The Hurricanes’ acquisition of Scott Darling was inevitable. Not in the sense that Darling was always headed for Carolina, of course, but rather that GM Ron Francis was well aware that it was goaltending above all that sunk the Hurricanes this season. Even without saying as much, Francis indicated getting better goaltending was a must as the team packed up for the season, citing Carolina’s standing in the league in both goals against and save percentage.
This is to say that to see Francis march into the off-season and fire the first salvo in terms of bettering his club wasn’t all that surprising. And if it wasn’t Darling heading for to Hurricanes, maybe it was bound to be the rights to Ben Bishop. Maybe Francis would have waited until the day the season ended, or at least that of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and made a play on Marc-Andre Fleury. No matter what, a goaltender was coming to Carolina.
But landing a goaltender is only the first step in what should be a massive off-season for the Hurricanes. As The News & Observer’s Luke DeCock pointed out Tuesday, this is set to be arguably the most important off-season Carolina has faced since Francis took over. Despite being stuck in the toughest division in the NHL this past season, the Hurricanes look to be on the cusp of competing for something more, inching closer to snapping an eight-year post-season drought that dates back to 2009-10 when Rod Brind’Amour was still around as part of the leadership group. Getting to the playoffs, though, will require more than simply shipping out a third-rounder for what promises — but is not guaranteed — to be an upgrade in goal.
As DeCock pointed out, Hurricanes coach Bill Peters made it clear that, “pieces need to come in, in order to close that gap” between Carolina and the Metropolitan’s best, and Peters sees the possibility for Francis to make that happen.
“What’s exciting, and the reality is that if this was a regular off-season with no expansion, is these players that are going to be available would not be available (otherwise),” Peters said in an end-of-season presser. “They’re coming available at a good time when our management group has stocked the cupboards with both prospects and high-value picks…(Francis’) phone is going to be ringing about picks, because people want picks, people aren’t going to want to lose players for free when they can get an asset.”
Peters is right, too. The best assets the Hurricanes have are a stockpile of picks and prospects and a salary cap situation that can be used to acquire just about any contract so long as management is willing to fork over the cash. And when it comes to the expansion draft and protecting players, the Hurricanes might be able to play the part of Don Vito Corleone, making other clubs offers they can’t refuse.
As it stands, there are two teams specifically who are going to have remarkably tough times deciding who to expose and who to protect: the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks. No one knows who exactly will be protected by either squad, but using CapFriendly’s expansion draft tool we can take a somewhat crowd-sourced look at who will be available. For Minnesota, Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella have potential to slip through the cracks. In Anaheim, Jakob Silfverberg is the big target. Neither the Wild or Ducks will be all too keen on losing a player for nothing to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, which could mean both clubs are open to deals involving those who are left exposed. And if you’re the Hurricanes, it’d be worth testing the waters on both Zucker and Silfverberg.
That’s because Carolina needs scoring in a bad way. Given the way the team has operated under Peters — and some would consider the Hurricanes one of the league’s most well-coached teams — the offense has simply underachieved. At 5-on-5, Carolina had the seventh-best possession rate with a Corsi for of 51.2 percent this past season and boasted the 13th-best scoring chance for percentage at 50.8 percent. Based on a bevy of numbers, the Hurricanes’ expected goals for per 60 was 2.72, the third-best mark in the league. Their actual goals for per 60? 2.16. Only nine teams were worse.
Zucker and Silfverberg aren’t all-star level scorers, this much is true, but Zucker would have been the third-highest Hurricanes goal scorer and brought an element of break-neck speed to the roster. As for Silfverberg, his 23 goals would have likewise put him in third. That’s not to mention his two-way ability and outrageous shot make him a player who’s set to breakout even further any time now.
Carolina can look beyond expansion leftovers, however, because they’re currently holding six choices in the first three rounds of the June draft, including three selections in Round Two. Maybe, just maybe, there’s enough there to convince a team that’s set to his the reset button into shipping the Hurricanes a piece they could use in the immediate. And, yes, we’re looking at you, Colorado. The Avalanche are in a brutal position right now, having just finished with one of the worst records in recent history. The talk all season and heading into the summer has been about changes the team may make. That includes the possible trade of captain Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene.
So, if Francis is looking to make up the gap between his club and others in the division, it’d be worthwhile to check in with GM Joe Sakic on what it would take to pry Duchene out of Colorado. That could mean more than picks, though. There’s a chance a defensive prospect has to be thrown in or maybe the Avalanche even request Justin Faulk comes their way. Including Faulk would be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s something Carolina could possibly consider with the emergence of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and continued growth of Noah Hanifin.
Given Duchene has first-line talent and mountains of ability, he could give the Hurricanes exactly what they need at the top of their lineup. Duchene’s a former 70-point man who can play down the middle. Imagine Duchene between Jeff Skinner, who scored 37 goals this past season, and soon-to-be sophomore Sebastian Aho. That could be a formidable trio for Carolina and a true top line to go up against some of the league’s best.
And then comes free agency, even if it seems foolish to suggest Carolina will be all that active. The Hurricanes had far and away the lowest cap hit this past season, spending only $56.8 million on their roster by season’s end. By comparison, the Pittsburgh Penguins spent nearly $78 million. The only real deals Francis made in free agency in the summer ahead of the past season were with Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg. The deals were worth $2.5 million and $1.5 million per year, respectively. Neither were big splashes.
But if Francis wants to dip his toes in the water this time around, there are a few players who could help bolster his club. T.J. Oshie, for instance, could become a free agent with a tough cap situation imminent in Washington. He’s coming off of the best season of his career and could fit in as a top-six winger. Or maybe Patrick Eaves or Justin Williams, both of whom have a history in Carolina, are determined to be targets who can provide some punch in the middle of the lineup. Maybe Kris Versteeg contemplates a return after a decent year in Carolina back in 2015-16. And if a defenseman, say Faulk, has to go to acquire Duchene or another top flight scorer, picking up a defender like Michael Stone, Michael Del Zotto or Cody Franson would seem to be a move that’s right up Carolina’s alley.
No matter the moves Francis and Co. do make, though, Peters is on the money. This is a team that has all the makings of one that can compete in the near future and a squad that has set itself up for a summer like this. Now is the time for Carolina to strike, doing what they must to bolster this roster and snap a playoff drought that has gone on far too long.
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