The Carolina Hurricanes missed the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season, prompting an organizational re-shuffling that resulted in Ron Francis being named General Manager.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at Francis' challenge: finding a way to take this top-heavy team and make it a playoff contender.
The second order of business for Francis figures to be finding a replacement for head coach Kirk Muller, who was fired in Francis' first order of business as the new GM. All of the 'Canes problems can't be laid at Muller's doorstep, but it's low risk to try a new approach when the past two seasons have yielded a .481 points percentage (125 points in 130 games).
Francis' former teammates Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson have both been rumoured as possible fits for the job.
In addition to someone new calling the shots behind the bench, Francis has some complicated personnel decisions. The Staal brothers, Alexander Semin and Cam Ward each come with a cap hit of at least $6-million and that kind of ticket can always get moved out if it doesn't come with results. It's one thing to pay your marquee No. 1 centre more than $8-million if you're making the playoffs regularly, but when you've been on the outside for five straight seasons, it's not inconceivable to consider trying something different.
Same goes for paying a goaltender more than $6-million per season; only it gets more challenging to find takers when that goalie has struggled to stay healthy and played poorly over the past couple years.
At one time -- much closer to 2006 -- it would have seemed sacreligious to consider trading Eric Staal or Cam Ward, but those are some possibilities that Francis may have to consider as he takes over the reigns of a budget-conscious team.
To be fair, it's not impossible for the Hurricanes to turn what they have into a competitive team. In addition to their high-priced forwards, the next generation is represented by Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm and their defence at least has a legitimate first pairing in Andrej Sekera and Justin Faulk. It's going further down the depth chart that causes more concern, as the 'Canes have been attempting to get by with bargains in those final roster spots.
"I don't know if you're ever ready for this job," Francis told the Raleigh News & Observer after taking over from Jim Rutherford. "One thing I've learned is there are no easy decisions. There are a lot of tough decisions."
He may not be ready for it, but it sounds like Francis has some idea what he's getting himself into.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.
21-year-old Jeff Skinner has had some ups and downs already in his career, but after scoring a career-high 33 goals last season, he now has 97 goals in 259 games through his first four years. Since 2000, the players to have more than 97 goals through their age 21 season are Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin. He could be a premier offensive threat, though if that's the case, it probably makes sense to give him more ice time -- he played more, per game, in each of the previous two seasons.
For the first time since his rookie season, Eric Staal finished a full season with fewer than 70 points and, coming off a knee injury suffered at the World Championships, it contrasted with a percentage-driven 2012-2013 season during which he put up 53 points in 48 games. There were rumblings during the year that Staal (or Skinner) might be available and that isn't necessarily a crazy idea.
The cap hit for the two seasons remaining on his deal is $8.25-million, but the actual cost is $18.75-million and while turning 30 isn't a hockey death sentence, Staal will turn 30 in October and he's put on a lot of miles -- since coming into the league, in 2003-2004, he ranks fourth in games played with 769.
This doesn't mean shipping Staal out at the first possible moment, and he does have a no-trade clause, but if a contender will pay a premium of young players, prospects and picks to land a big scoring centre like Staal, then the Hurricanes may want to at least consider that option now while he has value.
While his scoring numbers declined last season, Alexander Semin was a victim of percentage regression more than anything. He had more than three shots on goal per game for the fifth time in the past six seasons and, over the past four seasons, has been one of the best at generating shot attempts while he's on the ice. It's entirely fair to wonder about the value of paying a $7-million cap hit for the next four seasons, until he's 34 but, at the moment, Semin is still a dangerous offensive winger.
When the Hurricanes brought Jordan Staal in from Pittsburgh, the idea was that Staal would be able to play in a more offensive role, and it hasn't really worked out that way. He gets significant ice time against quality opponents, but Staal hasn't been blessed with great finishers on his lines in Carolina (Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Dwyer were his most common linemates last season) so, even with strong possession stats, his scoring rates have actually decreased.
He's also signed forever, through 2023, so there's room to improve the situation, by finding Jordan Staal linemates that may be more suited to producing offensively.
Patrick Dwyer has played more than 14 minutes per game for each of the past three seasons, yet has been among the lowest-scoring forwards in the league (among those playing at least 2000 5-on-5 minutes). His possession numbers have fluctuated from year to year too, based on situations, so there is a fit in the lineup for Dwyer, but it only makes sense in a checking role.
Riley Nash is ostensibly a checking centre, though one who started 59.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone and didn't face tough competition. It's not on Nash to determine usage, that's on the coach, but if the Hurricanes intend to free up others for offensive opportunities, then Nash should be taking on more defensive responsibility.
The fifth pick in last summer's draft, Elias Lindholm had a solid, if unspectacular rookie season. His role increased as the season progressed and scored 14 points in 37 games after a stint playing for Sweden at the World Juniors. Expect Lindholm to move into a more prominent role next season.
Bought out by the Buffalo Sabres, Nathan Gerbe came in at a bargain cost and tied career highs with 16 goals and 31 points, with impressive underlying numbers to support that production. In fact, with any kind of luck (ie. a respectable on-ice shooting percentage), Gerbe could have put up better scoring stats.
It turned out that Jiri Tlusty's 23-goal-in-48-games outburst from 2012-2013 was fluky (who knew?), and his scoring stats came back to earth. With decent possession numbers, it's still reasonable to think that Tlusty can be a useful complementary scorer.
After coming over from New Jersey in the Tuomo Ruutu trade, Andrei Loktionov capably filled a complementary role. His usage has always been sheltered, but he puts up good possession numbers and should be hitting a point at which he can be given more responsibility, fitting in a top-nine role.
Drayson Bowman played a career-high 70 games for the Hurricanes last season, but he's managed 33 points in 176 career games. With uneven results to this point in his career, Bowman is likely still battling for a job. Nothing wrong with keeping him for a fourth-line role, but it's possible there are better alternatives too.
It would be great for Carolina to dip into the free agent market and bring in another proven scoring forward, but if the Hurricanes are operating on a budget, the more likely scenario could be to find some value plays, not unlike last year's addition of Gerbe or Manny Malhotra. Peter Regin, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter are a few veterans that might come relatively cheaply, but could still upgrade the Hurricanes' forward depth.
Moving to Carolina brought about a dramatic change for Andrej Sekera, who had been a steady enough to-four defenceman in Buffalo, but he emerged as a top-pair stud for the Hurricanes, setting career-bests in goals (11), assists (33) and time on ice (23:41), all while facing high quality of competition. Next season is the final year on his current contract, so Sekera is due for an extension which will come with a healthy pay raise.
22-year-old Justin Faulk is the building block on the Carolina defence, playing 23:19 per game through his first three seasons and facing the toughest assignments. A great skater, who makes smart decisions and signed through 2020, Faulk is a stable presence already and should continue to get better.
Unable to crack the lineup of the Toronto Maple Leafs, John-Michael Liles played over 20 minutes per game in Carolina and even provided strong puck possession numbers in the process. He's three seasons removed from his last 40-point season, but Liles' mobility and smarts still work to his advantage, on a team that is willing to make use of those assets.
Jay Harrison offers size, but his ice time was down last year after struggling more than he had in previous years. He's reasonably priced as a third-pair option, in the hopes that maybe he finds a better fit with another partner.
One of Harrison's regular partners last season, Ryan Murphy is an undersized 21-year-old who is still trying to make his way in the league. Murphy is a terrific skater, and that has helped him put up 24 points in 25 AHL games, in addition to a dozen points in 52 career NHL games, so there is offensive upside to be realized. Even if Murphy is given easier minutes, with power play time, he should be able to find a regular spot on a Carolina blueline that needs to be better.
The Hurricanes are looking at some significant changes on defence, thanks to four unrestricted free agents. Ron Hainsey was certainly good enough to keep and if Joni Pitkanen is healthy, that could be interesting but, otherwise, the 'Canes may look elsewhere for improvement.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'13-'14 Cap Hit
Anton Khudobin had a terrific year, posting a .926 save percentage in a career-high 36 games, earning a two-year contract extension and, if the Hurricanes can find a taker for incumbent starter Cam Ward, the starting job would appear to be Khuodbin's going forward.
Khudobin has a .928 save percentage in 57 career games, which is great, the best among goalies with at least 50 games, but that's such a small sample, and he had a .912 save percentage in 156 AHL games, so there's most likely downward mobility in those numbers.
Ward won the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP in 2006 and was an above average goaltender from 2008 through 212, but injuries have limited him to 47 games over the past two seasons and, even when he's played, he hasn't been effective, posting a .902 save percentage, which is near the bottom among goaltenders over the past couple seasons. Theoretically, the Hurricanes may be prepared to move Ward, but finding a taker for the remaining two years (and $13.5-million) on his contract could be challenging, at best.
||43-42-85, +46, 58 GP
||4-21-25, -12, 70 GP
||16-23-39, -3, 76 GP
||22-29-51, -6, 70 GP
||Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
||31-60-91, -9, 66 GP
|Phil Di Giuseppe
||Michigan (Big 10)
||13-11-24, +7, 35 GP
||New Hampshire (HE)
||7-14-21, -4, 41 GP
||2.56 GAA, .917 SV%, 52 GP
||Colorado College (NCHC)
||5-20-25, +2, 32 GP
||2-10-12, -7, 63 GP
||36-38-74, -7, 69 GP
Brock McGinn, the third of Fergus, Ontario's McGinn brothers (Jamie and Tye are with Colorado and Philadelphia, respectively) to be drafted to the NHL,has enjoyed a great season with a powerhouse Guelph team. He'll play a physical game and, as he's shown this year, should be able to contribute some offensively too.
After four AHL seasons, Michal Jordan could be ready for a real NHL opportunity with Carolina. He's been their best AHL defenceman and, with free agents potentially departing, Jordan could slide into a depth spot next season.
A second-round pick in 2011 Victor Rask had a solid first pro campaign. He could use more time to refine his game, and establish that he can score consistently at the AHL level, before pushing for an NHL spot.
2012 fourth-round pick Trevor Carrick has steadily improved throughhout his junior career and is ready to embark on a pro career next season, but likely will require a few years of development.
Undrafted last summer, after scoring 51 points in 62 games in his draft year, Sergey Tolchinsky quickly earned a free agent contract with the Hurricanes, then continued to improve his game in the OHL. He's small, but skilled.
Drafted in the second round in 2012, Phil Di Giuseppe didn't make a ton of progress at Michigan, scoring 26 points in 40 games as a freshman, then 52 points in 75 games over the past two seasons. He's signed with the Hurricanes and played in three games with Charlotte late in the year, so Di Giuseppe will have a chance to show whether or not he's going to have a notable offensive game in the pros.
Taken in the third round last summer, Brett Pesce is a lanky collegiate defender who improved his production as a sophomore. He still has a couple more seasons of collegiate eligibility and can use them to get stronger as he prepares for his pro career.
A third-round pick in 2012, Daniel Altshuller has steadily improved throughout his junior career and, at 6-foot-4, has good size for the position. Give him a few years in the AHL and see what happens.
An offensively-minded blueliner, Jaccob Slavin played for Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championships and led Colorado College in scoring as a freshman.
A tough, physical stay-at-home defenceman, Keegan Lowe was a third-round pick in 2011 and had a decent first pro campaign. Lowe's game won't stand out, but for a team without great defence prospects, he's in the picture.
Zach Boychuk has been a top Hurricanes prospect forever, since he was a first-round pick in 2008, and he's managed nine goals and 24 points in 96 NHL career games, but after 74 points in 69 AHL games last season, the undersized winger can't be ignored altogether.
Hurricanes advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater
7th - Kasperi Kapanen, William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers
According to www.capgeek.com, the Hurricanes have approximately $37.9M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 16 players.
Check out my possible Hurricanes lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Three forwards, one top four defenceman, depth defencemen.
What I said the Hurricanes needed last year: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, depth defencemen.
They added: Nathan Gerbe, Elias Lindholm, Andrej Sekera, Ron Hainsey, Ryan Murphy, Mike Komisarek, Brett Bellemore, Anton Khudobin.
Eric Staal, Alexander Semin, Jiri Tlusty.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.