After a very disappointing season, some were expecting the Hurricanes to be major players in the free agent in trade market but that hasn't been the case thus far. The biggest move they made was the draft day trade for Andrej Sekera and all of their signings have been low-risk, low-cost moves to help bolster the team's depth. Not that there is anything wrong with this, as most of these were smart moves, but I think most were expecting the Hurricanes to be a little more active this summer. However, I think there were some good reasons for Carolina staying relatively quiet and a lot of it relates to their cap situation next season.
Carolina entered this off-season with a few roster spots to fill and less than $8 mil. in cap space to make it happen. It's not unreasonable for them to acquire a top-four defenseman and some depth forwards for around that much, but it would likely involve them committing at least $2-4 mil. in salary or cap space to multiple players. That may not sound like a big deal now, but it will become a problem next year with the Hurricanes having a whopping 17 restricted free agents to re-sign and a couple of them are likely due for huge raises. They also have four roster players ready to hit the market as unrestricted free agents next year, so having money tied up in mediocre players is going to make it difficult to them to retain some important pieces.
When the best defensemen on the free agent market are aging players like Rob Scuderi, Andrew Ference and Marek Zidlicky, staying pat and avoiding adding $3-4.5 mil. on the books for next year doesn't seem like the worst thing in the world. It also makes the Sekera trade look better, as the Hurricanes were able to add a top four defenseman for a much lower cost than they would have had to pay on the free agent market. They also shied away from adding depth pieces at market cost because most of the good ones were going for around $2-3 mil. this year. With so much money committed to the top-six, the Hurricanes were better off not paying that much for someone to play on the third or fourth line.
The one downside to all of this is that the Hurricanes may end up with only a marginally improved roster compared to last season (although, they should be better in the W-L department) and will likely go bargain bin to fill out the rest of their roster. This means that they'll probably fill out the bottom-six with a lot of kids or unproven talents and see what they can get out of them. Most of their prospects are at the age where the team needs to see how good they are, so this isn't a terrible situation but it could easily end up working out poorly if none of these younger players are able to pan out.
Next year seems uncertain but if you look further down the road, you'll see that one of the worst things the Hurricanes could have done is commit long-term salary to mediocre players because their cap situation for next year is already looking complicated.
If you've been following the Hurricanes with any detail, then there's a good chance you've gone to Cap Geek to look at the team's monetary situation in the upcoming seasons and right now, it looks like they have a lot of space to play with after next season. Joni Pitkanen, Kevin Westgarth. Mike Komisarek and Anton Khudobin's salaries come off the books, which frees up about $6.725 mil. in cap space not counting RFAs. As it currently stands, the Canes will have around $15-18 mil. in cap space and possibly more if the salary cap increases. Knowing that, some may think that the Canes should be able to extend Justin Faulk & Jiri Tlusty without much of an issue. That's only part of the problem, though.
Paying Faulk & Tlusty shouldn't be that much of an issue, but they aren't the only players whose contract expires after next season and the Hurricanes have quite a few roster spots to fill and cap space might become an issue when it comes to building around their core pieces.
As you can see here, the Hurricanes have cap space next season but they also have a lot of roster spots to fill, two of which is their first defense pairing and the other is a top-six spot. One of the vacancies on defense can easily be filled by extending Justin Faulk, the question is how much will he command. Faulk is in coming up on the final year of his entry level contract, so the Canes have some leverage here, but other teams haven't been afraid to lock up their defensemen long-term, so I have a feeling the Hurricanes will do something similar. If the Canes were to do that, they could get him to sign with a cap hit of $3.75-$4 mil. per year on a contract exceeding five years and buy out a couple of UFA years in the process. The Coyotes, Predators, Capitals, Kings, Ducks and a few other teams have done this with some of their young defensemen, so it wouldn't surprise me if the Canes do the same with Faulk.
The other option is to get Faulk to sign to a short-term "bridge" contract at a lower cost, but that means they'll pay more down the road. Knowing that, I think a long-term contract is more likely for Faulk. Whatever the case is, I think the Hurricanes know they have to re-sign Faulk no matter what, as he is the most important piece they currently have and losing him would be a major blow. The other notable RFA, Jiri Tlusty, is a little more interesting.
Some may only look at last season and say that the Canes "need" to pay Tlusty because he scored 24 goals last year, but that's only one season and a shortened one on top of that. Tlusty showed some incredible chemistry with Eric Staal & Alexander Semin last year & is a very smart player, but let's not ignore that he had 34 career goals in 228 games before last season. One year of him scoring 23 goals is not enough to say that he is a legit first liner and worth over $4 mil. per year. The Hurricanes are better off waiting until next summer to see if what Tlusty did last year is repeatable. If he regresses, then they can probably get him at a lower cost. If he ends up repeating what he did last season, then this is all a different story.
Personally, I see Tlusty regressing a little because there's little evidence to show that he can sustain the 19.7% shooting percentage he posted last year. It's also worth mentioning that four of his goals were empty-netters and he struggled to stay above water in possession despite playing sheltered minutes on a loaded first line. It doesn't mean that he is a bad player, but it would be nice to see if Tlusty is closer to the 17-goal player from 2011-12 rather than the 20+ goal guy from last year before the Canes give him a new contract.
Let's say the Hurricanes extend both Faulk & Tlusty with cap hits of $4 mil. and $3.5 mil. respectively. How much space does that leave them with?
After extending Faulk & Tlusty, the Hurricanes will be left in a very similar situation to this summer where they have a few roster spots to fill with a little under $8 mil. in cap space to work with. That could change depending on what the salary cap is, but the scenario isn't much different. The Canes need to add a top-four defenseman, a back-up goaltender and depth pieces for around $8 mil. This is why I'm hesitant to give Tlusty a big contract after one great season and why I'm glad they didn't commit any long-term salary this summer.
Jim Rutherford did a nice job of not making his job any harder next year, but he's still going to be in a tough spot in 11 months with the team's cap situation. Scoring isn't cheap and Tlusty could get way more than the $3.5 mil. that I'm projecting if last year wasn't a fluke. Defense isn't cheap either and getting a top-pairing guy is going to cost at least $5 mil. unless they trade one of their top-six forwards or have Ryan Murphy emerge as a top-four defender within the next couple of seasons. I'm confident that they have enough prospects to fill out the team's depth, but that still leaves a couple major holes to fill with the top ten roster spots.
The Hurricanes have some time to figure this whole situation out and things might get easier if the cap increases but right now, the situation looks dicey and the most the team can do about it right now is not make it worse. Adding a multi-year contract to make the team marginally better next year is not worth potentially losing a key player because the team might get into cap trouble if they aren't careful.