Where are Carolina’s biggest needs?

The excitement of the NHL off-season is just around the corner and there have already been numerous rumors and speculations about who the Hurricanes might go after in the next couple of months. Unfortunately, the majority of it is just scuttlebutt from the media or fans with big dreams and expectations. While there’s nothing wrong with setting your sights high and hoping for great things, the likelihood of Carolina being able to land a big free agent this off-season (see: Zach Parise & Ryan Suter) is very low.

I am not trying to be Mr. Pessimist, but Jim Rutherford is going to need to outbid at least 5-10 different teams to land those players and it’s probably going to have to come at a very high cost. Big ticket free agents like Parise are going to want long-term deals at high cap hits, so Carolina is going to make sure they are competitive within the next couple of seasons to land Parise. Why is this? Because Parise is in the prime of his career right now and there is a good chance that his production will tail off as he gets older. I like the idea of having Parise on the team but keep in mind that the team that ends up signing him could end up paying at least $5 mil. for a 20 goal season out of him. Knowing Rutherford, he isn’t going to take a risk like that unless he think he can build up a Cup contending team in the off-season.

Everyone’s focus in the off-season is always on the big names but before talking about Carolina being able to sign anyone, it’s important to go over the prospective roster for next season and the team’s cap situation so we know what the team needs and what they have to work with. Some needs are much more obvious than others (cough first line winger cough), getting a general overview of the Canes needs is a good starting point because there might be some areas that are being overlooked.

We will look at Carolina’s prospective depth chart and monetary situation (with the help of Capgeek) after the jump.

According to Capgeek, the Hurricanes have a little under $20 million in cap space to work with, which is plenty of room for Rutherford to address the team’s areas of concern. However, Carolina is a team that rarely spends to the cap and is on a budget, so they might have less room to spend money than the salary cap suggests. This claim has been disputed recently but going by history, Rutherford usually operates under a budget so we will continue to assume that until proven otherwise since we’re trying to stay realistic with this.

Prospective Depth Chart

Forwards

Tlusty ($1.6 mil.) – Staal ($8.25 mil.) – ???
Ruutu  ($4.75 mil.) – Jokinen ($3 mil.) – Skinner ($1.4 mil.)
Dwyer ($625k) – Sutter ($2.066 mil.) – LaRose ($1.7 mil.)
Nodl ($845k) – Brent ($750k) – Stewart ($900k)

Minors: Dalpe, Terry
RFA: Boychuk, Bomwan, Samson, Welsh

Needs

First Line Winger

This is the most glaring need and one that Rutherford might need to open up his wallet to fix. This was also a position of need last off-season and Rutherford elected to go the cheap route by signing Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart as stop-gaps until some of the team’s younger prospects were ready. Unfortunately, Zac Dalpe didn’t blossom into a top-six forward last year and neither did Zach Boychuk. Does that mean it’s time to give up and spend money on a free agent to fill that void?  Unfortunately, I think that’s what will be done here because the Canes do not have the best forward depth in their organization.

Although, I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is “giving up” on Dalpe or Boychuk because it’s not like there aren’t other spots for them on the Hurricanes. So Dalpe isn’t a first liner, that doesn’t mean he won’t be a useful piece and I think him making the team next season is very realistic. If you peruse over the depth chart you can see that there are going to be some younger players competing for spots next  season and it’s very possible that someone on the fourth line has to outplay one of them to stay on the team.

With $19+ mil. in cap space, the Hurricanes do have room to make a move for a top-lien winger but I am not sure if they can afford to give Parise what he wants. Yes, they have the cap space (and possibly the money) to afford him next season but they have to keep an eye on the future. Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk are already playing key minutes at 19-20 years of age and are going to need new contracts eventually. Rutherford needs to remember that he has renew their contracts before committing long-term money & cap space to a free agent. However, I think a 3-4 year deal might be necessary for JR to acquire a top-line winger. The Canes don’t have many top-end forward prospects and whoever they draft this season likely won’t be in the NHL until at least a couple more years down the road. Therefore, acquiring someone to hold the fort down & contribute until then is something that needs to be done.

Fourth Liners

Some might think the fourth line is set in stone, but I think that there is some work that needs to be done here. Brent and Stewart’s point-production was very good this season but when it came to being able to drive possession, they were at the bottom of the barrel. It was the reason why the fourth line had to be in a protected role last season, when there is the potential to have a much more useful role for it.

Currently, the Hurricanes have two main scoring lines and a third line which handles virtually all of the defensive responsibilities. The workload that line takes on is among the toughest in the NHL and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to lessen the amount of heavy lifting that they are forced to do. One way to do this is to make the fourth line more defensive oriented. The Canes have some players who they can use in  a fourth line role like this (Dwyer & Nodl come to mind) so this need may not have to be addressed through free agency.  I think it depends on how good Brent will be in a more defensive role. He was hammered in both shot and scoring chance differential and wasn’t great at faceoffs but I find it hard to believe that he won’t be on the team to start next season. If we were to sub him out with someone like Jay McClement, then I think that would improve the team overall.

Penalty Killing Forwards

This one is also pretty obvious. Another penalty killing forward is needed and that could come from anywhere, really. The Canes had one of the worst PK’s in the league in terms of shot prevention this season and need all the help they can get. I think Nodl has been an untapped resource on the PK and Bowman has also been used on the PK, too. Anything that will keep LaRose and Tlusty from regularly killing penalties will be an improvement.

Defense

Depth Chart

Pitkanen ($4.5 mil.) – Gleason ($4 mil.)
Faulk ($900k) – Harrison ($500k)
McBain ($1.8 mil.) – Joslin ($700k)

UFA: Bryan Allen, Jaroslav Spacek
Minors: Bobby Sanguinetti, Brian Dumoulin, Ryan Murphy

Top Four/Tough Minute Defenseman:

This need can be easily fixed by re-signing Bryan Allen but it’s tough to figure out if he wants the same things that the Hurricanes do. There isn’t a need to commit long-term money to a 31 year old defenseman right now with the Canes having Dumoulin in their system, but they can’t go into next season with this current top-four. They would have one of Pitkanen, Harrison, Faulk or McBain playing the tough minutes and I am not sure if any of them are suited for it yet. Faulk showed a ton of promise last season but he’s still only 20 years old. I also have my doubts about Harrison being a top-four defenseman so I think bringing in someone for insurance would be a good call.

The argument against this is that the Canes have too many defensemen in their system to sign another but Gleason is the only shutdown option. Dumoulin has the potential to be a top-four defenseman but he has yet to play in the NHL. Trusting him with that right off the bat would be foolish. Sanguinetti could possibly be a top-four defenseman too but it isn’t safe to bank on that right now, which is why I think the Canes should look into signing a defenseman next season. Faulk played tough minutes last season but is head ready to take on the workload that Gleason does? Rutherford has about a month to assess that. If anything, I hope another defenseman is brought in so Joslin is not in the opening day lineup.

Goaltenders:

Depth Chart

Ward ($6.3 mil.)
Boucher ($900k)

UFA: Peters
RFA: Murphy

Back-up goaltender

Same story, new season and all Boucher has to do is not stink and stay healthy. He may have some competition in training camp if Peters & Murphy play well should they be retained. Small sample sizes tend to skew the value of goalies more than anything else.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing profiles on some possible targets. Some you’ll see coming from a mile away and others may shock you.

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