The ones who “got away”

The playoffs are always an exciting time for any hockey fan but for some people, it can be a frustrating team if their team is on the outside looking in. Carolina fans know this feeling all too well, as the Hurricanes have failed to make the playoffs the last four years and it's pretty clear that many are dissatisfied with the on-ice product from recent years. Going four years without a playoff appearance is a drag and what might add salt to the wounds of Carolina fans is that there are quite a few former Hurricanes in the post-season right now and performing well.

The most notable one is easily Justin Williams, who scored two huge goals to help the Kings advance past the San Jose Sharks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. Every Carolina fan knows all about what Williams did during his time as a Hurricane and how great of a performer he was during playoff time. He was a big reason why they won the Cup in 2005-06 and doesn't get a lot of credit for his contributions. Williams has also been one of the more underrated (and underpaid) players in the league in just about every aspect. He has consistently been a top forward at controlling puck-possession and a top-50 forward in even strength scoring, which is something the Hurricanes have needed until this most recent season when they added Alexander Semin to the fold.

Every fan with hindsight goggles will probably tell you that trading Williams was an enormous mistake by the Hurricanes and one that they'll always regret. The links I just posted to Williams' career stats strengthen this argument, especially when you consider that 2008-09, the year he was traded, was his worst season in recent history and a pretty big outlier compared to his career numbers. Going by that bit of information alone, trading Williams looks like a big mistake, but after taking context into the situation, I'm not sure if this trade is as bad as it appears.

Going back to the 2008-09 season, you might remember that the Hurricanes were making a push for a playoff spot in the second-half of the year and one of the moves they made to bolster their roster was acquiring Erik Cole from the Edmonton Oilers, a trade that also involved sending Williams to the LA Kings in exchange for someone named Patrick O'Sullivan, who was then flipped to Edmonton for Cole. In the end, the Kings got the best player out of this deal, but I don't think it's fair to say that this trade was terrible. Williams was battling multiple injuries all season, was in a slump and the Hurricanes were trying to improve their team immediately. Unfortunately, they had to give up Williams but it's hard to say that Cole didn't give the Canes the jolt in the arm they needed. He had 14 points in the final 17 games of the season and it's debatable that they would have made the playoffs without him.

Again, the Kings ultimately got the best player in the deal but saying that this trade was awful implies that Cole was a bust in Carolina, he wasn't. Cole was a very good Hurricane and continued to play well in his next two years with the team before departing for Montreal. Carolina GM Jim Rutherford has done plenty of things that I don't agree with, but the Williams trade was far from his worst move.

With that in mind, Williams isn't the only player who has left Carolina only to find success or make the playoffs with another club. I've seen a lot of rumblings through various social media sources about how the Hurricanes have traded or let a lot of talent walk in recent years and how the team's depth is gutted because of it. There seems to be a high volume of former Hurricanes spread across the NHL and I've always felt that most of them were let go for justifiable reasons, but just for fun, let's take a look at how some of the Canes alumni have performed in recent years and how much "value" was lost with them.

A great way to get a grasp of how a player has performed is to look at their performance relative to how they've been used, which can be visualized by using Player Usage Charts, developed by none other than Rob Vollman of Hockey Prospectus. You may remember me using these to show how the Hurricanes and other Southeast Division teams deployed their players in certain years and while the name is different better, the concept is the same. The one slight thing I changed with these charts is that the usage is spread across different teams and the size of the bubble shows each player's Goals Versus Threshold value instead of their Corsi rating. I figured that would be more appropriate for this since we're looking at how much value these players have provided for their respective teams. Also, the chart only shows this season since that's the easiest way to do it, but I'm going to review some players in closer to detail since there is obviously a lot more to the story than just one season.

There are definitely quite a few former Canes who are producing well & playing big roles for their respective clubs, a couple of whom were lost via free agency. The one that stings Canes fans the most is probably Ray Whitney, who is still scoring at a high rate despite being north of 40. Cushy assignments from the coaching staff in Dallas has helped him a little this year, but the Wizard was a fantastic tough-minute player for the Coyotes over the last two years and had a pretty incredibly season in 2011-12 considering his age. I didn't have much of an issue with the Hurricanes not retaining Whitney after 2010 because he was 38 at the time and not many players can sustain these kind of numbers at this age. What I didn't like was that Whitney wasn't traded at the deadline and was lost for nothing.

The Hurricanes were essentially out of the playoff race, already dealt a few veteran players (Cullen, Corvo, Walker, etc.) and probably were not going to re-sign Whitney regardless, so selling high on him would have made sense instead of losing a good player for nothing. Then again, it's possible that no attractable offers were available at the time but I find that kind of hard to believe since Whitney was having a great season and has a lot of intangible assets that playoff teams desire. Just to play devil's advocate, let's say that most teams who were inquiring about Whitney were trying to low-ball Rutherford. Would the better move be to take your chances on re-signing Whitney rather than trading him for a minimal return? Again, I'm just playing devil's advocate here, but making trades isn't always as easy as it seems.

A player who the Hurricanes tried to re-sign but ultimately lost out on was Dennis Seidenberg, who has been a very good top-four defenseman for the Bruins the last few years. One could argue that Seidenberg wouldn't be as successful in Carolina because they do not have a player of Zdeno Chara's caliber to pair or protect him with and I think that's a compelling argument. During Seidenberg's brief stint with the Florida Panthers, he was pretty bad when it came to keeping the puck out of his own zone but that turned around once the Bruins acquired him in a trade later in the year. There is some evidence, based on Seidenberg's situational usge & shot prevention stats, showing that Seidenberg is not as good defensively as some believe, but I think the Canes would be a better team if they still had him. At the end of the day, Seidenberg has been a solid top-four defenseman and has been a net positive in terms of value for the Bruins over the last four years, which is something the Hurricanes have needed on their back-end. Although, I'm not sure if he would have been as good in Carolina as he is in Boston because their defense corps is a lot better due to Chara's presence alone.

The other main player lost through free agency, Erik Cole, is a little more interesting. Ask any Carolina fan a year ago and they would tell you he was worth every penny of his four-year, $18 mil. contract. Now? Not so much. After giving the Canadiens first-line level scoring production last season, his numbers plummeted and he ended up being dealt to the Dallas Stars in a trade that was essentially a salary dump for the Habs. Personally, I was fine with Rutherford letting Cole walk because he probably wasn't going to be worth big money on a long-term salary at his age (32 at the time). The Hurricanes needed to get younger up front and Cole wasn't going to be part of the rebuild.

This is where I would love to play the "I was right" card, but I find it hard to believe that Cole is as bad as his numbers from this season indicate. Forward point production goes down as they get older, but Cole went from a 50-60 point player to a 20-25 point player over the span of a year. That is…not normal. Both his personal and team shooting percentage weren't that far off their career averages either, so I'm not sure why his boxcar numbers were so awful this year. Although, the way Dallas is using him could explain some of it. The Stars are burying Cole in a shutdown role and it's had a pretty ugly impact on his underlying numbers and his offense. One of the reasons why Cole succeeded with Montreal last year was due to the Canadiens using him strictly in offensive situations on a scoring line. Dallas seems to be doing the opposite. I'm not sure if he'll play up to his $4.5 mil. cap hit, but he should be better than he was this year even if Dallas continues to not use him to his strengths.

The rest of the free agents listed don't present much lost value. Bryan Allen has been awful for the Ducks this year as a borderline top-four defenseman, which is unfortunate because of how good he was with the Canes. The Hurricanes decision to replace him with Joe Corvo wasn't popular, but it doesn't seem like Allen has been much of an improvement based on his performance with the Ducks. Then there's Patrick Eaves, who is a fine depth player but not much more that and ultimately replaceable. I also listed Keith Aucoin here, who didn't find a home in the NHL until this year when the Islanders picked him off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Canes have let a couple very good players walk through free agency, but their trade history is a little more interesting. I've already gone over the Williams deal, but another trade that's worth talking about is the Andrew Ladd/Tuomo Ruutu deal. Right now, it looks like the Hurricanes lost out on a great player with Ladd being one of the top point-producers in the NHL and captain of the Winnipeg Jets, but let's not sell Ruutu short here. Compare their numbers from each season, and you'll see that while Ladd is the better player, Ruutu has been very good for the Hurricanes.

Ruutu has scored at a top-six rate in all of his seasons with the Hurricanes and his point-production was not that far off of Ladd's in some years. On top of that, Ladd struggled mightily in his first few seasons with the Hurricanes and could have needed a change in scenery. They were able to get Ruutu for him and I don't think anyone has been dissatisfied with what he has brought to the club. Ladd just had a phenomenal season and that will probably make everyone view this deal as a mistake for the Canes, even though Ladd didn't really emerge as a first liner until after Chicago traded him. 

After Ladd and Williams, the player who has provided the most value to their team this year is Matt Cullen, which is a little surprising when taking his age and usage into account. He was one of the Minnesota Wild's best point-producer at even strength and he managed to do it while facing some very difficult territorial assignments. Whitney might be known as "the ageless one," but the season Cullen had at 36 years old is nothing to sneeze at either.

With that being said, I don't think trading him in the 2010 season was a bad move at all. Cullen was one of my favorite Hurricanes and I was sad to see him go, but he was 35 and a UFA the following year and it was hard to see him as part of the team's future. Brandon Sutter was eventually going to take over his role and the pick they got in return for Cullen ended up netting the team Riley Nash, so this wasn't a bad move overall. It's easy to look at Cullen's numbers from this year and say "man, I wish we still had him," but this season also looks like a pretty big aberration and it's doubtful that he'll be able to repeat it, especially with him being 37 next season.

Moving onto the guy who many thought would replace Cullen, Brandon Sutter has been about as good in Pittsburgh as he was in Carolina. He is being used in the same capacity as a shutdown center and while his underlying numbers are a lot worse, his overall value is still pretty solid for what he is. There are fans who hate the trade that sent him, Brian Dumoulin & the Hurricanes first round pick from last year to Pittsburgh in exchange for Jordan Staal and I can sort of understand it. Jordan's production alone isn't going to make-up for the value the Canes lost in that trade, but I love what he brought to the team this year and I think he will play a big part in the Hurricanes finding their way back to the playoffs.

Despite the disappointing boxcar stats, Jordan did a lot of good things, more of which should show up on the scoresheet in future seasons and I think both teams will be glad they made this trade. Do I think Rutherford overpaid to get Jordan? Yes, but at the same time, the Canes weren't going to outbid teams for someone of Staal's age or caliber through free agency, so it was going to cost a lot to get him regardless. In the end, I think this will be a trade both teams will be glad they made. It certainly isn't bad as the Jussi Jokinen trade where Rutherford destroyed all of Jokinen's value by placing him on waivers and then dealing him for what could end up to be nothing a week later. Jokinen had a ton of success in Pittsburgh's top-six but was bumped to fourth line center after Sidney Crosby returned from an injury. I guess this is the only place Pittsburgh has for him with all of their centers healthy and if they continue to use him as a fourth liner, the Hurricanes picking up some of his salary makes a little more sense. I still think Jokinen could have gotten more for him at the deadline if he wasn't placed on waivers first and even then, keeping him for another year would have been better than letting him go for nothing. This is just one man's opinion, though.

The other trades listed don't present much value lost or gained for Carolina. Craig Adams only netted the Canes a conditional draft pick and the Blackhawks ended up waiving him a little over a year later. Adams gets a lot of praise for doing the little things and having been on two Stanley Cup winning teams, but he is replaceable overall. Carolina also did not miss out on any long-term value in the Anton Babchhuk/Ian White swap even though White didn't really work out with the Canes. Babchuk had one good season with the Flames and soon found himself a regular healthy scratch a next year. White was in the same boat with the Red Wings this year even though I think he is a lot better than he gets credit for. The Canes obviously didn't lose much in the Alexei Ponikarovsky trade either since he was on a one-year contract and Tomas Kaberle was traded to clear salary and cap space. It's pretty easy to see why that deal was made. 

I don't like being the one who makes excuses for the team, but most of these trades were done with a purpose in mind and the only one where the Hurricanes really got burned on was the Jokinen debacle earlier in the year. Any other trade where the Hurricanes gave up significant value, they ended up getting a very good player in return and each of them played pretty important roles. Unfortunately, some of them ended up ended up with the Hurricanes getting the lower end of the deal in the long-term, but to say that they got "nothing" for Ladd, Sutter or Williams is pretty ridiculous.

As for the free agency losses, losing Seidenberg and Whitney for nothing hurts but I don't think the Hurricanes are a unique case because players depart through free agency all the time. Teams who can replace these players are the ones who regret these moves less and this is ultimately where the Hurricanes struggles have been. Rutherford has actually paid big money to keep players like Eric Staal, Alex Semin, Cam Ward, Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu in Carolina long-term. There just hasn't been good enough depth surrounding these players, which is related to the Canes struggles in drafting and player development. I still view this as the root of the problem and more of a concern than the team losing players to free agency & trades.