The Hurricanes enter this year's free agency period in a bit of a different position compared to year's past. Their usual "needs" are to find a winger for the first line and improve the defense and while the latter point is still a huge issue, they don't really need to make any additions to their top-six. Taking a chance on Alexander Semin last year paid off in a big way for the Canes and now that he is signed long-term, the Hurricanes have found their first line winger for the next few years. Factor that in with Jiri Tlusty's breakout season, a full season from Tuomo Ruutu and what should be an improved Jeff Skinner and the Hurricanes top-six should be set for at least next year. However, the third and fourth lines need a lot of adjustments.
Despite having one of the best first lines in the entire NHL, the Hurricanes had scoring issues last year because they got little to no production from their bottom-six and this goes beyond goal-scoring. Their third line struggled to drive the play in soft minutes and their fourth line couldn't be trusted to play more than 5-7 minutes a night. They also went through a slew of different random players in their bottom-six due to injuries and multiple players not being able to stick in a certain role. Having to play a shortened season with no training camp probably contributed to this because the Hurricanes went through over 30 different players and had to work a few different guys in and out of the lineup at the beginning of the season to see what they had. Still, other teams had to go through the same problems and got a lot more out of their third and fourth lines than the Canes did .
A couple weeks ago, I talked about some of the problems the Hurricanes bottom-six faced and it mainly boiled down to the team's third & fourth lines not having much of an identity. They basically stuck whatever players didn't work out in the top-six on the third line and hoped they could do something beneficial. Whether that was providing offense, "energy" or good defensive play depended on the night and it rarely worked because of how often the lines were jumbled around. Meanwhile, the fourth line was made up of leftover players or those who were called up and were asked not to do anything to hurt the team. This line barely played and there were a lot of games toward the end of the year when the Canes didn't even dress a fourth full fourth line at all. Being able to roll all forward units is such a crucial key to success in the NHL and the Hurricanes did not do that at all last year.
Improving the bottom-six doesn't have to be that difficult or expensive because there are usually a few bargain players available even in a thin free agent class and players on entry level deals can be useful in this type of role, as well. The Hurricanes the latter method last year and it didn't work out overall so they will likely have to turn to the free agent pool to boost their forward depth this year and there are plenty of names out there who can help them.
After the jump, we'll go over some of these players and talk about what kind of needs the Hurricanes need to address in their bottom-six.
What needs to improve?
In regards to the Hurricanes bottom-six, a better question would be what doesn't need to improve because they had so many problems there last year. They couldn't score, they barely drove the play and it's hard to imagine them being much worse than they were last year. I've heard some people say that the Canes need to get "bigger" and add more physical players in their bottom-six. I don't disagree, but bulking up and adding big players isn't going to solve the Hurricanes problems if they can't contribute in other areas. The Canes had two very effective physical players in Tim Wallace & Kevin Westgarth last season and neither were particularly useful anywhere else. They delivered a few big hits every now and then, but they also struggled to keep the puck out of their zone, didn't provide any secondary scoring and couldn't be trusted to play more than 5-7 minutes on most nights. If the Canes were to fill their bottom-six with players like that, then they would be tougher to play against, but have most of the same problems they did last season.
In my previous post on the Hurricanes bottom-six, I talked about how the St. Louis Blues used their fourth line to provide a physical presence but what set them apart from other "energy lines" was that they were useful in other areas. Ryan Reaves, Adam Cracknell & Chris Porter never got a lot of ice time but they were big, physical players who made all of their shifts count. Their ability to keep the puck in the opponent's zone and play well defensively made the more than just "tough guys" and a very useful fourth line. The Hurricanes following this method wouldn't be a bad idea.
The fourth line doesn't need to be "big," though and the Chicago Blackhawks proved that this season. They won the Cup and dominated the Western Conference despite being one of the smallest, least physical teams in the league. Instead of employing enforcers or giving regular minutes to tough guys, they used more skilled players such as Michael Frolik, Marcus Kruger and Viktor Stalberg in their bottom-six. There's obviously a talent differential between the Blackhawks and Hurricanes but if Chicago can be the best team in the NHL despite being a smaller team then there is no reason why Carolina can't be successful with smaller, skilled players.
In the end, size shouldn't be the deciding factor when making up the Hurricanes bottom-six as long as they sign good players and ones who provide an upgrade over what they had last year. This shouldn't be hard to do when you look at what they got out of their bottom-sixers in this past season.
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Out of those who played regularly, the Canes had only two forwards who scored at a respectable rate and it's even worse when you consider that Westgarth had three points in his last two games of the season. So the only regular bottom-sixer who produced for the Canes was Riley Nash. The rest either had poor numbers or didn't play enough to make much of an impact (Terry & Welsh). Guys like Chad LaRose, Tim Brent & Drayson Bowman may have performed well in other areas, but the fact that they provided minimal scoring and played soft minutes makes them replaceable.
Ultimately, the Hurricanes need to find a third or fourth line center depending on where Nash plays and one or two wingers for the third or fourth lines. Getting a winger who can score and fill-in on the second line in the event of an injury would be ideal. The Canes can turn to players like Zac Dalpe or Jeremy Welsh to fill these holes, but placing faith in the team's organizational depth didn't work out well last year, so I would expect at least or two free agent signings. Jim Rutherford stated that he wants to add someone who "takes pride in killing penalties," so we'll keep that in mind when reviewing free agents.
The nice thing about having needs in the bottom-six is that you have a lot of options in free agency and this year is no different. The Hurricanes can overpay for depth if they desire, but that may not be the smartest move since they have needs in other areas. Regardless, they still have plenty of options and might be able to sign one of these players on a reasonable deal within the next couple of months.
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Like I said..a lot of options but I've broken them down into a few categories to make things easier to sort through.
This really depends on what the Hurricanes are looking for. If they want someone who can provide secondary scoring, play in the top-six when needed and improve puck possession, then they should look at either Viktor Stalberg, Michael Ryder or Dustin Penner. I would also include Bickell but he is going to be out of Carolina's price range with the post-season he had.
Stalberg might be available for a reasonable cost, though and he can help the Canes third lines in a lot of ways. He skates well, scores at a high rate and should be able to keep up with some of the Canes more skilled players. He can also contribute on the power play.
Michael Ryder could also be a good pick-up for the third-line and provide a boost for Carolina's power play if he doesn't cost too much. He is only two years removed from a 30-goal season, so some other teams might covet him but if the Canes can get him on a short-term mdeal, then I think they shoudl take that risk. He can crush soft minutes and is a very underrated goal-scorer, so he fits Carolina's needs. Dustin Penner is more of a wild card since his offensive production has fallen off in recent years, but he does a lot of other positive things and is a big body who can drive possession. That's never a bad thing to have.
Another player who I would look at for scoring is Clarke Macarthur, who is coming off a down offensive year but is a fine third liner and very underrated play-maker. Also up for consideration should be Mason Raymond, Guillaume Latendresse and Kyle Wellwood. All three probably won't come too expensive and will be fine in a third-line type role. Raymond is also not a bad option if the Canes are looking for more of a defensive-minded player on their third line.
Fourth Line Options
The Hurricanes got only three goals from their fourth line last year (technically one since Westgarth's goals came while he was on the first line), so that alone is going to be easy to replace. The fourth line contributed in some other ways, though. One good thing that Tim Brent was drive possession despite going through a revolving door of linemates, most of whom were very bad at driving the play. That being said, Brent was a fourth liner and got the softest minutes on the team, so finding someone else to take those minutes should be easy. Personally, I think the Canes want Jeremy Welsh as the fourth line center next year but if he doesn't work out, then they have options in free agency, especially if they want a penalty kill specialist.
Jeff Halpern, Kyle Chipchura, Boyd Gordon, Marty Reasoner and David Steckel can all kill penalties, take tough draws and do just about everything you could ask from a fourth line center. Most of these players can provide a decent amount of offense for fourth liners, which is a plus given how little goal-scoring the Canes got out of their fourth line last year. The only one who struggled to put up points was Halpern but he was exceptional at driving the play so that helped make up for it. I also wouldn't overlook Scott Gomez as someone for the bottom-six either. Gomez might be the laughing stock of Twitter, but he is not a bad player and can be effective as a third or fourth line center plus help on the power play. I don't think he is the most desirable target for the Canes since they are looking for more of a PK specialist, but you could do a lot worse.
The fourth line isn't going to make or break the team, but I still think it would be best for the Canes to avoid players who don't do much to drive the play at even strength or contribute in other areas. This means guys like Jerred Smithson, Craig Adams, Ryan Jones, Eric Nystrom, Chuck Kobasew & Ruslan Fedotenko can probably be crossed of the list since they were crushed defensively while not doing much to help in other areas.
The Hurricanes went into last season composing their bottom-six of leftover parts from the other lines and paid for it throughout the year. Therefore, I expect them to pay more attention to constructing their third and fourth lines this season and make some noise in free agency to help out. They don't have a lot of cap space, but they don't need to spend a lot for third and fourth liners if they're smart about it. Whether they want to add more size or skill in their bottom-six, they should focus on acquiring players who can improve the team's even strength play and contribute in other areas, as well.