Last summer in his 1st season as GM, Ron Francis made a commitment to leaving slots open to be won by the youth in training camp. Coming off a playoff miss in the 2013-14 season, he added only Jay McClement to the forward mix despite the fact that the team was light on NHL-ready/experienced forward prospects.
The result was a crazy mix of a big failure and a huge success at the same time. When Jordan Staal was felled by a broken leg in a preseason game, a number of inexperienced players suddenly found themselves learning their way in the top half of the roster. The result was an 0-6-2 start while the overslotted kids tried to get their feet under them. Long before Jordan Staal returned from injury in late December, the Canes 2015-16 playoff hopes had been violently stamped out.
But the success was that the Canes did exit the season much deeper in terms of experienced NHL forwards.
–Victor Rask grew up quickly and established himself as a top 9 NHL center at age 22.
–Chris Terry finally stayed at the NHL level and logged 57 games.
–Elias Lindholm took significant strides after a challenging rookie season, looked much more comfortable in the NHL and posted 39 points in 81 games.
–Zach Boychuk, like Chris Terry, finally had an extended run at the NHL level and played 31 games before finishing the season in Charlotte.
–Andrej Nestrasil, who was picked up off of waivers from Detroit brought some size to the Canes forward group and settled into the top 9.
The question is how could the Canes fail so significantly in the standings while at the same time succeeding in player development? The answer is simply that these developing players made huge strides going mostly from being AHLers to being serviceable NHL forwards. The key word there is ‘serviceable.’ At this first step up, players are often inconsistent and play some games like a top 6 forward and other like a kid who is still very much learning. When you net out the ups and downs, the production just does not match that of quality, established NHL players.
One could argue that the list of forwards above almost unanimously produced at a 3rd or 4th line level.
Rask looked good, but his 33 points in a full season are 3rd line at best on a good team. Lindholm’s nearly 0.50 points per game was a nice step up, but again that is lower 2nd line at best, maybe even 3rd line production. Nestrasil was similarly below a 40-point pace and Terry and Boychuk were a step down from there. When you average it out, the Canes received offensive production from this young group that was probably that of a #8-#10 type forward which did not match the 2nd-line roles that many of these players were thrust into.
If you fast forward to the summer of 2015, Francis’ mantra is pretty similar. He chose to buy out Alexander Semin and also lost Jiri Tlusty at the trade deadline last year. He replaced these 2 former top 6 forwards with Kris Versteeg and a couple more AHL/NHL fringe forwards who look similar to the group from last year. He is betting that he can again add from within and maybe more importantly that last year’s class can take another big step up.
While it is possible, it seems to put the Canes in the same precarious situation that they were in last summer. I like the potential of Derek Ryan, Sergey Tolchinksy and Phil Di Giuseppe as much as the next Canes fan, but when you have a significant amount of relative inexperience at forward already and then have 2 slots likely to be filled by a player with zero NHL experience, it seems risky.
In early July, I think I would have chalked this up to lack of budget to add any potential difference-makers, but with some pretty good players recently signed for about $1M (Tlusty was actually $800k) and a few others still on PTOs (Derek Roy, Tomas Fleischmann, Brad Boyes), there is suddenly minimal cost and very little risk with adding another forward or 2. Worst case is that a younger player surpasses the addition and the team has to eat the contract, but the $ amount is modest. There is also a chance that the addition does okay, but the team does not in which case, the player could be used to add another draft pick at the trade deadline.
Today the Canes saw Derek Roy look pretty good in a Caps uniform. For the modest price of $800k, could there have been another experienced NHL forward on the Canes flight to Pittsburgh tonight? And should Canes GM Ron Francis consider making a move like this? I am torn. Long-term development is the right path to building sustainable success. But with the prices so low this summer, I feel like the Canes could try to have their cake and eat it too. I am for waiting and watching a bit longer as Tolchinsky, Ryan , Di Giuseppe, McGinn and others try to win a spot, but I would also be keeping tabs on forward options just in case no one proves ready come October.