With only five games remaining before the trade deadline, the Hurricanes find themselves in an interesting but uncommon position. They are only one point out of a playoff spot with games in hand against some of the teams they are competing with, but most would argue that this isn't a playoff team. The Canes have been woefully inconsistent this year and could easily be a bottom-feeder in the conference right now if it wasn't for a strong month of January where they went 10-4-0. They also got some help in October/November where they were in the middle of the pack of the Eastern Conference despite posting some of the worst possession numbers in the league.
Given that, it might make more sense for the Hurricanes to "sell" at the deadline and see how the rest of the year shakes out because one month of strong play shouldn't deceive us into thinking that they can be a cup contender. Normally, I'd agree but a closer look at the team's performance this year shows that they've slowly been improving and their strong record in January wasn't just a fluke. The Canes have become a much better possession team over the last two months and that wasn't going to go unrewarded in the long term. At least not while they get solid goaltending to back them up (again, thanks Khudobin!).
So, here we are. The Hurricanes are now in the middle of a jam-packed Eastern Conference playoff picture with seven teams fighting for two spots. This could change depending on how the Rangers, Leafs & Habs seasons shake out, but that appears to be the scenario right now. Is there a potential trade out there that can put the Canes at a higher level than the teams they are competing with? Probably not, but there are some things the Hurricanes can do to improve their playoff chances and put them at a better position for next year.
Something I get annoyed with around the deadline is how everyone tries to figure out if their team should be "buyers or sellers." For some teams, it's obvious because they're either so far out of contention that it's time for them to start trading off assets to rebuild or beef up their roster for a potential playoff run. With so many teams still in the hunt now, it's tougher to identify "buyers and sellers" and less teams are going to be willing to trade off assets for picks. Things might change depending on how the next "month" goes, but the picture is a little bleak right now.
If you're a team in the Hurricanes position, the best thing to do at the deadline is to trade off overvalued assets for draft picks or future considerations while making other deals to bolster your roster. The San Jose Sharks did a fantastic job of this last year by trading away Douglas Murray, Ryan Clowe and Michal Handzus and replacing them with cheaper players like Scott Hannan and Raffi Torres & promoting from within to fill the other holes. This is how I would approach the deadline if I were running the Hurricanes, but the Canes roster situation is a little different.
It was easier for the Sharks to make these types of trades because Murray, Clowe & Handzus were in the final year of their contracts and having awful seasons to boot. Carolina, on the other hand, is saddled with a lot of long-term contracts and most of the UFAs they have wouldn't garner much of a return unless they were in full-out sell mode (Malhotra, Hainsey, Dvorak). The Sharks also had enough organizational depth to promote from within while the Hurricanes forward depth has been a train wreck for most of the season.
With that said, GM Jim Rutherford's intentions seem to be set on this team making the playoffs this season or else it's time for a major retool, so he will likely either stand pat or do his best to improve the Canes at the deadline. There's been rumors of some players being "available," but what are some realistic trades that could be on the horizon for Carolina? After the jump, we'll look at that and dive deeper into what their situation is as we get closer to the deadline.
Let's look at what the Canes have to work with right now.
Tlusty – E. Staal – Semin
Skinner – J. Staal – Lindholm
Gerbe – Malhotra – Dwyer
Bowman – Nash – Ruutu
Sekera – Faulk
Liles – Hainsey
Harrison – Bellemore
Cap Space: ~ $5-6 mil.
With Joni Pitkanen on IR, the Canes have about $5-6 mil. to spend at the deadline, but Rutherford spending to the cap seems unlikely, so I doubt he will take on a big contract unless he can move some salary. Players who could be moved to make room are Tuomo Ruutu ($4.75 mil. cap hit), Jay Harrison ($1.5 mil.) and Jiri Tlusty ($1.6 mil.). Ruutu is an important player on this team and he has been playing a lot better since the calendar turned 2014, but he's currently a bottom-six player making nearly $5 mil. There's been some stints where he's been in the top-six but they haven't lasted long and Muller's been limiting his ice time for the last month or so.
Some of Ruutu's struggles aren't his own fault, as his 6% on-ice shooting percentage and personal 7.2% shooting percentage are both way below average and the product of bad luck, but he hasn't looked like a top-six forward at all this year. He's taken a beating throughout his career and is coming off two hip surgeries over the last 15 months. It's possible that he might be fine after taking another off-season to heal up, but it's tough to say if Rutherford and Muller have that kind of patience right now.
As I said earlier, Ruutu's been used as a third/fourth liner for the last month and has played fewer than 10 minutes in seven of the last nine games. He's done fairly well in sheltered minutes (he's been a positive possession player lately) but if he is only a third/fourth line player, then moving him wouldn't be a bad option if you're looking to upgrade elsewhere. At the same time, if Ruutu keeps playing like he has for the last month, having him in your top-six isn't terrible so keeping him wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either. Not if the Canes stay in the hunt and can't make any other deals.
Ruutu is probably going to be the hardest of the bunch to move because of his contract (he's due $10 mil. over the next two years) and they're going to be selling low on him right now. Cam Ward's contract is also in this camp, but I don't think a deal will happen there until a few more months, if at all. The rest of the players supposedly "on the block" can be moved for not much of a return. Jay Harrison's been better since returning from a concussion but he has been the team's worst defenseman for most of the year and is fighting for ice time with Brett Bellemore and Mike Komisarek. With Ryan Murphy waiting in the wings, he could be moved. Tlusty could also be traded, but this is also a case of "selling low" and the team might be able to re-sign him on a low contract and keep him around at a lower cost. Tlusty's another guy whose play has really improved recently, so I'm not as on board with trading him as I was a couple months ago.
Looking at the depth chart, it's pretty clear that the Canes need to upgrade in a couple of areas. The most obvious one is finding a consistent third line center. They tried Elias Lindholm there for awhile, but injuries held him back and they eventually moved him to the wing on the second line to put him more in a scoring role. Riley Nash had plenty of chances to earn this role and he couldn't do much with it and is now centering the "fourth line" while getting the easiest assignments on the team.
There isn't anything wrong with Nash getting sheltered minutes, but the Canes currently have Malhotra centering their third line and he is playing around 13 minutes a night at evens while taking on a boatload of defensive zone starts. Malhotra's a fine defensive center, but not very good at driving the play forward and him playing more minutes at evens has a negative effects on the rest of the team's territorial play. In a perfect world, he is the Canes fourth line center, but Nash's struggles have him on the third line for now. This is where you look to add a third line center who can be an upgrade over Nash and put less of a burden on Malhotra's shoulders. It's hard to get a read on who is available, but someone like Mikael Backlund, Marcel Goc, Rob Klinkhammer or Michael Frolik would be good additions.
Thinking long-term, it would make more sense to target a right-winger for the second line instead of a third line center because eventually, you'd like to have Lindholm take over the third line center role. It's much more difficult to replace a scorer than it is a checking center, so I wouldn't be against the Canes making a move for a guy like PA Parenteau to round out their top-six instead of possibly overpaying for a third line center. This probably means shipping out a more expensive piece to make room, so it's going to be more difficult to accomplish but it might be a good move long-term, especially if what we're seeing from Tlusty this year is more of his true form.
As for the bottom of the roster, there's a couple of moves I'd make but they're all lateral. If there's a team out there that wants Drayson Bowman or Radek Dvorak, then I'd listen. Both can be replaced by Terry, Boychuk or Sutter from Charlotte without much of a drop off. With everyone healthy and possibly a couple new faces coming in, Nathan Gerbe & Patrick Dwyer are playing on the third line and both are perfect with that role so I wouldn't tinker with them that much. I've been critical of the team's forward depth, but improving the top-six can push down some of the guys that have been over-slotted for most of the year and make the Canes more suited for a playoff run.
Barring a disastrous showing in February (knock on wood), there's no need for the Canes to trade the house and tank for a draft pick and Rutherford made it clear that his goal is still to make the playoffs this year, so we're likely not going to see many "sell" moves unless it involves making room for another trade. It's also likely that we could go through March without the Canes making any major moves, but they may need to make a trade or two to separate themselves from the rest of the potential playoff teams in the East. Whether or not a deal is out there remains to be seen.