With the 2018 NHL trade deadline now exactly one week away and the Hurricanes sitting right at the playoff cut line but floundering a bit, much of the talk around the team and the NHL will be about the trade market over the next week.
This series will walk through various aspects of the trade deadline from a Carolina Hurricanes perspective and as we get deeper into it will evaluate/address the rumblings that appear in the broader media.
To keep things interesting for those who just want to cut to the chase, each article will offer a couple quick hitters up front and then followed by another piece of the longer story.
Carolina Hurricanes trade deadline quick hitters
With the flashes he showed in preseason and also his strong (some say as good as anyone in the tournament) play in the World Junior Championship, Martin Necas has climbed to the top of the prospect pool and created his own tier among the Carolina Hurricanes prospects. I think he is as close to untouchable right now as possible for a player who is not on the NHL roster. I think any and all other Canes prospects could be available for the right deal, and I would not be surprised to see any of them included in a deal. But at a time of year where even the formal North American hockey media are largely just spit-balling, how writers include/talk about Martin Necas is a good indicator of whether someone is just throwing out random stuff or if he/she has a decent understanding of the Hurricanes’ situation. Shorter version: I will be shocked if Martin Necas is traded. He is not in the group of Canes top prospects. He has own tier above the others.
He is still at the top of my list. In general, I am not a fan of adding rentals for any significant price (more than maybe a fourth-round pick), but I am a fan of making a longer-term addition of a forward who can significantly boost the offense. Pacioretty is signed through 2018-19, so I think he helps with a playoff push for 2017-18 and 2018-19 and maybe even more significantly is a good veteran scoring addition to put either Sebastian Aho or Martin Necas at the center of an NHL scoring line in 2018-19. Perhaps suggesting that the broader NHL media actually checks in at Canes and Coffee, Pacioretty and the Canes have been mentioned elsewhere recently, but I claim first with my article that made a case for Max Pacioretty on January 18. Shorter version: Pacioretty is still my top target, not just because he helps for current playoff push but at least equally because he fits well with what Canes need to do getting Aho or Necas centering a scoring line in 2018-19.
Carolina Hurricanes trade deadline: Setting the stage
The starting point for considering the trade deadline is understanding the start of the Carolina Hurricanes on multiple levels.
State of the team and its 2017-18 playoff hopes
Unlike past seasons, the Carolina Hurricanes are not entering the trade deadline frenzy at a deficit and with ground to make up. The team is currently tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But with at least two other teams fighting for one spot (and that does not even account for the Florida Panthers who have crept closer and have games in hand), I pegged the Hurricanes playoff chances at 33 percent in Monday’s Daily Cup of Joe.
So in short, the Carolina Hurricanes playoff hopes are very much alive, but the odds and current trajectory with a three-game losing streak are not great which suggests that the team might benefit from an outside boost.
Room for improvement
For 2017-18, I think the tricky part is figuring out where there is room for improvement. Any team can improve by adding a high-end player like Evander Kane likely at an exorbitant cost for a couple months of hockey before he becomes a free agent, but trying to find more reasonably price upgrades for the current Hurricanes lineup is not that easy.
In goal: With Scott Darling still sputtering, the team could be better at the goalie position, but this is not likely something that can be addressed at the trade deadline. With the focus on adding players aimed at boosting teams for the current season, the market for a struggling goalie with three years at more than $4 million per year is as close to nothing as possible. I did recently mention the possibility of the Hurricanes adding a third goalie on a rental basis to try to eek out a couple more wins, but the available options are limited and the move would be a messy one in terms of looking forward to 2018-19. Further, with Ward as the starter for now, such a deal adds a bunch of complexity for a player who would play 4-5 games.
On the blue line: On defense, the issue, at times anyway, is consistency. Unlike last season and years past, the team actually has capable depth. Van Riemsdyk/Hanifin is technically the third pairing. Van Riemsdyk has had a strong season overall in that role and has been capable defensively. Hanifin has made good strides offensively and even in terms of consistency but still has those moments/games with lapses. And Klas Dahlbeck has at least been serviceable in a #7 slot with spot duty. So while one could make an argument that the team really needs to make a big move to revamp the second pairing, I do not see where inexpensive depth makes the blue line significantly better.
At forward: The forward position is where there could be room to make one big addition that changes the trajectory. Just like on the blue line, the team’s depth at the forward position has improved over the past couple years. And with the team being healthy, there is probably not a significant gain to be had from adding a run of the mill depth forward. But with the team struggling to get enough scoring from the forwards right now and losing because of it, I think the team is still right where it started the last offseason which is minus one offensive catalyst at the forward position. Derek Ryan is a serviceable NHL center but not a catalyst. Brock McGinn has had a strong season, but the team gets better offensively and overall if it can push him down to the fourth line where his scoring totals are impressive. Lee Stempniak is still a capable top 9 NHL forward but really more of a complementary player than a player who drives scoring and wins. Even legitimate top 6 forwards Jordan Staal and Justin Williams are good players but really only depth level scorers. When one adds it up, the team just needs at least one more offensive catalyst.
The issues is that such players are both rare and expensive. I am not a fan of spending a ton of futures to add a 2017-18 rental. The potential for missing the playoffs anyway and getting nothing for depleting the prospect pool is not worth it. I continue to think that the deal Francis should be targeting is one that adds a legitimate top 6 offense-leaning forward with at least on more year of term on his contract. That hopefully pushes the team over the playoff hump either this year or next and buys time to develop another player or two internally before budget starts to become an issue when Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen most be re-signed to new contracts.
So in netting it out, as much as the team could improve at the goalie position, I do not see that as something that is likely to be addressed at the trade deadline. On defense, I think at least short-term most likely is to wait for the young players to reach the next level. That puts the spotlight for the upcoming trade deadline on the forward position and watching to see if Francis can make one big deal to add not a depth player but rather a true difference-maker.
Remembering the plan and tempering hopes accordingly
Say what you will about Ron Francis’ results through three plus years as general manager, but his track record in terms of setting a strategy and plan and being unwavering on following through on it in the face of temptations to do otherwise has been truly stellar. From day one, Francis said his goal was to commit to building a strong organization and prospect pool that was a strength and the catalyst for not just returning to the playoffs but staying there. Obviously, the plan needs to yield results in terms of a playoff berth at some point before it can be declared successful, but the improvement that Francis has made to the prospect pool in three years is unmistakable.
Francis does need to strike a balance between sticking to the plan and maintaining a prospect pool that is a permanent strength and leveraging that strength to make some moves to win for today. To date, I would say that he has leaned 90/10 toward maintaining the prospect pool. In no way do I advocate a shift to 10/90 where the prospect pool is depleted for short-term fixes, but I think critical to the next step up and into the playoffs will be Francis maybe stepping out of his comfort zone and finding one or two deals that trade futures for lineup upgrades.
But here is the thing. The trade market is not like a store where everything is priced somewhat reasonably and other things are on sale such that the amount one has to overpay for certain items is modest. Rather, each and every player available via trade is a unique commodity owned by an individual seller who has complete control over that player. As such, the prices for many players can legitimately just be too high to justify doing the deal.
At some point, Francis will need to do a deal or two to address weaknesses and help push the team into the playoffs. And I think Francis actually needs to be willing to overpay (within reason) for the right player. But that is not the same as saying that he should do a deal with complete disregard for cost.
The shorter version is that I think Francis will maintain a bias for keeping the team’s future intact. That is mostly a positive, but the urgency is growing for him to find one or two deals that maybe are not perfect but are what is needed to reach the next level.
The alleged market prices
As of right now, the alleged asking prices are incredibly high and in most cases not something I would pay, especially for a rental. For Pacioretty, Montreal is supposedly asking/hoping for a high prospect, a first-round pick, a player and another prospect. That is a lot. What is crazy to me is that the alleged asking prices are fairly similar for Rick Nash and Evander Kane who are pure rentals with contracts that expire at the end of the season. Published asking prices are simply an initial demand from which negotiations begin, so using them as a basis for actual player costs an be misguided. That said, I think Joe Sakic somehow pulling a rabbit out of the hat after seemingly backing himself into a corner on the Matt Duchene trade fuels any delusional hopes for general managers and maybe even makes them plausible. The shorter version is that at least the starting points for players available via trade is cost-prohibitive, and especially for non-rentals (including Pacioretty), general managers are often better off waiting until the offseason when more bidders could be available.