Ron Francis sees a bright future in Carolina, and with the team the Hurricanes GM has worked to assemble, it’s not hard to see why. There’s offensive talent in the likes of Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal and Victor Rask, blossoming young forwards such as Teuvo Teravainen, Elias Lindholm and Sebastian Aho, and a defense, headlined by Justin Faulk, that looks to be one of the best in the league in short order.
And knowing that this team has some bright years ahead of it, with playoff berths and Stanley Cup contention seemingly in the offing, Francis understands that keeping a roster with so many up-and-coming talents can be expensive. Ask the Chicago Blackhawks. Take a look at the Washington Capitals. And, in a few years’ time, have a conversation with the Toronto Maple Leafs about that very subject.
So, with that in mind, Francis has made yet another move to lock up one of his bright young players to a long-term deal, inking 22-year-old defenseman Brett Pesce to a six-year, $24.15-million deal. And it’s exactly the move Francis should be making this off-season. While Pesce’s $4.025-million cap hit may seem a touch high priced to those outside of Carolina, even a cursory glance at his numbers would have most fans wishing they had a defenseman of his ilk on their preferred club.
This past season, Pesce’s second full year in the NHL, his average ice time jumped by nearly three minutes per game and his responsibility went through the roof. He took on high-quality minutes in his sophomore season, often facing off against the other team’s top line and taking the second-highest slant of defensive-zone starts among the rearguards. In fact, the only Hurricanes defender to face tougher competition while starting more often in the Carolina end was Jaccob Slavin, who just so happens to be Pesce’s defensive partner. The two were nearly inseparable, skating more than 1,000 minutes together at 5-on-5 and forming one of the league’s best defensive pairings.
Don’t believe it? Consider the following.
This past season, there were only 11 other defensive pairings that skated 1,000-plus minutes together. Among those were the likes of Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, Brent Burns and Paul Martin, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban and Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom. However, when ranking the 12 pairings on their possession rates and goals for percentages, Slavin and Pesce stood as arguably the best pairing of the bunch. They had the second-best Corsi For percentage together, a solid 54.6 percent, and, when on ice together, the Hurricanes scored 58.6 percent of the 5-on-5 goals. That was the third-best mark. The only other pairing to rank top-five in both categories was Burns and Martin, and they came in fifth in both.
The incredible thing about those numbers is Pesce, as noted, is only 22. Slavin is 23. This is a pairing that has long legs if all goes according to plan, and that’s where Francis’ summer signing genius really kicks in. Slavin was already locked up earlier this summer to a six-year, $37.1-million extension, and Pesce’s contract will keep him in Carolina for the same length of time. Combined, the duo will earn $9.325 million over the next six seasons. The value there is remarkable, and think about what that value stands to provide Carolina down the line.
At the rate Pesce and Slavin are developing, both stand to be in their prime in, say, three years’ time. On shorter-term contracts, that would mean both are due big-money deals, if they hadn’t signed them already. But by handing the two defensemen those contracts earlier in their careers when they’re only starting their breakout keeps the cap hit down. Given that Aho stands to be a top-six talent, Teravainen a consistent top-six scorer and Skinner further in his prime as the team’s top sniper by the 2020-21 season, having Slavin and Pesce locked up to high-value contracts opens up cap space for when the three aforementioned forwards will be playing on new contracts that include sizeable salary bumps.
Then you go ahead and mix in a few of the Hurricanes’ more promising prospects, including Julien Gauthier, Nicolas Roy and Janne Kuokkanen, and Carolina should be able to fill out the rest of the roster with the cheap, effective depth that is the cornerstone of contending teams.
Throughout the post-season and into this summer, Nashville Predators GM David Poile has been praised for the moves and signings he has made, getting integral pieces such as Ekholm, Roman Josi, Viktor Arvidsson and Calle Jarnkrok signed to the type of long-term deals that have allowed the team to contend while maintaining cap flexibility. And in a few short years, it sure seems as though those same stories will be written about Francis.
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