If you have been reading this blog or my posts on Twitter, then you probably know that the bottom-six is an area that I wanted the Hurricanes to address in a big way this summer, specifically the fourth line. Finding a top-six winger is the top priority right now, but with there being so few options available in free agency, all we can do right now is just wait and see what happens. Having a strong top-six and defense corps is obviously very important if one wants to build a contending team but the third and fourth lines are assets that teams have to have, as well. When I say that, I mean that those lines have to be useful.
Gabe Desjardins recently looked at last year’s Stanley Cup Champs, the Los Angeles Kings and the elements that made them a winning team. One main thing that he pointed out is that the players in their bottom-six could all play. There were no goons inserted into the lineup for “toughness,” or role players who couldn’t be trusted to be used for more than five minutes a game. Their bottom-six players were all useful in their own way and were very cheap on top of that. Carolina doesn’t quite have the pieces on defense to be a cup contender and their top-six is still a work in progress, but improving the bottom-six will make things a little easier for them next season so that Kirk Muller can run a more balanced system next season.
Keeping the bottom-six in mind, another thing that Desjardins mentions in the article is that teams should be on the lookout for players with underrated skills like being able to draw penalties, win faceoffs and take on tough competition. The Canes have a few of those guys in their bottom-six already (Patrick Dwyer, Chad LaRose and Andreas Nodl come to mind) and a couple younger players who have posted strong underlying numbers during their time in Raleigh who could also help out (Drayson Bowman), but their fourth line could not be trusted to play more than 5-8 minutes a game because they couldn’t do much other than throw checks and create a physical presence.
The Canes might dig within the organization to find bottom-six depth but if they want to go the free agency route, they should strongly consider signing Jeff Halpern, a player who fits Desjardins’ guidelines to a T. Halpern is 35 and doesn’t have much offense left in him but if you are looking for a quality player to center your team’s fourth line then look no further. Over the last few years, those who have coached Halpern have trusted him enough to use him in a defensive role on almost a regular basis. He’s started less than 45% of his even strength shifts in the offensive zone for the last five seasons and has been matched up against opponents who were at least above average.
Halpern was also able to finish with a positive corsi relative of 2.9 despite playing in extremely unfavorable circumstances last season. He was also on ice for the fewest amount of shots against among Washington forwards, which speaks a lot about his defensive strengths. If that wasn’t enough, he was the fifth best face-off guy in the league last season and has been able to win at least 51% of the draws he has taken over his career. By Desjardins’ guidelines, Halpern is the type of player that you want in your bottom-six and exactly the kind of player that teams should take short-term risks on. He has decent underlying numbers, underrated skills and also kill penalties. The only red flag on him is his age but that shouldn’t prevent him from getting at least a one-year deal somewhere.
Would Halpern fit on the Hurricanes if they signed him, though? The fourth line center spot is already occupied by Tim Brent and he is coming off a pretty successful year with 12 goals and 24 points. It’s unlikely that the Hurricanes are going to demote Brent after a year like that but I’ve expressed my concerns about him many times before. He played very soft minutes and was just plain bad in terms of territorial play. His shooting percentage was also an unsustainably high 16.9% and if you take that away, you are left with a fourth liner with not much to offer other than some decent powerplay skills. Then the Hurricanes’ fourth line becomes a real problem.
I’ve also expressed my desire to make the team’s fourth line more of a defensive unit with Patrick Dwyer and Andreas Nodl playing the wings. If the Canes were to follow this strategy, Halpern is a much more suited for the fourth line center role than Brent. This is assuming that the Hurricanes decide that they want to do this, which is uncertain at this very moment. I still think bringing in Halpern or someone similar to him would be a good insurance policy if Brent or another fourth liner struggles.
I can’t say that the Hurricanes will sign Halpern and I don’t know how high he is on Rutherford’s radar but I am willing to bet that at least one team is interested in acquiring him.