The Hurricanes entered Sunday's draft with the goal of setting themselves up to be a better team next year and despite all of the Twitter drama, the Hurricanes are in slightly better shape now than they were a week ago. They drafted a player who could be in the NHL next year (that's the most you can expect from an 18-year-old) and they helped their defense by swapping Jamie McBain for Andrej Sekera of the Buffalo Sabres. Sekera might not be the big, body-crushing defenseman that every fan wants, but he is a top-four player and fills a need for Carolina. Those who went into draft day thinking that this team would be magically fixed we're going to be left disappointed because it takes more than one draft to rebuild a team. The most the Hurricanes could do was make improvement to their current team and I feel they did that by selecting Lindholm and trading for Sekera.
Much work still needs to be done, though because the addition of Sekera alone isn't going to fix this defense and they still have a few roster spots to fill. Thus, we now await July 5th and what the Hurricanes will do in free agency. Judging by some of GM Jim Rutherford's comments on draft day gave off the impression that the Canes will be quiet in free agency, but I'm thinking otherwise. The team doesn't exactly have a lot of cap space to play with, but they do have holes to fill and I think Carolina could be after a few free agents in all three positions.
Unless they think they can get great contributions from Lindholm or some other players in their system (particularly some players in Charlotte), it's hard to believe that the Hurricanes won't make a free agent push for someone. They don't have a ton of wiggle room to make a big splash, but they have just enough to address a couple of need with a signing or two. After the jump, we'll analyze, the team's situation a little more closely and talk about what areas the team will address in the upcoming days.
Let's start by taking a look at the players who will be on the Hurricanes roster next year and how much money is committed to them.
Not including RFAs, prospects and players who could start the year in the AHL, the Hurricanes have at least four roster spots to fill with at least $8 mil. in cap space. I would assume that it's a little less than that because the team normally operates under an internal cap. Either way, the Hurricanes won't have a ton of space to play with and will be handicapped in free agency a little.
Some good news is that most of the spots up front that need to be filled can be done cheaply. Signing a third-line center and two guys for the fourth line should cost about $3 mil. tops depending on how they want to operate. A third line center might cost a little more, but the Canes have options in their system who they can rely on for that. However, I would expect them to make a move for a third line winger since I don't think Drayson Bowman's performance last year was not enough to guarantee him a full-time spot in the NHL. Either way, I would expect the Canes to sign some depth forwards.
They are going to need to go bargain hunting in that area, though because it's likely that Canes will spend what is left of their cap space on a defenseman. While Sekera is a good addition, the Canes will still probably want ot add a penalty kill specialist or someone who can play in the top four. Whether this means they will throw a lot of money at Andrew Ference or go after a cheaper option remains to be seen, but I do think the Hurricanes are not done addressing their defense. They may also sign a back-up goaltender, which would cost them $1-1.5 mil. against the cap. Maybe even less than that since they couldn't come to terms with UFA Dan Ellis.
Another thing that will affect the Hurricanes cap situations and the holes they need to address is which one of their prospects can make the team out of camp and be able to stick around for the entire year. As we saw with Justin Faulk two years ago, getting someone to fill a need on an entry level contract can go a long way to helping the rest of the team. The Canes may not have that luxury with some of their prospects, but most of their guys in the minors are signed to under $1 mil. and if they can get at least two of them to play a regular NHL role, then it would help tremendously.
Which one of their prospects can do this, though? Here's a list of possible candidates.
RFA cap hits are an estimate based on their qualifying offers
Looking at this, one would think that the Hurricanes have enough players in their system to assume both the third and fourth line center positions. I, however, am not fully convinced even though I want to see it happen. Lindholm's game would make him an excellent fit as the third line center, but he is still only a teenager and that's a lot to ask of him. Riley Nash was the third line center for most of last year, but I think the Canes can do better at that position. Either him or Jeremy Welsh would be great fits on the fourth line, though. They just need to take on some more responsibility on the PK to be a fit next year. I also don't expect Kevin Westgarth to play every night, so that could open a spot for Zac Dalpe to make the team if Bowman is waived or traded.
On defense, either one of Ryan Murphy or Brett Bellemore will be given a chance to earn one of the spots on the third pairing. Both of them could make the team with one serving as the 7th defenseman. Still, the Hurricanes might look for someone who is a little more proven on defense instead of placing hope in their prospects. You eventually want these kids to play but this approach hasn't worked out well for the Canes in the past, so they might sign someone else and push one of Bellemore or Murphy to the AHL. The Hurricanes shave enough guys who can kill penalties, but I still think they want improvement there, so I wouldn't be surprised if there's another signing. Finding the money & the cap room to do so might be tough and that opens the door for some trades.
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of trades available to Carolina right now. Every player they have on an expensive contract is pretty important to the team and not a lot of their other players have a ton of value. Jay Harrison is one player I can see teams wanting, but the Hurricanes can't make a trade from a position of weakness so that cancels him out. They might dump someone like Drayson Bowman or Justin Peters to shed some salary, but the cap relief isn't much and the Canes still need to find a back-up goalie if they move Peters. If they want to make a move for a top-pairing defenseman, then one of their top forwards will have to guy and I don't think the Canes are in a position to do that right now.
In the end, the Canes are in a tricky situation and are going to have to find some bargains in the free agent market to fill out their roster. Getting something out of at least two of their prospects will also go a long way to making this a better club next year. I wouldn't say that they are in a hopeless situation because even with the concerns on defense, this was a good-looking team last year who fell apart after sustaining a massive wave of injuries. There's a chance of that happening again, but at what degree? So much they will have to use 37 players over the course of the year and dress only 18-19 player for a few games? I doubt it.
A healthy roster should make the Hurricanes a better club than they were last year, but they still need to add a few pieces if they want to contend in this new division. With a thin free agent class, it's going to take talent scouting and some creative thinking from the front office to fill all of these holes.