Well that escalated quickly…Within an hour or so of when part 1 of my Carolina Hurricanes’ trade deadline preview went up, General Manager Ron Francis brokered his first deal sending Ron Hainsey to Pittsburgh, retaining half of his salary and gaining a 2017 second round draft pick and a veteran AHLer in return.

So if you are catching up, we are suddenly 3 articles deep into Carolina Hurricanes 2017 NHL trade deadline articles:

Part 1 which identified the obvious ‘for sale’ candidates including Ron Hainsey is HERE.

My article assessing the Ron Hainsey deal in detail and what it meant for starting to work on the 2017-18 blue line is HERE.

Finally, the domino effect was a deep dive on the current situation and options for Ryan Murphy.

I originally planned to go a different direction for part of of the trade deadline series, but with Thursday’s trade, I think it instead makes sense to go 1 step further down the current path and look at the interesting challenge in front of Ron Francis for building the team’s 2017-18 defense.


The current personnel

Right now, I would say that Ron Francis has 3 top 4 defensemen in Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk. Important to note is that while Faulk has had another strong season offensively, he has struggled at times, especially on the road, in a top 4 role defensively.

Below the top 4, there are a ton of wild cards. Noah Hanifin has pedigree, potential and expectations to become a top 4 defenseman, but as of today he is not there yet. My March/April checklist included giving him a run in the top 4 to see if can spark the next step in his development. In addition, 2016-17 first-year professionals Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown played well and looked nearly ready in the NHL preseason. Since then, both have had mostly strong seasons in Charlotte, especially Fleury. Neither has played a single regular season game at the NHL level, but after seeing Slavin and Pesce jump straight into top 4 roles in the NHL and do well, it is obviously not impossible. Below that, the trio of Ryan Murphy, Klas Dahlbeck and Matt Tennyson definitely project more as bottom pairing/#7 depth if they are still wearing Hurricanes’ uniforms come next fall. Then there is the wild card in Trevor Carrick who has mostly done what he can do at the AHL level and seems destined to receive NHL ice time and a trial in March/April.

The 26 games remaining over the next 8 weeks could provide substantial new information as to if/how ready any of Hanifin, Fleury or McKeown are to step into a big role at the NHL level, but as of right now assuming that the team can fill the top 4 with what it is has is nothing short of gambling and rolling the dice with youth.


Building a bridge to the youth

With Jake Bean who was the #13 pick overall in the 2017 NHL draft also in the mix, it seems completely reasonable to expect the Hurricanes to fill their top 4 defense slots from within if you look out 2-3 years. But as noted above, unless we get significant new information in March/April, expecting that for the start of the 2017-18 season sounds more like rebuilding with patience and a willingness to lose more than playing to finally return to the playoffs next spring.

So therein lies the dilemma for Francis. Ideally, he would like to:

–Have a solid option for a fourth proven top 4 defenseman.

–But mostly keep whatever budget he has in terms of trade assets and salary cost to spend upgrading at the forward and possibly goalie position.

–And also have the flexibility to insert 1 of the young guns right into the top 4 as soon as 1 of them proves ready.

That is a challenging equation to solve. When I net it out, I think what Francis is looking for is a player capable of playing in the top 4 with 1-2 years of contract remaining, without the need to trade a ton of assets to get him (a free agent could work) and at a price that maybe is not crazy if said player gets bumped out of the top 4 by youth and instead becomes a #5 somewhere along the way.


Two scenarios that could help unearth such a player

The usual shopping grounds for such players are tough. To add a legitimate veteran top 4 defenseman via free agency is pricey, and it could be really difficult for the Hurricanes and their impending 8-year playoff drought to even lure such a player even if they are willing to pay. The trade market is similarly pricey in terms of what must be given up in terms of trade to gain a top 4 defenseman and also in terms of what the salary cost usually is.

But there are 2 scenarios that could see players, possibly with some risk, available for a discounted price.

First, there are a number of teams scheduled to have salary cap issues for 2017-18, so it might be possible to get a player with a fairly high cap hit at a discount from a team that takes a discount because of the need for cap relief. Francis has already preyed on this situation twice, first with the Kris Versteeg/Joakim Nordstrom deal and then with the Blackhawks again with the Teravainen/Bickell deal. Might Francis go back to the well for a third time hoping to opportunistically capitalize on other teams’ financial struggles?

Second, there are a handful of teams that have more good defenseman than they can protect in the expansion draft. In those instances, might the Hurricanes be able to add an otherwise untouchable top 4 defenseman from a team who thinks it better to make a trade and collect something instead of losing a good player for nothing. Because of the expansion draft, it is not impossible that a few really good (young even) defensemen are traded for mere futures that can be retained past the expansion draft. The basic idea is that it is better to collect 75 cents on the dollar in retainable futures instead of nothing if a good player is lost in the expansion draft. Because of this situation, is it possible for the Hurricanes to trade blue line assets in the form of younger prospects who do not need to be protected for an NHL now player at a significant discount because of the circumstances? It is at least worth considering.


Naming names and scenarios

I always take such pride in writing up my thought process and the detailed story, but I recognize that many people are just scrolling past all of this effort to see what names are offered .

To be clear, I peg all of the expansion draft options as low probabilities. First, many of the teams are in the playoff hunt and as such are likely to ride out the remainder of the 2016-17 season focused on winning now. In those cases, this situations will not really come into play until after the season ends. And even in those cases or if a couple teams look to deal earlier, I do not see Francis stepping in if bidding wars for some pretty good players reach fair value. With defensive help on the way from the system, I think the most likely scenario is to add short-term, inexpensive help. But if there is a deal to be had on the cheap that can pull from a deep blue line prospect pool and convert part of it into a young actual NHL defenseman, it could be interesting. Remember that the goal with absolutely no guarantees is for a player like Haydn Fleury to become a top 4. But the probability of that happening for even a good young prospect is probably 50 percent at best and it might take 2 more years of development. If you can instead get a proven top 4 just maybe you do. All that said, I really think the much smaller Lightning deal is the one worth watching.

Tampa Bay – Salary Cap Scenario

Even after Ben Bishop likely departs either at the trade deadline or over the summer, the Tampa Bay Lightning will struggle to again squeeze under the salary cap with Hedman’s new deal kicking in and eating up an additional $3.8 million and big time restricted free agents Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin to be re-signed.

The player that jumps out at me here on the blue line is Jason Garrison. Garrison is a big, mobile, experienced top 4 defenseman actually somewhat similar to Ron Hainsey but 4 years younger. Garrison is not having a phenomenal year. A couple checks with people who cover the Lightning on a game-by-game basis suggest that he might be more like a #5 at this stage of his career. But he was a legitimate top 4 recently, and 1 of my queries suggested that maybe he could seemingly be a top 4 in the right situation. Significantly, the contract math is almost perfect. He is signed through 2017-18, so that matches the short-term bridge that Francis is looking to build. His cap hit is significant at $4.6 million which is why Yzerman might be happy to unload him even if the return is minimal. The deal is at least partially salary cap dump from Tampa Bay’s side. But get this, Garrison’s actually salary (which is all that matters to the Hurricanes who will not spend up to the cap) is only $2.5 million for the 2017-18 season. Basically, he would cost, in real $, exactly the same as Ron Hainsey. And if it works out that 1 of the kids leapfrogs him, Garrison’s $2.5 million is expensive but not completely outlandish for a #5 defenseman and is only committed for 1 season.

The burning question for this deal will be similar for any other where Francis is trying to do a deal for a discount. At this stage of his career is Jason Garrison capable of being a decent top 4 defenseman? And would he be a strong complement for Justin Faulk such that he also helps Faulk find a higher gear at least defensively? The onus is on Ron Francis to perform these difficult assessments and make the right decisions. If the salary, the trade cost and the hoped for role all match up perfectly, but such a player arrives and just is not very good, the deal is obviously a miss.

In the same vein, Braydon Coburn is a bit of the same story. At least for 2016-17, I get the impression that he ranks above Garrison, so maybe he is not available for that reason or would cost significantly more. He is similarly a left shot, veteran top 4 and is 31 years old. The biggest hang up with Coburn might be the contract math. He is signed for 3 more years at $3.7 million (cap and actual salary) per year. That probably goes 1 if not 2 years past Francis’ ideal time frame and the $3.7 million salary is pricier which makes it even more imperative that he work out as a top 4 if acquired.


Anaheim Ducks – Expansion Draft Scenario

The Hurricanes timing for the expansion draft is serendipitous in that the team will not need to protect any of Hanifin, Slavin, Pesce, Fleury, McKeown or Bean because they are all under the 2-year experience requirement. The Ducks on the other hand have veteran Kevin Bieksa whose no-movement clause requires him to be protected and then also young but proven NHL defensemen Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm and also Simon Despres who is out indefinitely with concussion issues. The situation is less tricky if Despres does not need to be considered because I think maybe Anaheim just buys out Bieksa. The Ducks might still lose a decent oung defenseman in Josh Manson but perhaps that is the best that they can do. If any of Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen or Hampus Lindholm became available for an expansion draft discounted prospect package, I would be curious.


San Jose – Expansion Draft Scenario but not until season ends

San Jose is heads down trying to win a Stanlyey Cup, so they will not be bothered with expansion draft issues at the trade deadline. Once the season is over, it might be that San Jose considers dealing a defenseman from their veteran stockpile of Brent Burns, Paul Martin, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Justin Braun, David Schlemko and Brenden Dillon. The first 3 are not going anywhere, but just maybe 1 of Braun, Schlemko or Dillon could be had for cheap come mid-June.


 Minnesota Wild – Expansion Draft Scenario but not until season ends

Somewhat similar to San Jose, Minnesota is heads down trying to win in 2016-17, so they are unlikely to even consider the expansion draft until after their season is over. But once that happens, they are another team with expansion draft protection issues on the blue line. The Wild have 5 at least reasonably capable defensemen in Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Matt Dumba. With maybe 2 too many to protect, it might be that Minnesota just grits their teeth, watches who leaves and moves on. But there is also the possibility that they sell a decent defenseman on the cheap to avoid losing him for nothing.


Winnipeg Jets – Expansion Draft Scenario

Another team with too many defensemen to protect unless they go with an alternate D/F count is Winnipeg. Mainstays Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Tyler Myers would be the 3 to protect. That leaves a young defenseman with upside in Jacob Trouba unprotected and very likely lost to Las Vegas. He is  right shot which is not ideal for pairing with Faulk, but if the discount is significant might it be worth it just to add a young player with some NHL experience and a high ceiling?


Colorado Avalanche – Random Scenario

As long as I am fishing for defenseman, I found 1 more oddball option. 25-year old Eric Gelinas is buried in the AHL with the Colorado Avalanche. Prior to Colorado, Gelinas was a pretty good offensive defenseman who was still trying to put it all together defensively. Given that Colorado is the same franchise that cannot seem to find much use for Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, is it possible that there is hidden value in a fresh start for Eric Gelinas. If the Hurricanes wanted to do a low-risk try out similar to the Jakub Nakladal and Klas Dahlbeck waiver claims, Gelinas is making $1.575 million in 2016-17 and is a restricted free agent this summer. So if the cost is virtually nothing, Francis could trial him for the remainder of the season and then decide if he wants to negotiate a new contract for 2017-18. To be clear, Gelinas is more of a depth flyer who could step into 1 of the places currently occupied by Ryan Murphy, Matt Tennyson and Klas Dahlbeck.


Netting it out

I find the expansion draft scenarios fascinating. The caliber of defenseman that might become available simply because teams can only (easily) protect 3 defensemen, could put some really good and even young players on the market. I like the Hurricanes’ odds with a well-stocked pipeline as much as anyone, but if a ready and proven top 4 NHL defenseman with a reasonable contract becomes available for only futures, it could be a different way of skinning the cat. The hope is that someone like Fleury or McKeown will grow to become a decent top 4. If Francis can expedite that process and eliminate uncertainty, just maybe he does it.

But those deals are complicated and many unlikely to heat up until after the playoffs are over.

Of all of the names and deals possible, I really think that though it seems completely off the radar, that a deal that sends very modest futures to Tampa Bay for Jason Garrison is a Ron Francis kind of deal and also 1 that makes a ton of sense for both teams. So from the category of ‘Who would have predicted that?’ put me down for the Hurricanes obtaining Garrison either now or in June for a modest value of futures.


What say you Canes fans?

Do you agree that Francis needs to add a proven top 4-ish defenseman to build a bridge to the youth, or would you be willing to wing it with unproven young players hoping at least 1 is on the Pesce/Slavin fast track?

Do you think there is any chance that Francis leverages the situation of having room to hide more defensemen from the expansion drat and plucks away a good young defenseman for cheap from a team who cannot protect him?


Go Canes!

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