My turn to play Canes GM for a day
Here is my shot at playing Canes GM. Lucky for those of us who make the regular trips to the RBC Center we have a much more competent guy doing this for a living in Jim Rutherford, but it still makes for fun hockey debate in the summer.
Let me start with the easy one. I already said that I think Cam Ward will be extended (current contract runs through 09-10) before the season starts. But he does not have to be, and it does not mean there is a problem if he is not. It just makes some sense since Rutherford did the exact same thing with Staal last summer and since his next contract impacts how much money is available in future years. Michael Leighton is similarly under contract. Based on the fact that the coach did not have the guts to play him at all down the stretch, you might say that you would ideally want someone else in this role. But Leighton was decent early. He is already signed. He has been fine in the locker room which is important for a #2 goalie. And Ward has proven to be capable of carrying a heavy load. So I would not go spending more money to fix what is not really broken. If Ward were to go down with a long-term injury, Rutherford might need to do some quick shopping but until then things are fine.
In 08-09 I think Joni Pitkanen played himself into the place of being the guy you try to build a top pairing around in the future. In the playoffs he was a good puck-moving half of a defense pairing even under pressure, and he looked much better defensively than everyone from Edmonton and Philadelphia threatened. Ideally, you would want to pair him with a big/physical/nasty type defenseman who is a right shot and more the stay-home type capable of cleaning up a few messes. During the regular season, Anton Babchuk did a decent imitation of this role and provided offense to boot, but come playoff time he was exposed as a young, still developing defenseman with some holes in the defensive part of his game when the pressure was dialed up. While I think it is possible the Canes could get by with someone like Babchuk next to Pitkanen, I do not think this is the ideal answer. Gleason/Corvo were good and a pleasant surprise to some degree in 08-09. I would have said that they were in a bit over their heads as a #1 pairing, but down the stretch in March/April they were exactly that and handled the responsibility well. In the playoffs against the best in the league, I think they were exposed a bit as a pairing that might be more of a good #2 but had a little trouble on the big stage as a #1 pairing. But as making the 09-10 playoffs and seeing where it goes from there, the duo has proven capable.
Pitkanen, Corvo and Gleason are all under contract for 09-10, and all 3 did a solid job in the top 4 last year. Unless Rutherford does something big and trades for or signs a top-tier defenseman this summer, I would expect and feel mostly okay with these guys being ¾ of the team’s top 4 on opening night.
That leaves the Canes 2 challenges on defense:
1) They need someone to be the 4th top 4 defenseman. If he picks up where he left off in the regular season and continues to progress, Babchuk could be good enough again in that spot. Perhaps 1 of the young guys could surprise and be ready ahead of schedule. Or?
2) The team has money and planning problems in the 5-7 slots. Seidenberg had a decent season and played some great hockey next to Pitkanen in the 1st couple rounds of the playoffs. Kaberle and Wallin provide okay depth for a 3rd pairing. If the GM’s sole job were to fill out a 7-man defense (6 + 1 extra), then this group is fine. The amount of money tied up is too much for their roles. Wallin at $1.8M and Kaberle at $2.2M is too much for a 3rd pairing in the Canes budget. It is not clear much can be done about this right now. Wallin supposedly refused to waive a no-trade clause last summer, and no one would take Kaberle for free last year when he flew through waivers. This issue resolves itself next summer when both contracts end. The 2nd problem is that the Canes really need a spot or 2 at the bottom of the defense depth chart to provide extended auditions to their young defensemen who might be ready. Carson, Borer and Rodney have all looked decent in limited NHL stints, and McBain is another guy who is expected to challenge for a spot soon. The team needs to get these guys ice time to know for next summer if/who might be capable of holding down the 5 & 6 spots for less money and even better if 1 of them could even step into the top 4.
So on defense it goes like this for me:
1) Corvo, Gleason and Pitkanen are probably as good as we can do for the top 4 for 09-10. And in 08-09 that was good enough, so there is no big problem here.
2) We are stuck with Kaberle and Wallin to fill 2 of the 5-7 spots for 09-10 because of price/performance and no-trade clauses.
3) Babchuk is the guy with the question mark. If you think he is a top 4 guy going forward, then you put him back next to Pitkanen and see how it goes. If not, then I think you sign him and then trade him while he has some value coming off a big scoring season.
4) Seidenberg through no fault of his own is the odd man out. Even without him, you already have 6 defensemen under contract. Again, you need some ice time to audition the kids. I think the team lets him walk. Hopefully he can parlay a pretty good 08-09 into a decent long-term contract with a team that needs help on defense.
5) I look at Mike Komisarek to play next to Pitkanen. He is coming off a so-so season in Montreal which could pull his price down just a little. Awhile back, he looked like another $6M guy, but if the mediocre season combined with the salary cap creeping down gets him into the 4 years for $16-18M range ($4.5M/year), then I might pounce. In terms of skill set, he is the exact fit you want for Pitkanen. He is a big/nasty/physical defenseman who can use his size to patrol the front of the net, beat on guys and clean up messes there and win pucks that Pitkanen uses his skating and vision to move the other way. He is a right shot. If we did manage to land him, you would then need to look at clearing some room and money, so Babchuk becomes too expensive to be a 3rd pairing defenseman when you have 3-4 other options lined up behind him and becomes trade bait, and/or you might consider trading Corvo. As far as other free agents go, I steer completely clear of the lot of other borderline top 4 types who will be pretty expensive. We have enough of that kind. I think the only way to make a significant improvement (to a defense that was capable down the stretch last season) is to make the top pairing better not to add more decent 2nd pairing types.
Assuming Rutherford cannot land Komisarek and does not surprise with a trade for a similar guy, I think the defense looks much the same.
So with Seidenberg gone to make room for at least 1 kid and you get something like: Pitkanen/Babchuk, Gleason/Corvo, Rotating youth spot/Wallin with Kaberle extra.
In terms of being difficult to play against which would include physical play and just skating like mad and dogging the puck, I would assert that the 3 top Canes in this category were Larose, Cole and Ruutu. All 3 are free agents. With a decent sprinkling of not overly big or physical players in the lineup, it is important to keep enough of this physical presence and pain-in-the-___ forechecking ability. I think Larose stays and probably makes something in the $2M/year range which is about right for a 2nd/3rd line forward who brings a lot but is not a pure scorer (at least going into signing this contract). I think Ruutu and Cole bring similar skills, but I would prioritize Ruutu 2nd for 3 reasons. 1st is simply age. Both Ruutu and Cole are somewhat of an injury risk because of their style of play. Ruutu has a little less wear and tear at 26 years old. 2nd is a slightly bigger skill set. Ruutu has a little more depth to his game. He is more capable of scoring on a 1-timer which is especially important if elevated to Staal’s line again. Cole’s offensive game is mostly limited to a full head of steam driving to the net. There is nothing wrong with this and you need a guy in this role, but I think Ruutu does that reasonably well and a bit more. 3rd is versatility. The Canes will enter 09-10 with questions at center. Can BrindAmour find a higher gear and play in the top 9 after falling to 4th line in the playoffs. Will Sutter be ready? Can Cullen stay healthy? Ruutu has been exclusively a wing for the Canes, but actually broke in as a center and could seemingly be a decent middle piece of a grinding, physical checking line if you needed to build one. I figure Ruutu costs something in a $2.5-3M range which is not dirt cheap, is a little risky due to injury possibilities, but is reasonable. I like Jokinen a lot for the same reason plus price. After a rough 08-09 except for the playoffs, I figure Jokinen can be had for roughly the same as his 08-09 contract in the $2M range. That is not bad for a guy who can literally do anything – penalty kill, power play, either wing or center, shootouts, etc. He is the puzzle piece that fits literally anywhere on a team that has some uncertain pieces in its puzzle coming out of 08-09.
At this point, I think the situation at forward is almost identical to that on defense. If you start with the 5 top 9 types under contract (Staal, Whitney, Cullen, Samsonov, BrindAmour) and then add Larose, Ruutu and Jokinen, you have 8 of your top 9. That is a decent starting point and proved good enough in 08-09. And with the other free agents gives you the chance for being deep. But a couple of the same problems lurk beneath the depth. First, the playoffs made it clear that the team really needs a more of a true 1st-liner to play on Staal’s right wing. Ruutu and Cole do a decent job, but neither is the pure 30-35 goal scorer that you want on a top line. Then at the bottom, you have Eaves ($1.4M) and Walker ($2.5M) who are maybe 3rd line, maybe 4th line but expensive for these slots. As on defense, you have too much money tied up in guys who are probably in your 9-12 forwards and might be better off having more ice time available for promising youth (Bowman, Boychuk) that could earn NHL ice time with a good training camp. If my memory is correct, Walker has a no-trade clause and would be difficult to move at $2.5M anyway. BrindAmour is suddenly a bit expensive for his role at $3M if he does not bounce back, but he is the captain and is going nowhere. I think that leaves Eaves as a guy with a big question mark sort of like Babchuk. Do you still think he is a top 9 forward on this team? If you say yes, then you keep him and give him a shot to prove it early. If you think he is the 4th line/sometimes 3rd line player that we saw in the playoffs, then he is too expensive for his role and still young enough and cheap enough that you could trade him. He had a reasonable audition on Staal’s line early last season when all the right wings were hurt. It did not work out. He had other chances on different higher lines later. He did not stick there either. At this point, I trade him while I still can and make a little more room for 1 of the kids (Bowman, Boychuk, etc.) who would be cheaper and at this point seem to have a lot more long-term upside. I think his $2.5M salary would make it tough, but I would consider shopping Samsonov too. He was not bad in 08-09 and was very good at times (Boston series especially) in the playoffs, but I shop him for 2 reasons. First, in terms of smaller non-banging playmaking wings Whitney is ahead of him and Boychuk (although he could play center too) is on the way. Second and more importantly, when he did not work out in a long run on Staal’s line in 08-09, he became more of a 3rd line or borderline 2nd line player for the Canes. While his salary is not grossly high, it is not cheap either for that role. I think the team can get much of the same skill set from Jokinen who is more versatile and/or could just go with a couple more physical options to balance things out better.
So here is what I do:
1) I trade Eaves. He has had chances and has not worked out on a scoring line. There is more likelihood of 1 of the kids working out, so I would save a few $ on my 4th line and get what I can for him now. Though I think it would be hard to move him, I would also explore trading Samsonov.
2) I sign Ruutu, Jokinen and Larose to give me 8 top-9ish forwards (assuming there is no market for Samsonov) (Whitney/Staal/see below, Ruutu/Cullen/Larose, Samsonov/BrindAmour/Jokinen).
3) I build a 4th line that can be as cheap as possible and gritty. Walker is a start. I think I am in the minority, but I like Ryan Bayda. He should sign for the league minimum and brings some positives. He fits and knows the forechecking system well and seems to accept his role with limited minutes. He showed a knack for scoring some big goals in the New Jersey series. But the biggest thing is price at the league minimum . Conboy also fits even if it is part-time healthy scratch and even part-time protector and leader in the AHL between NHL stints. You can then leave the last spot open for Sutter to win. Since he is projected as more of a defensive center, it might be okay to slot him without a bunch of offense on his wings. On the other hand, taking a young player who is supposed to be a scorer (Bowman, Boychuk) is a waste on a 4th line at the NHL level. These guys either need to play their way onto a higher line with more minutes and more skill around them, or otherwise their development is better served playing 18-20 minutes on a scoring line with power play time in the AHL. Unless they have a lights out camp, I think heavy minutes on scoring lines in the AHL is the most likely option for the Canes young forwards to start the season.
4) So I obviously skipped something significant. First, let me say that I like Erik Cole and what he brings when he is playing with jump and the physical edge. And like Ruutu, I think he can fill in decently on a scoring line creating space for his linemates with his physical play and speed. But he just does not have enough scoring finishing tools to be the ideal guy for a 1st line scoring wing slot. Because of budget limitations and the fact that the 08-09 team was not that far away, I just do not see Rutherford being able to sign a big money wing like Gaborik (too risky anyway), Havlat, Hossa, etc. for Staal’s line. But Rutherford has always had a knack for finding diamonds in the rough. Remember Whitney for $1.5M after Detroit bought him out and discarded him? Remember Stillman for $1.6M who was the odd man out after winning the Cup in Tampa when they had to spend the money on more important guys? Remember Cullen for about $1M after a disappointing previous season? Remember Samsonov for free off waivers? Remember the Jokinen for about nothing trade? Enter Brian Gionta. He is coming off a $4M/year contract that he signed after scoring a whopping 48 goals. But if everyone else looks at the goal trend going all the way from 48 to low 20s to only 20 goals last season and writes him off, could he be the next diamond in the rough at a low-risk 2 years for something like $3.5-4.5M (total). We can point to 1st line ice time with quality players in Whitney and Staal which could appeal to a guy looking to reignite his scoring touch. And he would provide arguably the 1st true 1-timer type of scoring at right wing on Staal’s line literally ever. It would be hard to add another undersized wing to our collection, but Gionta is at least the gritty version of small. He will do the work on the boards and go to battle in the crease for some of his goals. The more likely option continues to be Erik Cole, and for the right price, I do not think this is a bad option. He is a known quantity, gives the team at least 1 more bigger/more physical player and while he is not the prototypical scoring wing for a 1st line, he does bring chemistry and a decent track record on Staal’s right side. At anything close to $4M/year (his last price), I think Cole is just too limited and risky at this stage of his career. Something like $3M still seems a little high but is within the realm of reasonable. At something more in the $2-2.5M range especially if it is only for 2 years which lowers the risk Cole becomes a decent option where the team knows what it will get.
With that I think you get the following:
Whitney/Staal/Cole or Gionta or kid
So there is my 2 cents.
What do you think? What do you agree and disagree with? Are there any free agents you would chase? Do you put Cole higher on the priority list?
When I get a chance, I will take a shot at a couple potential trade targets and also free agents (past Komisarek and Gionta) who might fit. I expect this summer to be slow in terms of unrestricted free agent signings and trades, but Rutherford is usually good for 1 that catches us by surprise.