Yesterday, I offered my thoughts on the acquisition of Brent Burns. If you missed that you can find that article HERE.
I will separately cover Dylan Coghlan, Lane Pederson and Ondrej Case (hopefully tomorrow).
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks first bigger picture at the Canes big first day of free agency and then looks specially at Max Pacioretty.
I am on record as saying that the Carolina Hurricanes first Stanley Cup window goes through the 2023-24 NHL season. They spent what could be considered the first of a three-year window that started in 2021-22 with a decent season but ultimately a bit of disappointment falling in the second round. It is not that the Hurricanes cannot win after two years. If one considers the young core to be Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen (basically the top two defenseman and top three forwards), that group will still be in its prime. Slavin will be the oldest at 30 years old when the 2024-25 season starts. Aho and Svechnikov will be only 26 and 24 years old respectively. So if the team can keep the core together, there is no reason a team led by that group cannot be near the top of the NHL for another three years. But therein lies the problem. The end of the 2023-24 season sees key players come off contracts that are significantly below what their next contracts will need to be. Specifically, after the 2023-24 season, Sebastian Aho ($8.5 million), Teuvo Teravainen ($5.4 million), Brett Pesce ($4.0 million), Brady Skjei ($5.3 million) are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Seth Jarvis also comes off his entry-level contract paying him just $894,167. And a year later, Jaccob Slavin’s current contract paying him only $5.3 million ends. Some factors will help help with the challenging math. Jordan Staal’s current contract ends after this season. If Pyotr Kochetkov emerges as an NHL starter, the team will be able to save salary in net. And the NHL salary cap will again be climbing each year by then. But there will still be a salary cap squeeze on the roster that makes it hard to add other higher-end players and could force the team to decide who to keep and who to let begrudgingly depart via free agency.
So the time to try to win a Stanley Cup with this current group is now.
The team is very close to being capable of doing that. At the same time, it needs to find a way to add a couple difference-makers to put it over the top. When the team was $20 million under the salary cap ceiling a few years back, improving was somewhat easy. Add more good players => do better. But with the Canes now a cap team, it is much more difficult to find ways to add players from the outside who have the potential to be difference-makers. While there are no guarantees that it actually works in the rollercoaster ride that is the NHL, the Canes did exactly that in adding two players with that potential on the first day of free agency when they acquired Brent Burns and Max Pacioretty. And somehow the team managed to do so without parting ways with Martin Necas and giving up only a depth forward in Steven Lorentz, the team’s second best goalie prospect in Eetu Makiniemi and a third-round draft pick. Whether it works or not, you have to give Canes management credit for taking the big swing that they need to in ‘win now’ mode aiming for nothing short of a Cup.
Revisiting the team’s needs
From the beginning of the off-season, I have pegged the Canes’ top needs as being the addition of a defensively steady and solid top 4 defenseman to solidify the top half of the defense and a scoring wing or two to help boost the top half of the forward group.
So Brent Burns aims to address the first need.
And the team is hoping that Max Pacioretty can serve as a catalyst to help with the second need.
In Max Pacioretty, the Canes added a proven top 6 finisher at wing in the form of a player. He is multi-dimensional enough that he will set up line mates, but he is also very much plays with the type of ‘shoot first’ mentality that the Canes need to add on the wing. As a veteran who has produced pretty consistently for a number of years with different teams and different line mates, the hope is that he can mesh well with younger line mates and help them find a higher gear depending on how Brind’Amour builds the lineup.
Pacioretty who is 33 years old has missed games with injuries in the past few seasons which could be cause for concern, but he has continued to score at a high rate which is promising. In 2021-22 his 19 goals and 37 points in 39 games represent roughly a point per game and 40 goals. Similarly in 2020-21, he posted 24 goals and 51 points in 48 games. If he can stay healthy, there is every reason to believe that he will add another point per game scorer and challenge for the team’s goal scoring lead.
But maybe even more significant than his own production will be what he can do to serve as a catalyst for a second scoring line. Vincent Trocheck produced in the regular season as the Canes second line center and had a solid if maybe not spectacular 2022 NHL Playoffs campaign. But he was never really able to click with and significantly boost any of the young players who cycled through the wing positions next to him. So he was a great one player for second line, but what it really needs is catch lightning in a bottle and find a combination where 1+1+1=5.
In that vein, line combinations will change over the course of a long NHL season, but I would be surprised if Pacioretty does not spend time with Kotkaniemi. As much as any other player on the roster (assuming current top players continue to produce), Kotkaniemi could be the key to the 2022-23 Carolina Hurricanes. Based much more so on projections and hope for growth, Kotkaniemi now figures to enter training camp penciled in as the second line center. Maybe that makes sense based on his draft pedigree and potential ceiling. But based on his inability to stick on either of the top two scoring lines last year (as a wing though), his fall to fourth line center and his nearly invisible 14 games in the playoffs, asking him to center a second scoring line is asking a lot. Enter Max Pacioretty as a new factor in the equation. The path to the Canes forward group improving significantly maybe requires not just Pacioretty posting his own numbers but also serving as a catalyst for the other two players on a second scoring line. Kotkaniemi likely gets the first look, but if he does not rise up, Martin Necas maybe gets another look at center. Regardless, with Staal’s line being great at what they do defensively but being limited offensively, the Canes will need success, especially come playoff time, will depend on its ability to be two lines and six players deep scoring-wise at forward.
I would put the Brind’Amour’s single biggest priority in preseason and early in the regular season as trying to get Kotkaniemi going with trying to get Necas going right behind that. Even with the addition of Pacioretty, the Canes are basically even in terms of proven scorers with the loss of Trocheck and arguably even a little bit minus with Niederreiter seemingly gone (though he has not yet signed elsewhere). One or both of Kotkaniemi and Necas need to break through and become second line type scorers and more importantly need to do it with a formula that translates to the playoffs where they both completely disappeared last season.
With those goals, I would be very surprised if Pacioretty does not spend time with Kotkaniemi in preseason and likely into the regular season. Ideal would be a line of Pacioretty/Kotkaniemi/Necas that clicks, but with the second line center slot as most critical, I could also see Brind’Amour completely stacking the wings around Kotkaniemi to give him the best chance possible to come out of the gates strong and build confidence. So that also has the potential to see Svechnikov or Teravainen opposite Pacioretty on the other wing.
Based on that I think Pacioretty starts slotted next to Kotkaniemi with lines like:
Teravainen / Aho / Svechnikov
Pacioretty / Kotkaniemi / Necas or Jarvis
Kase / Staal / Fast
Martinook / Drury / Necas or Jarvis
That right wing slot next to Kotkaniemi could be a revolving door. I think that either Teravainen/Aho or Svechnikov/Aho are enough of a known quantity that you first try to build that second line that clicks and then after that reconfigure the first line as needed. There will be enough options left.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on Max Pacioretty first in terms of adding a scorer in his own right but maybe even more significantly being the catalyst for a couple young players on a second scoring line?
2) If you were Rod Brind’Amour, where would you slot Pacioretty in the Canes forward lines?
3) Do you agree with me giving credit to Canes management for truly going for it in ‘win now’ mode regardless of whether it ultimately works out?