The free agency period is less than 10 hours away from beginning and it's still tough to get a grasp on what exactly Hurricanes will do over the next few days. With a few needs to address and not much cap space to work with, GM Jim Rutherford is sort of in a bind this summer and will need to think of some creative ways to give the Hurricanes roster a boost heading into next season.
Trying to outbid other teams in the free agent market isn't the best strategy to work with this year, so the Hurricanes front office will have to find undervalued players, make trades or promote from within to strengthen this team. Trading for Andrej Sekera at the draft was a nice start, but things are still a work in progress there.
Carolina's lack of significant cap space will prevent them from making any big splash-type signings, so those who are expecting them to sign Rob Scuderi or Ron Hainsey to a long-term deal are going to come away disappointed. This is not the worst thing in the world because bidding for players can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have to pay top dollar to get the best players these days but a lot of teams usually regret giving out these types of contracts within a few years. This is mainly because the production from a lot of free agents tends to go down as they get older and some teams resort to overpaying for above average or mediocre players when there is no other option. Either way, not many of these end up as great bets in the long-run and the high number of players being bought out this year is proof of that.
Therefore, it's entire free agency period could go by without the Hurricanes making a lot of noise. With Tlusty and Faulk due raises after next season, the last thing the Canes need right now is long-term money invested in average players. This means they should think twice before throwing a big contract in the direction of someone like Douglas Murray, Andrew Ference or another player who is likely going to be bad value beyond next year. I understand that the team needs to improve, but I'm also not sure if someone like Ference or Hainsey provides that big enough of an upgrade for Carolina to get in a bidding war with other teams. This is a very weak free agency class and overpaying for mediocre talents is one of the reasons why teams like Calgary have struggled so much in recent years. Carolina should be cautious before traveling down that road.
With that being said, the Hurricanes have about $5-7 mil. in cap space to play around with and can afford to pay market value at one position of need. The question is do they spend it on defense, a back-up goaltender or the bottom-six. The latter two are the more feasible options, but the defense is probably the most crucial. However, it is also the most expensive and upgrading it through free agency will not be an easy task.
After the jump, we'll look at all each position and review some players the Hurricanes should consider signing over the next couple of days.
Need #1: Defense
Why should the Hurricanes spend on defense?
Defense was the priority entering the off-season and it was the biggest area for concern for the Canes last year. Adding Sekera in place of Jamie McBain is an upgrade for the Hurricanes, because he gives them someone who can play top-four minutes but he alone isn't enough. Sekera will probably serve as more of a stop-gap rather than a permanent solution unless there is another trade in the works. The Hurricanes also need to add someone for the third pairing but it sounds like they will enter next year with Brett Bellemore or Ryan Murphy playing that role, both of whom are unproven options. Even if the Canes can not find anyone for the top-four, adding some more depth to the blue-line could not hurt at all.
Why shouldn't the Hurricanes spend on defense?
Take a look at the defensemen who are available this off-season and tell me how many of them would significantly improve your team? Maybe 2-3 tops? They are also going to be very expensive and could be a risky gamble if they are given a 3-4 year contract. I mentioned earlier that Sekera was added as more of a stop-gap than a solution and that statement can be applied to just about every defensemen on the market this year. Overpaying for mediocre talent is something the Hurricanes can not afford to do right now, so they need to tread carefully here. If they want to add a penalty kill specialist to the third pairing, then they should be able to find one for a reasonable cost, but finding a top four option is probably not likely unless they overpay or explore the trade market.
Possible Targets: Rob Scuderi, Ron Hainsey, Toni Lydman, Tom Gilbert, Carlo Colaiacovo, Matt Hunwick, Alexander Sulzer, Mike Lundin
Why should the Hurricanes spend on a third line center?
This was a pretty big hole for the Canes last year, as they cycled through a lot of different players throughout the season and couldn't seem to settle on one player until Riley Nash was called up. Nash played well, but I think his more of a fit as a fourth-liner based on what I saw from him last year. Adding someone who can kill penalties and take tough draws will go a long way to help the Canes next year, so it's easy to see why they would look for another third line center.
Why shouldn't the Hurricanes spend on a third line center?
Between Riley Nash, Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask and Jeremy Welsh, the Hurricanes should have enough players on their roster to fill in the 3C spot and avoid spending money on what should be a position of strength. It's true, the Hurricanes need an upgrade here over what they had last year, but it would also make sense to use what they already have. They are short on cap space and will have to cut corners somewhere, and that could ultimately end up being the center position this year.
Possible Targets: Matt Cullen, Boyd Gordon, Maxim Lapierre, Jeff Halpern, Dave Steckel, Marty Reasoner
Why should the Hurricanes spend on depth forwards?
First off, the Hurricanes don't really have to splurge here because depth forwards can be found on the cheap and a lot of them can be great bargains. It also fills a huge need for the team because they had little to no secondary scoring last year and need to improve their penalty kill, so it makes sense to add a couple players to the bottom-two lines. The free agent pool never seems to have a shortage of forwards who can drive the play and add in 10-17 goals in a season, so the Hurricanes should be on the lookout for these types. Finding someone who can play top-six minutes if needed will also go a long way in the event of an injury, or injuries knowing the Hurricanes. The other nice thing about looking for depth forwards is that you always have a lot of options, whether you're looking for grinders or guys with more skill. The Hurricanes probably need a little of both on their third and fourth lines, given their issues on the penalty kill and not having a lot of depth scoring last year.
Why shouldn't the Hurricanes spend on depth forwards?
Really, the only thing I can think of here is that it would block some the players from Charlotte from being on the roster who could possibly do the same thing at a lower cost. Although, they tried this approach last year and it didn't work out at all, so I'm in favor of bringing in some new players to the fold. GMs also have different approaches when looking for depth forwards and sometimes it results in the team being saddled with players who are ultimately useless. Carolina will have to avoid those types.
Possible Targets: Viktor Stalberg, Matt Cooke, Michael Ryder, Dustin Penner, Ryane Clowe, Benoit Pouliot, Mason Raymond, Matt Hendricks, Clarke Macarthur, Aaron Palushaj, Matt D'Agostini,
Why should the Hurricanes spend on a back-up?
Dan Ellis' play while Cam Ward was healthy showed the value of having a back-up goalie you can trust. Ward is going to be expected to carry the load again next year, but the Canes will probably need someone to start 20-25 games to give him a few nights off. They might also need someone to start a few consecutive games whenever Ward is hurt or goes through a rough patch. Justin Peters is currently under a one-way deal next year, but he has not proven himself to be a capable NHL goaltender, so the Hurricanes might want to get some insurance here. They are going to need to sign another goalie regardless because Charlotte will be without a goaltender if Peters stays in the NHL.
Why shouldn't the Hurricanes spend on a back-up?
If you think the defense market is thin, the market for a goaltender is even weaker and that's usually the case every year. Teams usually have their goalies locked up through their prime years and it results in the free agent market being populated with aged veterans or unproven players. How much of an upgrade these players are over Peters is debatable when you consider how much goaltender performance can vary from year-to-year. Either way, the Hurricanes will have to take their pick of one or the other if they can't get Ellis to return and aren't comfortable with Peters as the back-up.
Possible targets: Jason LaBarbera, Chad Johnson, Thomas Greiss, Anton Khudobin
Unless there is a trade, I expect it to be a pretty quiet summer for the Hurricanes, but we could be in for a few surprised based on what has happened over the last week. The most fans can hope for is that the Hurricanes do something to make themselves a better club without doing anything they might regret in the future.