If you have not already taken your shot at throwing darts at the dart board for a Carolina Hurricanes mock draft or playing Ron Francis as GM with trades, buy outs and free agent signings, please take a look at Canes and Coffee’s first ever Off-Season Fantasy Hockey Contest. The deadline is technically Tuesday night though we might extend it if all remains quiet on the NHL trade front.
Compiling the Hurricanes’ options to add a forward
Last week, I worked through all 30 of the other NHL teams looking for trade targets that could be part of Ron Francis’ effort to build the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes roster. Many of the players profiled today and the trade situations around them were analyzed in greater detail in this series of articles. Anaheim=>Detroit is HERE, followed by Edmonton=>New York (Rangers) and finally Ottawa=>Winnipeg.
I will post similar for the free agent pool at some point (might wait until closer to the start of free agency on July 1), but I will sort of jump past that today to identify the top 10 targets to add an offensive catalyst capable of being a difference-maker on a Hurricanes’ scoring line.
Focusing on priorities and not being distracted by the ‘shiny stuff’
An important starting point for my exercise is understanding the Hurricanes’ goals and priorities for off-season additions (Part 1) and IMPORTANTLY avoiding the shiny stuff at least until the the top priority is addressed. With the expansion draft added to the mix and an increasing number of teams with salary cap issues, the volume of possibilities and permutations is immense. It is pretty easy to go into, ‘oh he’s good…and him too…and I like him’ mode and wander completely away from any kind of consideration for what the team needs and its priorities.
I do think the Hurricanes have needs past adding a top 6 scoring forward, but for this article, I will stay heads down on priority one. The short version is that I think the Hurricanes need to add a single difference-maker capable of being an offensive catalyst.
Those words are chosen carefully. “Difference-maker” says that any of the many options for good depth players do not qualify. It has taken a few years, but the Hurricanes are becoming deeper at the forward position and is getting close (not all the way there) to fill 9-10 forward slots with capable NHL players who can at least provide depth scoring. At this point, any good depth forward addition who adds 40 points and simply replaces another current player who might have put up 33-35 points does not move the needle enough. Francis is looking for a higher-end scorer such that something like 15-30 scoring points are gained when the swap is made. Equally significant is my second choice of words – “capable of being an offensive catalyst.” There are many good players who are capable of being great complementary players on a good NHL scoring line. Joe Thornton has basically created them over the years in making Glenn Murray and Sergei Samsonov look elite and somehow lifting Devin Setoguchi to 31 goals in 2008-09. But there is a difference between being a player who drives a scoring line versus one who is capable of fitting on one if he finds chemistry. With playmaking-lite centers Jordan Staal and Victor Rask already in tow, the Hurricanes really need to add not just a good complementary player but rather one who can be the catalyst and fuel for a scoring line. The added player obviously needs to score, but his ability to boost two line mates will be as important.
So while my rankings and sorting below do obviously account for how good a player is, I am pretty strict in evaluating the players potentially available for how well they fit the requirements.
* This article is focused solely on adding a single difference-making, top 6 forward. That is NOT to say that the Hurricanes do not have needs on defense, nor is it to say that Francis should not consider adding a depth forward too.
* The definition of what the Hurricanes need in their biggest forward addition is my opinion. It is built upon some basic facts obviously. The Hurricanes finished 20th in the NHL in scoring in 2016-17, so there is room to improve. Francis himself talked about the need to improve offensively and add offense to the lineup in his media availability shortly after the 2016-17 season ended.
But important to note is that Francis has NOT pinpointed his specific requirements to the level that I have. He and Peters did say that they expected Sebastian Aho and Elias Lindholm to continue playing at wing short-term, but he did not go so far as to say that the preferred addition was necessarily a center as I have. Further, Francis has not publicly offered the same level of specifics as I have in terms of what he is seeking in a forward. So while I have a fairly narrowly-defined skill set in mind believe that it reasonably well matches Francis’ definition, this is my opinion, NOT straight from Francis himself.
* Who exactly is available for what price is really hard to say. There is some public information from inside NHL sources that makes its way into interviews and articles in the broader NHL media, but exactly who is available and what the asking prices are is mostly speculation and logic. I tried to account for this by assessing likelihood secondary to my pure ranking, but that part of the equation is really hard to measure. So while I did screen a bit for my rankings to include players who might be available, it is very possible that some actually are not or even more likely are allegedly available but with an exorbitant price tag that more or less makes them unavailable.
Top 10 targets for a “difference-making” top 6 forward, preferably a center, who can be an “offensive catalyst for a scoring line”
Without further ado, here is my top 10 list of targets for Francis to add that one difference-maker at the forward position. I will follow this up within the next day or two with an article that groups and discusses the many good player who did not make the cut.
(1) Nathan MacKinnon
Assessment: The 21-year old Colorado Avalanche center already has already had time in the Canes and Coffee spotlight when I named Nathan MacKinnon as my top target in this article. That article has more details, but in short, I just think he is the best player who might allegedly be available. He is fast, skilled and smart. He is already reasonably proven as an NHL scorer despite being only 21 years old and in my opinion still has significant unrealized upside. He brings shiftiness but also a propensity to attack in straight lines which fits Peters’ style. And he is signed for six years at a reasonable $6.3 million(ish) per year.
Probability analysis: It is hard to say if MacKinnon is even available and even more difficult to know if the asking price would be much short of the entire Hurricanes’ roster, but as long as Sakic is looking to shake things up and has not completed a deal yet, I guess he is in play. If he is available, the suitors would be many, so that decreases the odds and virtually assures that the package would require a young NHL roster defenseman. He is one of at most 2-3 players for whom I would consider doing that. Actually available? Hard to say, but there will definitely be movement in Colorado so…
(2) Matt Duchene
Assessment: Duchene actually rates out similarly to MacKinnon. He is at least as proven as MacKinnon, and despite a down 2016-17 season, I would rate Duchene pretty similarly to MacKinnon if looking only at the 2017-18 season. Duchene is lightning fast, skilled and capable of both scoring and creating offense for others. Duchene falls short of MacKinnon by a decent margin when the long-term is considered. Duchene is signed for only two more years, so there is a chance he becomes a short-timer. There is actually a positive flip side in that just maybe two years is what the Hurricanes need to transition Lindholm or Aho to center and also have more youth ready for top 9 roles. In addition, Duchene is 26 years old (so five years older than Duchene). That is not a significant problem, especially with his short-term contract, but I do think it means that he has more likely peaked and does not have nearly as much potential upside remaining in his game as MacKinnon.
Probability analysis: Unlike MacKinnon who might or might not actually even be available, Duchene is pretty clearly available this summer. The big question is price of course. Best guess is that he did not move at the trade deadline because Sakic did not get an offer for the young top 4 defenseman that he wanted in return. The Hurricanes could obviously offer this, but it is not clear if Francis would. My best bet is that if Francis wanted to do something like Faulk or Hanifin for Duchene, the deal would be completed already. But with Sakic looking to do something in Colorado, Duchene is higher probability than many on this list. Actually available? Most certainly.
(3) William Nylander
Assessment: Playing behind young headliners Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, William Nylander had a strong 2016-17 season with a whopping 61 points in 81 games (enough to finish second on the Hurricanes only behind Jeff Skinner). He is 21 years old and possesses a compelling combination of playmaking skill, finishing ability and all-around play. He does not have as much NHL experience, but like MacKinnon, he is the kind of player that a team could slot into a C1 or C2 slot for the long-term and feel pretty good about it.
Probability analysis: Nylander is one of a few complete wild cards on this list. Nylander is arguably the third best young offensive forward on team with two elite young forwards in Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. It is also common knowledge that the Maple Leafs want to/need to add another top 4 defenseman this summer. So the line of thinking goes that maybe Toronto would consider trading Nylander for a comparable age and skill defenseman. But obviously a team needs more than two elite forwards and there are other ways to obtain a defenseman, so I am skeptical that Nylander will in fact be available at all. And if available, the key piece would probably have to be Noah Hanifin. Actually available? Seems very doubtful unless Toronto cannot add a defenseman another way.
(4) Jonathan Drouin
Assessment: I put Drouin in a similar category as Nylander. He is young and has only a modest NHL track record, but he has clearly shown an ability to be dynamic and productive at the NHL level. Also like Nylander, he is a natural center but has played more wing thus far in the NHL. After a bumpy ride getting there, Drouin officially arrived during the 2016-17 season putting up 53 points in 71 games including his share of creative, highlight-reel plays that showcased his elite playmaking and scoring skills.
Probability analysis: Tampa Bay is another team that needs to do something this summer to make the salary cap math. Yzerman has proven to be a Houdini at doing exactly this and has a number of other options. As such, there is no certainty that Drouin will be moved, but coming off his entry-level contract and looking for a huge raise, there is no doubt Drouin is one of the players for whom Tampa Bay will consider offers. Actually available? Tampa Bay has other options too but definitely yes.
(5) Evgeny Kuznetsov
Assessment: Kuznetsov no doubt benefited from being part of a deep and powerful Capitals offense, but his pure playmaking ability should not be underrated because of that. His 40 assists and 59 points in 2016-17 could translate well to taking a couple of the Hurricanes’ reasonably skilled wings and boosting them from 40-50-point depth scoring to something more like that of a first line. Kuznetsov is 25 years old and a restricted free agent this summer who is due to earn a raise.
Probability analysis: Kuznetsov seems unlikely to be available this summer expect that Washington is another team like the Rangers and Canadiens who are built to win now but are struggling to do so. Despite winning the President’s Trophy for the 2016-17 season, the Capitals seem destined to do something drastic this summer in search of a combination that can win in the playoffs. Trading Kuznetsov would seem like a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, but who knows. Actually available? Who knows/seems doubtful.
(6) Alex Galchenyuk
Assessment: Galchenyuk is one of the most interesting cases on this list. In terms of statistics and development path, he really does not look that different from MacKinnon. MacKinnon has 206 points in 300 games, while Galchenyuk is only slightly behind with 204 points in 336 games. MacKinnon was drafted to be elite at #1 overall in 2013, while Galchenyuk was selected #3 overall in 2012. Galchenyuk is about about 1 1/2 years old and only one year deeper in his career since being drafted. Galchenyuk’s 2016-17 season also stacks up reasonably well statistically. He had 44 points in 61 games (59-point pace over 82 games), but for whatever reason he just has yet to carve out a defined role with the Canadiens. He has played wing and center, has bounced up and down the lineup and has intermittently found his way into the doghouse for whatever reason. More than any other player on this list, I think Galchenyuk has the potential to be a buy low opportunity for a young player who is on the verge of breaking out, but with that comes the risk that he never does. He fits the requirement as a potential scoring C1 or C2 with decent size to boot.
Probability analysis: After another early playoff exit, Montreal is similar to Colorado in the sense that the Canadiens are nearly certain to do something this summer. And with Galchenyuk receiving mixed reviews in Montreal, the probability is pretty high that he will be part of the shake up which makes him a possibility for Francis’ needs. Actually available? Not 100 percent he is moved but definitely seems to be available.
(7) Henrik Zetterberg
Assessment: Lost in the disappointing season in Detroit was a solid season for Henrik Zetterberg despite the loss of long-time co-leader Pavel Datsyuk. The 36-year old put up an impressive 68 points. Zetterberg ranks below a number of younger players who are better long-term options, but if one takes a narrow view and looks only at the 2017-18 season and probably even at a two-year time frame, I think there is a strong case that Zetterberg is as good as anyone on this list. Obviously, the equation changes if one looks long-term with the 36-year old Zetterberg. He is still a tremendous two-way forward who can play against anyone in any situation, adds leadership and at least short-term easily slots as a C1 or C2.
Probability analysis: I honestly have no idea if Zetterberg is even available and have not heard anything to say that he is. BUT…If Detroit reasonably aggressively commits to rebuilding instead of trying retooling for 2017-18 with duct tape and band aids, Zetterberg could be a trade candidate to provide a significant boost to the Red Wings’ prospect pool. If that happens, I think the Hurricanes could be a very good fit because of Zetterberg’s unique contract situation. His $6.1 million salary cap hit over four years could be challenging for some teams, but per my inclusion of Zetterberg in my article about unique contract situations, he could fit nicely into the Hurricanes’ math. Zetterberg’s four remaining years pay $7 million, $3.35 million, $1 million and $1 million which I equate to being a two-year commitment at about $5.1 million per year followed by a low-risk two additional years at $1 million per year. To be clear, I would not offer quite as much for Zetterberg (no young roster defenseman) as I might for other players, but he could be a nice 2-4-year addition while the young Hurricanes learn what it takes to become and remain a playoff team. Actually available? Until someone reputable starts talking about bigger rebuild in Detroit, not yet.
(8) Tyler Johnson
Assessment: The peak version of Johnson during a great 2014-15 season for the Lightning yielded 72 points in 77 games. The past two seasons have been somewhat more modest with 38 points in 69 games in 2015-16 and 45 points in 66 games in 2016-17. Regardless, Tyler Johnson has established himself as a top 6 center in the NHL. He is undersized but plays with speed, skill and a willingness to go to the front of the net. As a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, his next contract is unknown and carries some risk. I like Johnson, but maybe not being as high on him as some others, I am not keen on obtaining him and then potentially being stuck with a big salary if his 72-points season receives too much weight from the arbitrator.
Probability analysis: Johnson is like Drouin in the sense that Tampa Bay must do something to unload salary which puts a collection of players theoretically in play and open for bidding. As one would expect, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has not really tipped his hat in terms of his plan or preferences for who he keeps, so it is difficult to say which Tampa Bay players are more accessible than others. Actually available? With Tampa Bay needing to cut salary, he is definitely one of the possibilities.
(9) Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Assessment: Nugent-Hopkins quietly played an understated but significant role in Edmonton’s surge in 2016-17. He is thought to be a third and therefore expendable center on a team with two young, elite centers above him. He spent some time in this role in 2016-17, but actually spent significantly more time in a C2 slot behind a first line with Connor McDavid at center and Leon Draisatl on his right wing. The result was that young veteran Nugent-Hopkins played a role somewhat similar to Jordan Staal’s taking as many of the hard minutes as possible against the other teams’ best lines freeing McDavid’s line to attack and score in bunches. So while Nugent-Hopkins 43 points in 82 games was underwhelming, to characterize his season as a flop because of it is not really accurate. Nugent-Hopkins is an experienced NHL centerman with a decent balance of offense and defense and is signed for four more years at $6 million per year. Nugent-Hopkins is easily one of the most boring options on this list, but he is low-risk as a proven two-way player who is certain to put of decent depth scoring at a minimum.
Probability analysis: This summer, the Oilers will re-sign Leon Draisatl. Next summer, the Oilers will re-sign Connor McDavid. These two contracts will force the Oilers to rework their roster a bit and cut some salary. Front and center in that project are Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle, both of whom earn $6 million annually. The Oilers can probably make the math work this summer if they so choose, but by next summer, it is a reasonably certain bet that one or both of these players will be moved. If there are no takers for Eberle and/or Nugent-Hopkins and their $6 million annual salaries, they could become salary dump trades at a discount which could work to Francis’ advantage. Actually available? Most certainly yes.
(10) Jordan Eberle
Assessment: Eberle stands out as the only player in on my top 10 list who is not a center (not counting Drouin who could return to his natural center position if acquired by the Hurricanes). He is a right wing which for my priorities anyway is not ideal. But he scores well in many other areas. At 27 years old and with 382 points in 507 NHL games, he is one of the gray beards for a young group. He is a proven scorer with a nose for the net, but he is well-rounded enough that he can provide some playmaking from the wing and a pretty sound all-around game. He had a respectable 20 goals and 51 points in 2016-17. If the price is right in terms of trade cost, Eberle could provide interesting bridge scoring help. His current contract has two years remaining at $6 million which could be just enough time for someone like Gauthier, Saarela or someone else to step into that role.
Probability analysis: Eberle is in nearly the same situation as Nugent-Hopkins above. One difference is that if the Oilers project the McDavid/Draisatl combination to stay together going forward, the team could then have a preference to keep Nugent-Hopkins to fill the same C2 slot that he filled in 2016-17, therefore making Eberle the preferred departure between the two if only one goes. Actually available? Most certainly yes.
What is most likely to happen?
In trying to predict anything, I pretty quickly put Henrik Zetterberg, Evgeny Kuznetsov and William Nylander into a group of players who reasonably likely just are not even on the market. Logically, MacKinnon is similar though the rumblings in Colorado seem to leave that door cracked open more.
That leaves six players who I think are definitely in play. If I had to pick one player most likely to end up in Raleigh by fall, I would choose Alexander Galchenyuk simply because Montreal seems ready to move on, and he is a young fit for what the Hurricanes need.
Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Johnson are also interesting, but Tampa Bay has numerous options player-wise to solve their cap problems and then multiple bidders if either player is moved.
I would not rate Ryan-Nugent Hopkins or Jordan Eberle very high in terms of sheer desirability, but if Edmonton is unavailable to find a better deal, I think one or both of these players could become the best bargain available.
Matt Duchene rates as the best available player who is highly likely to actually be available, but the package will likely be expensive and required to include a young top 4 defenseman. My hunch based on last summer and also the trade deadline is that Francis is not willing to pay that.
My 2c in order of probability goes Galchenyuk, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Drouin, Duchene, MacKinnon, Johnson, Nylander, Zetterberg and Kuznetsov.
Because of the likely cost for these players, I do not think it is at all out of the question that Francis passes on the bidding wars, makes a more modest addition and keeps his futures to capitalize when a trade opportunity arises during the 2017-18 season.
Within the next couple days, I hope to write up my quick thoughts on the myriad of players who did not make the cut and share my thoughts on why.
What say you Hurricanes fans?
Who did I miss who should be considered?
Which, if any, of these players would you trade a young top 4 defenseman (Slavin, Pesce, Faulk or Hanifin) to acquire?
What are your thoughts on the actual availability of my 10 players? Do you think any of the four long shots (Zetterberg, Kuznetsov, MacKinnon, Nylander) could actually come into play?
What is your wild guess for the one big deal that Francis does this summer?