In my draft day preview blog on Friday morning on Hockeybuzz, James Wisniewski was at the top of my list of trade possibilities (others were Bieksa, Spurgeon, Wideman, Gilbert) to make a critical addition to the Canes blue line
You can find that Hockeybuzz blog HERE.
Following the same reasoning, my rationale went something like this:
• The Canes needed to add at least one, if not two, top 4 defenseman to build out a competitive blue line for 2015-16. Justin Faulk is a solid anchor for a first pairing. I think Ron Hainsey is a solid half of a second pairing, but only if matched with a complementary player. Heading into summer, the minimum work is to replace Sekera but also, in my opinion, add another top 4-capable defenseman.
• In recent history, the free agent market for free agent defensemen has been pricey and challenging. Last year, we saw decent second pairing players like Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik command $5.75M and $5.5M per year respectively for long-term deals. With the usual imbalance of supply and demand for defensemen again this summer, it seems likely that this summer could be equally challenging free agent-wise. There just are too many teams with need to add top 4 defensemen and not enough to go around.
• But on the other end of the spectrum, I identified a fairly rich set of options to add a defenseman or two via trade due to an oddly high volume of unique situations making some pretty good players available.
• But getting back to the Hurricanes needs, ideal for Francis would have been two things. First was to add a defenseman sooner rather than later to make sure he avoided the need to do something desperate in July right when prices were escalating. Second was to find a player who fills a specific need but also keeps roster/slotting flexibility in the event that Francis can add another defenseman at the right price later.
So what were the ideal requirements for adding a first defenseman over the draft weekend? Financially, I think the goal was to add a top 4-capable defenseman without paying an Orpik or Niskanen type salary. Wisniewski’s front-loaded contract was perfect in that regard. His cap hit actually is up in that range at $5.5M, but because he has a front-loaded contract his actual salary averages a much more budget-friendly $4M over the next two years. In terms of trade assets, ideal was to pull off this first deal without trading top half of the roster talent (and therefore creating another hole to fill) as part of the deal. Because of his big cap hit and the fact that he was probably on the outs in Anaheim after things did not work out in the playoffs (he was healthy scratched), the cost was only a backup goalie who the Canes simultaneously replaced for a 3rd and 6th round pick. Finally and most importantly, the goal was to immediately fill a slot in the top 4, but do so in a way that considered skill set needed and kept flexibility intact for the possibility of adding another defenseman if the right deal comes along. I think Francis nailed this part. Wisniewski is a right shot with significant experience in a top 4 role whose strength is skating, moving the puck and helping generate offense.
I think this is EXACTLY the perfect complement for Ron Hainsey. I like Hainsey as a top 4 defenseman. He can handle the minutes and the matchups and is solid enough as a stay home type. But he just does not bring enough in terms of moving the puck and contributing offensively as evidenced by his scoring totals of only 15 and 10 points respectively in 2013-14 and 2014-15 despite missing only one game. When you build a second pairing that will log 20ish minutes per night with a puck-limited anchor like Hainsey and then pair him mostly with a combination of Bellemore, Gleason and Harrison, it stymies the offense. Enter James Wisniewski. His skill set is that of a puck-moving, skating defenseman who can help gain favorable entries into the offensive zone and help keep it there and generate scoring chances after that. So in an ideal world, I love the idea of Hainsey/Wisniewski as a second pair. But if Francis shops for partner for Faulk and ultimately has to punt because the price is just too high in terms of trade assets or salary, Wisniewski still works pretty well. In this scenario, Hainsey could slide up to play with Faulk. With Wisniewski still in the second pair, the Canes could shop for a left shot defense-first defenseman. In the tight market for defensemen, this skill set is at least a little bit easier to find, and if worse comes to worse John-Michael Liles is a left shot, so there is at least the possibility to start the season as is. Finally, Wisniewksi is exactly the type of player that Ryan Murphy projects to be if he does well and could be a valuable mentor who figured out how to use his strengths rushing the puck and overcome any limitations in size.
So shorter version: I think Ron Francis’ signing of James Wisniewski was the perfect signing to immediately help the blue line, avoid the danger of having to shop desperate in an expensive defenseman market and maintain flexibility as he considers other moves over the next few months.