The Carolina Hurricanes made a couple big splashes on the opening day of free agency. In doing so, they mostly finished at least a tentative roster and also mostly used up the salary cap available for the 2022-23 season.
But there are still a couple final pieces hanging out there to be completed and even the potential for another surprise addition. That is the subject of today’s Daily Cup of Joe.
The current status of the 2022-23 Carolina Hurricanes roster
Line combinations are subject to change, but this is roughly how I would slot the current lineup counting only the players already under contract.
Teuvo Teravainen / Sebastian Aho / Andrei Svechnikov
Max Pacioretty / Jesperi Kotkaniemi / Seth Jarvis
Ondrej Kase / Jordan Staal / Jesper Fast
Jordan Martinook / Jack Drury / ________
Unsigned: Martin Necas
Per my previous article, priority #1 at forward is getting Kotkaniemi going in that C2 slot vacated by Trocheck. I think that likely means Pacioretty on his left side and could also see Svechnikov start the season on that line. People talk about Niederreiter’s 24 goals, but I think the bigger thing if he departs is finding a player who meshes well with Staal and the cycling game. Staal’s line was not great defensively (especially in the playoffs) because they defended so WELL. They were great because they did not have to defend MUCH. Once they got puck possession, they almost always spent the rest of their shift playing on the walls in the offensive zone. Kase (or whoever else slots on Staal’s left wing) might be comparably offensively, but can that player also mesh in that line’s formula for success? I like the idea of a Drury/Noesen combination on the fourth line possibly with Necas if he is the odd many out building the higher lines.
Brady Skjei / Brett Pesce
Jaccob Slavin / Brent Burns
Jake Gardiner / Jalen Chatfield
Unsigned: Ethan Bear
I think Burns is a great replacement for DeAngelo offensively. His skill set is a bit different, but he has consistently scored at the NHL level. The burning question for me is whether is truly a top 4 defenseman defensively at this stage of his career. If so, the top 4 is solid if healthy. If not, I think the team starts to look a bit like 2021-22 with a capable but not truly sound blue line especially come playoff time. The depth is also not quite what it was a few years back. The options available have the potential to be a good enough third pairing, but I am not sure any of the players available represent great options to step into the top 4 in the event of an injury.
Andersen injury aside, the 2021-22 goaltending was a strength. With Kochetkov in the AHL, one has to like the goaltending if everyone can stay healthy.
The current salary cap math
That lineup leaves the Hurricanes one player short of the minimum 20 and has a total salary of $77,829,000 which leaves available budget of $4,670,000 with Ethan Bear and Martin Necas remaining as restricted free agents and Nino Niederreiter as an unrestricted free agent.
On a one-year or couple-year bridge deal, I would estimate Martin Necas’ salary at $3-4 million. On the one hand, the Hurricanes ponied up $4.85 million per year for Kotkaniemi whose scoring production is less than Necas’. That could be a comparable but not a direct one since Kotkaniemi signed for eight years. A short-term deal should come in at closer to $3 million. Bear is coming off a contract that paid him $2 million in 2021-22, but he had a tough year playing his way down to the #7 slot as a healthy scratch. The Hurricanes qualified him, and he is schedule for arbitration. I was actually a bit surprised that Bear’s agent did not just sign the qualifying offer to take a mulligan on 2021-22 and aim to win a better long-term deal next summer after a better 2022-23 season. The Hurricanes might be able to get the average salary a bit lower by giving him more than one year, but Bear figures to come in around $2 million.
Rough math says that best case is that the Hurricanes could barely squeeze under the salary cap limbo bar with both of these players signed. Best case scenario could see Necas at $3 million, Bear at $1.75 million and Chatfield sent to the AHL. That would give the Canes a 20-player roster with no extras for about $600,000 less than the salary cap ceiling. The problem is that the lack of wiggle room leaves no room to carry an extra player or two to cover for injuries and could even create problems trying to recall players from the AHL in the event of injuries.
The many questions
So what does it take to make the math work?
I would be surprised if all three of Necas, Bear and Gardiner are still part of the roster when opening night arrives. Gardiner would be the most likely candidate to be traded with a team receiving some combination of prospects and/or draft picks for taking his contract. If the Hurricanes trade Gardiner without taking salary back, the team suddenly has room to re-sign Necas and Bear and still have about $4 million to add a 21st and 22nd player to the roster either from the AHL, free agency or a trade.
So why doesn’t the team make a decision and move to finish things up already?
Right now, there are multiple NHL teams who are either already over the salary cap ceiling or still have to sign players that will likely put them over the salary cap ceiling. That list is likely to grow by whichever team adds Matthew Tkachuk. That situation is likely to make available a few players whose cost is below market because the team unloading them is forced to do something expeditiously. Reference the Hurricanes already adding Max Pacioretty for the mere cost of future considerations. The best thing for the Hurricanes to do right now as this unfolds is to maintain as much flexibility as possible in case something too good to be true again falls into the team’s lap.
So which teams might have to unload somebody?
A decent but probably incomplete list of teams who could have to dump salary for a discount includes:
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs currently sit $1.5 million over the cap ceiling. With 14 forwards showing, they could squeeze under the $82.5 million limit, but still need to re-sign Rasmus Sundin which puts them back over. Alleged cap cuts include Alexander Kerfoot and Justin Holl. At $2 million Holl could be a decent defenseman.
Columbus Blue Jackets: In winning the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes, Columbus created salary cap issues yet to be resolved. CapFriendly shows Columbus with $2.3 million salary cap available, but they still need to re-sign Patrik Laine who will cost significantly more than that. The current situation includes 14 forwards, 8 defenseman and a couple more players on injured reserve, so that will free up a bit more money, but the Blue Jackets still figure to need to move a player or two to make the math work.
Florida Panthers: With 23 players under contract, the Panthers are currently $3.025 million over the salary cap ceiling. Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, who has been an intermittent entry in the trade rumor mill, is scheduled to make $3.25 million for 2022-23, so trading him would do the trick (barely).
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are basically right at the salary cap limit but only have nine forwards under contract. Re-signing restricted free agents Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto and Ryan McCleod figures to push them over the limit even if they cut a couple players. It is no secret that Puljujarvi has been available, but the Oilers said that they did not like the offers for him. When push comes to shove, he could become another Pacioretty who is available for almost nothing because of salary cap necessities.
Whoever signs Kadri or Klingberg or trades for Tkachuk: There are a couple teams that have cap space to add a higher-end salary, but many teams potentially in the couple remaining bidding wars could need to cut salary to make room for one of these players.
The Hurricanes are maintaining flexibility in a couple ways right now. First, by not yet signing either Bear or Necas, the team has the ability to temporarily go up to 10 percent over the salary cap ceiling if the right deal comes along. Second, if Bear actually makes it to arbitration, that would trigger another buyout window that would give the team the ability to buy out Gardiner if necessary to clear $2.7 million of 2022-23 cap space. Finally, not signing Necas yet could enhance his value if the Canes were to trade him to another team, giving them the option to negotiate a long-term contract if they choose.
So long story short, the lack of movement on the Canes couple remaining items is very intentional right now as the team aims to stay flexible which could present the chance to be opportunistic as in the case of Pacioretty.
What about Nino Niederreiter?
For a proven middle of the lineup forward with size coming off a decent 44-point season, things have been very quiet on Niederreiter. I do not recall hearing his name mentioned on the day free agency opened, and things have been pretty quiet since then. Could this mean his patiently waiting for an opening to re-sign with the Canes? While I do think that is possible, I think he is still likely the same plan B that he started free agency as. On the one hand, he is a great fit for Staal’s checking line. On the other hand, the bigger thing is that he is just that, a great third checking line forward who chips in some offense. He is a player whose playoff production has been less than his regular season production. As such, I think the Canes will continue to see what shakes out from the dominoes yet to fall and will need to prioritize re-signing Necas if he does not become part of a trade and would then consider re-signing Niederreiter if there was still money left. So basically if nothing else emerges, and the Canes can unload Gardiner at a reasonable cost, then there might be room for Niederreiter at the end.
Could the Canes still do something bigger?
Though unlikely, I think it is still possible for the Hurricanes to add a higher-end player. Before the off-season started, I thought there was a high probability that Necas would be an odd man out simply because the Canes needed to upgrade the top half of the roster and would need to give up someone to do so. Thus far the Canes managed to make two moves without giving up much. Most likely at this point, that means that the team gives him at least another year to try to push closer to his high ceiling. But the other possibility is that the Canes still make one more big deal. Trading Necas and including Gardiner in the same deal or trading him elsewhere with draft picks as compensation would suddenly free up $6-7 million of cap space. As the game of musical chairs starts to wind down, could that yield one more potential difference-maker for the top half of the lineup? Definitely maybe. 🙂 Having given up nothing significant to acquire Burns or Pacioretty, the Canes still have the pieces if willing to part with Necas to swing for the fences in a deal for someone like Chychrun.
Is Matthew Tkachuk a possibility?
Very doubtful. As much as I think he is exactly what the Canes need as a power forward who plays with a nose for the net but has top line skill and can match pace in fast-paced system, the math would be tough. First, the Canes would likely need to give up Necas (or possibly Jarvis), a first-round draft pick in 2023 and a bunch more. Even still, that type of ‘package’ offer without a bona fide top 6 replacement likely does not win a bidding war.Then fitting an $8-10 million contract into the mix would be difficult. For 2022-23, the Canes would need to force Gardiner into the deal with Necas and then it is still very tight. Further, adding that kind of long-term contract right now likely indirectly means you have to part ways with a core player going forward. Long story short, though I do think the Canes could make the salary cap math work for 2022-23 if they include Gardiner and Necas in the deal, I still think the odds are incredibly low given what other bids are likely to be.
What is going on behind the scenes right now?
Right now, I would expect that Don Waddell is busy surveying the market for options to unload players and salary to free up budget if something too good to be true comes along. He likely has a good idea of which teams would consider taking Jake Gardiner and what it will cost to unload his contract. He also has an idea of which teams might have an interest in Ethan Bear for a mid/late-round draft pick. He is also likely poking around the teams that have cap issues looking, so he is the first call if another ‘Pacioretty for nothing’ type situation arises. And though the prices are likely too high right now, he is likely tracking the status of the few higher-end players still available in case one or two lose the game of musical chairs and have to sign a short-term deal for less than market value once the money dries up. Finally, Waddell is likely in regular contact with Niederreiter’s camp in the event that something significantly better does not emerge from the dominoes falling.
How does it end?
Because there are so many moving parts right now that will force a few teams to make hard decisions cap-wise, I actually think the Canes and Don Waddell have one more deal in them, very likely of the variety that sees them adding a middle of the roster type player for very little in cost because a team needs to do something to get under the cap.
1) At least one of Necas, Bear and/or Gardiner are not with the team by opening day.
2) Being opportunistic again, the Canes do add another middle of the roster player to the mix.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think the salary cap dominoes that will fall in the coming weeks will present an opportunity for the Hurricanes to add one more significant player?
2) What, if anything, do you make of Ethan Bear and Martin Necas not being re-signed yet?
3) To what degree would you prioritize re-signing Nino Niederreiter over potential other options that might or might not become available?