Veteran depth defenseman with games played to offer protection for expansion draft next summer. With the Hurricanes now down to 6 NHL defenseman, this move bumped from #5 to #4 on my priority list. Toward the beginning of summer, I pegged Ryan Murphy and Brett Pesce as the 2 Canes most likely to be part of a trade. If that happened, it would create even greater need to add a veteran defenseman or 2, but perhaps Francis’ willingness to buy out Wisniewski is a clue that he plans to keep his current set of young blue liners intact.
Part 2 of this short series (either late Thursday night or otherwise definitely before free agency kicks off on Friday) will get to exploring options, setting targets and naming names.