Before the Free Agency Frenzy on July 1, Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis tempered the expectations of the Hurricanes fanbase. He made it clear that there would be no major signings early in the offseason, instead focusing on filling out some depth roles that the Canes clearly needed. It was a stark difference from Carolina’s previous two offseasons, which saw them grab Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin in consecutive years. It may not have had the media impact of those two acquisitions, but the Carolina Hurricanes have made cheap, effective signings thus far, and with over $500 million handed out in contracts on the first day of free agency, “cheap” may be the best for the future of the franchise.
While star players like Paul Stastny and Thomas Vanek were being signed to multi-year, multi-million dollar deals on July 1, and lesser players earned contracts they could not possibly live up to, Francis signed only two players on the first day of free agency. The team re-signed inconsistent winger Jiri Tlusty to a one-year, $2.95 million deal and Brad Malone, 4th line grinder from the Colorado Avalanche, signed a two-year, $1.3 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes. Malone is not going to “wow” anyone with his play, but he has a large frame and he is not afraid to throw it around when needed. On Wednesday, the Hurricanes signed two more depth players, both for $1 million or less. Veteran goaltender Drew MacIntyre will likely be the team’s starting goaltender for their AHL affiliate, while center Jay McClement will slot in as their 4th line center and primary penalty-killer. Today, the Carolina Hurricanes addressed their defensive depth by bringing back Tim Gleason on a one-year, $1.2 million contract. Gleason’s lost a step in recent years, but as long as he is relegated to the bottom pairing, it is a very low-risk signing for the Canes.
The biggest issue for the Carolina Hurricanes over recent years has been their size and physical play, or rather, their lack thereof. For many years, the team was built on speed and a quick transition game, a strategy that earned the franchise their only Stanley Cup. However, as players grew older and the roster changed shape, the Hurricanes lost the skillset to run that game effectively. Addressing this, Francis has spent less than $5 million to rebuild the depth of the team to become a more difficult team to play against. Malone, McClement, and Gleason all have a physical aspect of their game, though it may take some coaxing to bring that aspect to the forefront. While these cheap, effective signings will make the Carolina Hurricanes more difficult to play against, they do not address the real issues with the Canes.
The biggest holes for the Hurricanes going into the offseason were the need for a Top 6 winger, another Top 4 defenseman, and a 3rd line center. Unfortunately for the team, the prices required to acquire any of those players in free agency were likely too high for the organization’s self-imposed salary cap. Thus, the team will likely remain essentially the same as the roster from last year, which finished 13th in the conference and 10 points out of a playoff spot. Thus, if the team expects to end their five-year streak of missing the playoffs, they will need significant improvement from the players that were on last year’s roster, starting from the top.
Team Captain Eric Staal will finally need to step up into that leadership role that has been pegged for him ever since he was drafted in 2003. He cannot, for the sake of the team, have his annual slow start to the season. The same applies to first line winger Alexander Semin, who seemed to put forth the effort early in the season, but simply could not get the pucks to enter the net. Goaltender Cam Ward will need to return to his previous form and Anton Khudobin will need to maintain his to give the Carolina Hurricanes a solid 1a/1b combination in net. Finally, though it is unreasonable to expect young winger Jeff Skinner and veteran defenseman Andrej Sekera to match their career years of last year, they will need to become more consistent in their play throughout the season.
New head coach Bill Peters will have his hands full to ensure that all these factors come into play next year. On paper, the team has enough talent on the roster to make a run at the playoffs. However, with the Metropolitan division being as unpredictable as it is, the Canes will need a lot to go right and very little to go wrong. Cheap, effective signings look like the smart move to make in July, but if the Carolina Hurricanes are out of a playoff spot in April, it will be very easy to look back at this free agency period and wonder if something more could have been done.
This article is one in a series, providing coverage, analysis, and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner