In case you missed it, I went rogue last night and made a case for the Carolina Hurricanes jumping into and winning the potential Erik Karlsson bidding war. At first glance, some might think this is some combination of overzealous dreaming or trade deadline click bait. But while acknowledging that the odds are long simply because of the number of teams that would be involved if Karlsson is in fact available, I encourage everyone give the idea fair consideration and see if just maybe it actually makes some sense.
Returning to less spectacular NHL trade deadline coverage, thus far we have:
Today, Part 4 of the series looks at the 2018 NHL trade deadline from the viewpoint of Ron Francis.
The plan and the history
As part of setting the stage in part 1, I wrote in some detail about Francis’ history. The short version is that from the beginning Francis has committed to (and followed through on) diligently building a prospect pool and organization that could not just return to the playoffs but become a regular entrant. And thus far, Francis has steadfastly clung to draft picks and followed through on the original plan.
Though I do think that Francis is at a transition point and will shift his emphasis somewhat more toward doing what it takes to win now, I do not see him shifting so much that he becomes a high bidder who spends a bunch of futures for short-term fixes.
Based on balancing Francis’ original plan and the need to shift at least some toward winning now, here is my best guess for where Francis is at right now.
Unless prices plummet such that really good players become available for mid-round draft picks (which seems highly unlikely), most surprising would be if Francis suddenly became a high bidder on any of the marquee rentals. So over the next few days, anytime I see mention of the Hurricanes linked to any of Rick Nash, Evander Kane or other players with big price tags and contracts that expire at the end of the 2017-18, I will be very skeptical and write these off as likely just being random ‘throw interesting stuff at the wall and see what sticks’ type trade deadline fodder.
Here is why…First, it is simply the long-term strategy as noted above. But also significant is the fact that one forward might or might not make a difference for the 2017-18 season. The team is in a multi-team dog fight that could go any direction. Further, issues with goaltending and inconsistency have the potential of sabotaging even the productive addition of a higher-end forward.
Players with term as a more likely option
In many ways, the small collection of players thought to be available who have term past 2017-18 on their contract is more interesting. Higher-end scoring wings Max Pacioretty, Mike Hoffman, Tomas Tatar or Gustav Nyquist could add scoring from the wing and fit into a longer-term plan that sees either Sebastian Aho or Martin Necas centering a top scoring line. Young players with both upside and risk like Alex Galchenyuk and Max Domi could add another young offensive talent to the mix. Finally, a player like Derek Brassard while not a true first line center could add a more offensive veteran center to the mix to buy time and be an upgrade over Derek Ryan.
Though these players with term could cost as much or more than many rentals, I think they actually make more sense for the Hurricanes providing two or more runs at breaking the playoff drought and buying time until the next wave of young Canes forwards are ready.
It is no secret at this point, that I like the idea of adding Max Pacioretty, but depending on trade cost, I think a decent case could also be made for Mike Hoffman or Derek Brassard. Max Domi and Alex Galchenyuk are more complicated situations but not out of the question either.
What about a lesser deal at a much smaller cost?
I touched on this in one of the earlier segments. While Francis could go the route of just shopping for value and adding the best rental he can get for a mid-round draft pick, I am skeptical that there is much, if any, upgrade to be gained from it. The Hurricanes are a deeper team at forward than they were a couple years ago, so I do not see where a depth forward will be significantly better than whoever is in the lineup right now. On defense, the Hurricanes are six deep. And while I do think there is room for improvement in goal, the situation is complicated. So while I advocate considering late morning on Monday what could be had for a fourth or fifth round draft pick, I am not sure such a deal will make sense.
Could the Hurricanes move a core player?
As noted in my article about pursuing Erik Karlsson, I do think the team needs some kind of jolt to both find and maintain the higher gear that pushes up into a playoff spot and stays there. That could possibly be accomplished by adding a difference-maker in return for futures, but the potential is also there for Francis to use the trade deadline to remake the core of the team with a player for player hockey trade of significance.
The exciting but admittedly unlikely Erik Karlsson scenario is one such possibility, but at a more basic level, Francis has some decisions to make about the long-term future of the team.
An important starting point is to note that Francis has said or done nothing to suggest that a core player will be moved or that he is even exploring this possibility. And the most likely scenario is that the core stays intact at least give the 2017-18 a go with any big changes pushing to the offseason. But that said, the Hurricanes have a couple high-end players who are tracking toward their net contract and the decision that comes with it.
Justin Faulk: Faulk has two more years remaining on this current contract after the 2017-18 season. As such, there is no urgency to make a decision on his long-term role with the team. But at the same time, Faulk is an interesting case. He started the 2016-17 season as the veteran leader of a young blue line. He has since been surpassed by Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce on the depth chart and has had an up and down time of it defensively as a top 4 defenseman over the past two years. With the Hurricanes’ increasing young depth on the blue line, Francis could have the luxury of parting ways with Faulk to boost the offense.
Jeff Skinner: Skinner’s name is on TSN’s Trade Bait Board. Who knows for certain what, if anything, should be made of that, but if he is not already, Francis should be considering what Skinner’s long-term role with the team is. He is signed through the 2018-19 season and will require an increase in salary to be re-signed. With players like Aho, Teravainen, Slavin, Pesce and Hanifin also signing new contracts at higher prices, Francis would be wise to figure out where Skinner fits into the picture and act accordingly
Scott Darling: Unless something changes dramatically in the last quarter of the season, Darling is going to enter the offseason as a player who will be risky to slot even as a backup for the 2018-19. While it is definitely possible that Darling rebounds, calling that anything more than a dice roll seems unfounded based on Darling’s 2017-18 season. Possibly more than any other situation, that is going to put massing pressure on Francis this summer. Does Francis bite the bullet, buy Darling out (would be Semin-esque with $1.33 million owed for each of six years)? Could Francis package Darling up in a bigger deal to start fresh with his slot? Should Francis ride it out for at least a second year hoping for a rebound after a reset ? And if he does bring Darling back, would it then make sense to not re-sign Ward so that his slot could be used for a higher-end goalie capable of taking the starting role?
Here is an interest chain reaction to think about…If Francis does eventually decide to buy out Scott Darling (after exploring trade possibilities first), then I think one could make a reasonable argument that Francis should know that right now and has missed on a couple opportunities to move forward just a little early by adding another goalie for the stretch run. This week, the Flyers added Petr Mrazek from Detroit, and Arizona added Darcy Kuemper from Los Angeles both for fairly modest costs. If (and only if) Francis decides to punt on Darling this summer, then perhaps he should have been in on goalie help early to improve for the 2017-18 season and see what another goalie looks like in the Canes lineup.
Again, the most likely outcome in terms of core player deals is that nothing happens. But if I had to name players from the top half of the roster who Francis might consider moving as part of a shake up, I think Faulk and Skinner rise to the top of the list because of the cost of their current contracts and also next contracts that would be signed for unrestricted free agent years. I am on record as thinking that Darling is immovable right now, but if Francis decided early that he was going to drop Darling one way or another this summer, trading for another goalie right now could be the first clue.
Could the Hurricanes be sellers again?
The Hurricanes are guaranteed to be in the playoff chase come deadline day which precludes another round of fire sales. But with Lee Stempniak and Derek Ryan both scheduled to become free agents this summer, they could have value as depth forwards for Stanley Cup contenders looking for depth. If the Hurricanes add a higher-end forward, that could make one of Stempniak and/or Ryan expendable, but best bet is that the Hurricanes are not sellers this year.
Netting it out
— I will be very surprised to see the Hurricanes win a bidding ward for a higher-end rental.
–I actually think an equally big trade for a player with contract terms makes more sense and is therefore more likely.
–While unlikely, I do not think that it is out of the question that Francis using the trade deadline to make a bigger player for player trade that shakes up the core and maybe at the same time jump starts the team.