With the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals starting on Wednesday night, the off-season is quickly approaching. Despite making three consecutive playoff appearances, the 2022 off-season was a whirlwind for the Canes who replaced both goalies and even the #3 goalie, brought in four new defensemen and also swapped in three new forwards. When the dust settled half of the roster had changed over.
Though the volume could be slightly less for the upcoming off-season, the moves could be even more tumultuous with more top half of the roster players in play.
My hope is to work through each player in more detail later, but today’s Daily Cup of Joe cuts to the chase and offers quick-hitter thoughts on each Canes free agent.
None. Both Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta signed two-year deals last summer, so the team is set to stand pat in net. With Andersen having a strong regular season, Raanta generally playing well in the playoffs and Pyotr Kochetkov looking promising in his partial season in North America, I would expect the Canes to stand pat in net.
After what I thought was a slow start in a Hurricanes uniform, Vincent Trocheck has settled in and become a solid second line center. He is consistent in terms of energy level and his always leaning forward, aggressive style is a perfect fit for how Brind’Amour wants to play. His 21 goals and 51 points in 81 games in 2021-22 was a modest step down but still decent production from the C2 slot. My only question mark on him is if he can be the type of player that makes his line mates better and equally productive. He has never really clicked with and boosted any of a number of players with scoring ability or at least potential. Does he just need a better or different type of player on his wings? Or is he just a little bit light on generating scoring chances for his wings?
Regardless of that question, Trocheck has been good enough or better as a second line center and had a similarly productive and decent 2022 NHL playoffs even if not playing lights out. Coming off a contract that paid him $4.75 million per year at the age of 28, he will be in demand and earn a significant raise if he tries free agency. In terms of re-signing Trocheck, I ask two related questions. First, how much will it cost to re-sign him? At a ceiling kind of price that approaches $8 million it makes the Canes salary cap puzzle more difficult. But the second question is how the team would replace him if he departed. Bona fide proven second line centers are a rare commodity. If the team was patiently trying to build a team to win in a couple years, trying one or both of Kotkaniemi and Necas in that slot to start the season could be interesting, but for a team trying to win now, that would be a very risky bet on a critical roster slot.
So despite being open to creative ways to replace Trocheck, I think the team needs to find the money to re-sign him if unable to find such an alternative.
Playing primarily on Jordan Staal’s line Nino Niederreiter had a solid 2021-22 season offensively with 24 goals and 44 points. Considering his role, playing with Staal whose strength is his defensive play more so than his playmaking, I would rate Niederreiter’s production as above average given role and slot. Coming off a contract that paid him $5.25 million per year, the question is whether the Hurricanes should continue to allocate this much to a third line role. I am on record as thinking that the the team needs to get get more goal scoring from the wings on the top two lines especially with the current structure that has a checking-leaning third line. So the question becomes if the Hurricanes could slot Jack Drury or a less expensive free agent addition on the third line and better use that salary cap budget to add a higher-end finishing wing.
I like Niederreiter for about $4 million. At that salary, Niederreiter provides quality scoring depth and a player who meshes well with Staal and still scores some. Niederreiter would not so much be a bad signing at salary higher than that, but if the team agrees with me that it needs to add a higher-end finisher or two, he is one of the options to free the salary cap space needed.
Considering the long-term, what the Hurricanes do with Martin Necas this summer could be the team’s biggest decision. Entering the 2018-19 season, he was a promising young forward with the potential to be a difference-maker in the top 6 forwards. That season saw him in a bit over his head with the two-way responsibilities for a center at the NHL level, but after being sent down, he excelled at the AHL level. The 2019-20 season saw him post a respectable 16 goals and 36 points playing right wing. His 2020-21 season saw a small step forward, but then his 2021-22 season saw his development flatten out or take a small step backward with 40 points in 80 games and a lackluster playoffs with no goals in 14 games.
Necas is still only 23 years old which could suggest just having a bit more patience, but there are a few things working against this. First, as a team whose top offensive players can be a bit perimeter-oriented, Necas adds another when maybe more of a power forward would be more complementary. Second, if the Canes were in rebuilding mode with the ability to just try things, I would re-audition Necas at center now that he has significant NHL experience. As a prospect, his skating ability and skill set very much projected as a playmaking center. Very possibly his highest ceiling could be in that role. But for a team pushing for a Cup now, it would be a sizable risk to make room for him at center. Finally, as a restricted free agent, his next contract could be a challenge, especially given team context. The Hurricanes already re-signed Kotkaniemi to a long-term deal for $4.8 million. Kotkaniemi has collected 91 points in 237 NHL games. Necas has scored 119 in 203 NHL games. If I am Necas’ agent, that is my comparable for contract negotiations. Having already committed $4.8 million to one fourth-liner who did not produce in the playoffs, could a team that is in ‘win now’ mode do similar with another? As much as I like betting on young players’ development, that is a risky path. I would have passed on betting $4.8 million per year long-term on Kotkaniemi’s high draft pedigree. His potential is higher, but as of right now, he is a replaceable depth center with upside. Then I would have given Necas another audition at center with some skill on his wings even if it was in the form of younger players. But that ship might have sailed when the Canes decided to go double or nothing on Kotkaniemi.
Returning to a familiar theme, if the Hurricanes agree with my assessment that they need to add a higher-end scoring wing or two, Necas could be one of the trade chips needed in a deal that would require more than a collection of draft picks and prospects.
After a 2020-21 season often with a makeshift fourth line sometimes without a true center, Derek Stepan added a reliable, veteran, fourth-line center to the roster. But when Jesperi Kotkaniemi did not work out in his auditions as a top 6 scoring wing and instead fell to the fourth-line center slot, Stepan became a player without a slot, bouncing in and out of the lineup. Having never really seized a spot in the lineup, I would expect the Canes to part ways with Stepan who is an unrestricted free agent.
As a restricted free agent who primarily slotted on the fourth line during the 2021-22 season, Lorentz should be one of the easier ones on this list. His eight goals in 67 games in 2021-22 is decent scoring production for a fourth-liner but his 13 scoring points does clearly slot him as a fourth-liner. I think he could bring more if he played with a bit more of an edge and a little nastiness, but as a known quantity who is a decent fit for Brind’Amour’s forechecking system, I would expect him to be re-signed for a modest raise from the $725,000 per year for his current contract.
Where I land
Considering the free agent forwards as a interrelated set of decisions, I would be exploring trade options to add another proven second-line center at the same time I am figuring out how much it will cost to re-sign Trocheck. That slot is my top priority of the ones currently filled. If unable to stir up an acceptable alternative and if able to get Trocheck to take a modest discount, I would re-sign him.
As much as it pains me to say it, I would consider using Necas as a trade chip to add a scoring wing ideally of more of the interior play variety. I would actually prioritize trading Kotkaniemi over Necas, but his long-term suggests that his acquisition might be one of those hills that management dies on.
Unless he is willing to take a significant discount, I would be inclined to move slowly on Niederreiter with the idea being that his salary might be needed to make an upgrade to the top half of the roster but that if there is money available a bit later that I would like to have Niederreiter back. I recognize that this could result in losing him, but in his current role on Staal’s line, I think someone like Drury could be a good fit for much less salary.
Lorentz is an acceptable re-signing as a depth player, and since he did not really carve out a role, I would let Stepan go.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How high of a priority and how much budget would you allocate (if any) to re-signing Vincent Trocheck?
2) Same question for Nino Niederreiter?
3) What are your thoughts on Martin Necas? Is patience in order as he is only 23 years old and still with plenty of upside if he finds a higher gear? Or with the Canes looking to win now, would you consider using him as a trade chip?