Yesterday morning, Jim Rutherford addressed the media on the Hurricanes season and one of the key things discussed was the team's off-season plans and from the sound of things, the Hurricanes depth and defense could be in for a bit of an overhaul. In the presser, Rutherford mentioned that he would like to add two to three defensemen this off-season and become "tougher to play against" which could mean that changes are on the way. Terrible defending and no depth scoring were a big problem for the Canes in this past season, so it's good to see that Rutherford has identified the problem and is aiming to fix it. The question is how will he go about doing this.
The Hurricanes aren't an idea situation this off-season because they have roughly $8 mil. to spend and the free agent pool doesn't offer many solutions as far as finding a top-four defenseman goes. They also have a handful of players within their organization to re-sign and will need to keep an eye on future seasons, as well. It's easy to find one player to target and say that the team will need to pay what it takes to get him and ignore what it will do to their cap situation in future years. The Canes in particular will have to be cautious with this because they have a little under $20 mil. committed to nine players the year after next season. They also don't have a ton of prospects who they can count on to fill key roles on cheap ELC deals, although that could change after this draft class.
I wouldn't go as far as to say that the Hurricanes are in "cap hell," but with only $8 mil. to spend and quite a few holes to fill, Rutherford is going to have to make some creative moves to do what he wants while setting this team up in a good position for the future. After the jump, we will talk about what the Canes need to do this off-season and what kind of situation they will be in.
Players Under Contract
Carolina has roughly $35,550,000 committed to nine forwards next year and they could have more spots to fill since I doubt that Kevin Westgarth will be in the lineup every night. I also think that Drayson Bowman's spot isn't guaranteed since he really underperformed this season and was given a boatload of chances. He is on a one-way deal so sending him down will be tough and he could end up being moved if the Canes wish to go in a different direction with their bottom-six. Judging from Rutherford's indication, he wants the team to get bigger and beefing up the bottom-six should not be relatively hard to do through free agency. Although, one thing I would advise against is overpaying or signing someone purely based on size. If they can't contribute or move the puck forward at all then they probably aren't worth bringing in. Still, you ideally want your fourth line to be physical and not be a liability whenever they are out there and finding three plaeyrs to do that shouldn't come at a high cost.
The Hurricanes can also fill some of these spots by re-signing some of their restricted free agents. Riley Nash is due for a new contract and so is Zac Dalpe and I would be willing to bet that both will be on the team to start next season. Nash was the team's third line center for half of this most recent season and I'd expect him to center that line or the fourth line again this year, depending on what approach the team takes. As for Dalpe, some are saying that he is a "bust" because he didn't stay on the team full-time this year but he actually played very well with the Canes and should have never been sent down. After Bowman was given so much time with the Canes this year, I would be shocked if the same doesn't happen with Dalpe next season.
The good news with the Hurricanes forwards is that the key pieces are all locked in and the rest of the spots shouldn't be too hard to replace. The going rate for a penalty kill specialist or a third liner is probably $2 mil. at the maximum and even then that's overpaying under the new salary cap. Carolina has gone cheap with their bottom-six in recent seasons and will probably do so again given the market and the team needing to focus more on defense.
Speaking of which….
No one on Carolina's blue-line is signed to a huge deal, as Tim Gleason's four-year, $16 mil. contract is the bigegst one they have on the books. That's mostly because they have a lot of money committed to their forwards and have two young defensemen in Justin Faulk & Jamie McBain playing top-four roles. Faulk's cheap years are running out, though and the team has to sign him to a new deal after next season. This is very important to keep in mind when free agency roles around because as the best defenseman on the team, Faulk will likely want to be paid as such. The fact that it's an RFA deal gives the Hurricanes some leverage but if Skinner's contract is any indication, Rutherford is willing to pay big money for these players. Phoenix's Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a similar player to Faulk and was recently signed to a six-year deal with a cap hit of $5.5 mil. I'm not saying Faulk will command that much because a lot of his contributions don't show up on the scoresheet, but it's possible he may want that kind of money.
That being said, I don't think committing long-term money is going to be a huge issue for the Hurricanes this off-season because the free agent crop of defensemen is very, very weak and I highly doubt any GM is going to pay a plyaer like Mark Streit, Sergei Gonchar, Ron Hainsey or Marek Zidlicky $5+ mil. over 4-5 year. The Canes also have players in their system like Ryan Murphy, Keegan Lowe, Danny Biega & Austin Levi who could be competing for roster spots within that time, so I don't think there is a need to sign one of these players to a long-term deal.
However, while none of the defensemen in free agency offer a long-term solution, there are some players that can help Carolina next season. Realistically, the Hurricanes need one or two second-pairing defenseman to add to the fold and possibly another powerplay specialist depending what Pitkanen's status is. Some pieces could have to be moved in order for the Canes to acquire & make room for them, though. Jamie McBain's name is probably first on the list to be traded since Rutherford attempted to move him during the season and it's tough to find a spot for him with the defense being over-populated by third-pairing guys as it is. Trading him won't provide a ton of cap relief, though so the only thing the Canes gain from trading him is that they open up a roster spot.
Regardless, I think there will be a couple of free agent additions on defense and both might end up costing $5 mil. in cap space if the Canes are lucky.
Carolina's goaltending situation is no different than it has been for the last five years or so. They have a starter locked up in Ward and need to find a suitable back-up for him. Justin Peters is still signed under a one-way contract but I don't think his performance during Ward's absence was very convincing, so it wouldn't surprise me if another goaltender is brought in. It also wouldn't surprise me if that other goaltender is Dan Ellis. Whether or not he is retained will depend on how much money he wants and what other teams are offering him. Most back-ups cost teams $1-1.5 mil. so that should be around what Ellis will be signed for. However, Carolina may have to go lower than that with their cap situation.
So that's what Carolina's roster looks like heading into the off-season. I mentioned that some of the holes can be filled by retaining free agents, but who on the roster right now is worth keeping? Let's sort through them.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Chad LaRose – Had only four points in 35 games and didn't show up to his exit meaning, so this leads me to believe that he is a goner. LaRose bounced around the lineup this year and his performance was better than his terrible boxcar numbers, but I think it's best if the Canes parted ways with him. He is better than what he showed this year but still a replaceable player in the grand scheme. Plus, the Canes have some guys in Charlotte who can take over his spot without much of a transition.
Tim Brent – Brent shouldn't cost too much to keep around but I think the Canes might look in a different direction to fill their hole at fourth line center. Jeremy Welsh could potentially slide into this role or they might look for a more defensive-minded player thorough free agency. Granted, whoever they get in free agency probably won't be much better or worse than Brent so I think he could be worth retaining at a low cost.
Joe Corvo – Corvo had a decent season considering he was being asked to do a lot more than he was capable of, but he is going to be 36 this coming year and is on the downside of his career. Much like LaRose, it's probably better if Carolina goes in a different direction here.
Marc-Andre Bergeron – Bergeron gets a lot of flack, but he played his role as a powerplay specialist perfectly. The Hurricanes were creating 1.3 chances for every two minutes of powerplay time that Bergeron was on the ice for and their PP efficiency increased after they brought him aboard. That being said, he is still a liability at even strength (74.7 offensive zone start percentage), a third-pairing defenseman and his role can be taken over by Ryan Murphy next year. Again, not a bad player for what he is but I don't see the point in bringing him back.
Dan Ellis – This really depends on how much Ellis wants and if the Canes want to bring him back or look for another back-up goaltender. If he costs around $1 mil. or so, then I think that should be enough for the Hurricanes to bring him back for next year. Although, they are kind of in a mind since the only options are re-signing Ellis, keeping Peters or going with an unsure option in free agency.
Bobby Sanguinetti – Sanguientti improved considerably as the season went on and outperformed McBain as a third-pairing defenseman down the stretch. The problem is that Sanguinetti hasn't proven himself to be more than a third-pairing defenseman and the Hurricanes don't need another one right now. He's still young, though and should improve over time given how this season went for him. I think there is a good chance that he is retained for depth purposes but I could easily see the Canes letting him walk, too since there isn't much value lost here.
Brett Bellemore – Did enough in eight games to impress the coaching staff and the front-office. He also fills a need as a defensive defenseman but we are running into a common problem here. Bellemore is an AHL-veteran and has never been more than a third-pairing defenseman at the next level. Signing him and assuming that he can fill a top-four role would be a huge mistake, but I doubt Rutherford will be that naive. I think Rutherford could have to decide between Bellemore & Sanguinetti as to who to re-sign and Bellemore could win out because he fills an immediate need and could start the year as a 6/7 defenseman. I just hope that he gets a two-way deal since eight games isn't enough to assume he can be an every-day NHL-er and he has a ton of value to Charlotte.
Restricted Free Agent
Riley Nash – Nash will definitely be retained but for how long and how much is the question. He was the Canes third-line center for about half of the season but still has under 40 games of NHL experience, so his NHL cap hit will likely be under $1 mil. I could also see him getting a two-way deal because of this and his age. He will probably center either the third or the fourth line next season depending on who else the Hurricanes bring in.
Zac Dalpe – Seeing how Dalpe is only a RFA, I have little to no doubt that he will be retained and he will probably get a contract similar to what Bowman received last season. Dalpe's performance at the NHL level was very impressive this year, even if management didn't see it as such and I don't think he will have trouble competing for a third-line spot next season. Although, this situation becomes much more complicated if the Hurricanes bring in another player or two to fill that role instead. I still have a lot of confidence in him, though.
Andreas Nodl – Nodl's situation is tough to figure out. On one hand, he is probably good enough to play on the Canes fourth line and assume a role as a penalty kill specialist, but he lasted only eight games this year. He also has a low-ceiling as a defensive third liner but he also fills a need since the Canes could use someone like that for the fourth lihe next year. Nodl has more NHL experience than most of the Canes RFAs and he could end up not being qualified if they can't guaruntee him a roster spot. I think he has value but not a lot is going to be lost if the Canes choose not to qualify him.
Michal Jordan – Got to make his NHL debut this year and while he didn't make much of an impression, he will likely be re-signed to play with the Checkers since he plays a big role there. It also doesn't hurt to have a lot of young defensemen in your system.
This is just a rough estimate now but after factoring in RFA costs, the Hurricanes should be prepared to spend about $6-7 mil. this off-season if they want to add a back-up goaltender, two defensemen and at least three forwards. That's doable under their current cap situation but they are going to be very, very close to the limit and I don't think Rutherford wants to be in that situation. Therefore, it wouldn't surprise me to see a couple of trades happen. McBain, Bowman, Peters are probably the most likely to be dealt and that provides some savings, but not a ton.
If no trades are possible, then the Canes will need to look for a good bargain in free agency to fill their holes on defense.There is the possibility of more players becoming available through amnesty buyouts at lower costs. It sounds like "dumpster diving" but some good players could become available because of other team's cap situations and it's worth keeping an eye on. Plus, beggars can't be choosers.
The Hurricanes have limited options this off-season thanks to their cap situation and a bad free agent market, so it's going to take some creativity and shrewd moves by the front-office for them to accomplish everything they aim to this off-season.