Hurricanes face no easy decisions
Posted June 26, 2014
Amid the excitement and national fervor for the United States Men's National Team and their pursuit of the World Cup, there have actually been other things going on in the sports world, many with serious local interest.
Would-be Duke legend Jabari Parker just might be the first player selected in the NBA Draft Thursday night. At the very least, he'll be off the board in the top three selections. Former teammate Rodney Hood is certain to join Parker among those chosen at Brooklyn's Barclay's Center, as is T.J. Warren of N.C. State and P.J. Hairston of North Carolina, by way of the NBDL's Texas Legends.
The following night, the NHL takes it's turn at the draft, with the Hurricanes officially entering the Ron Francis era. The team, absent from the Stanley Cup playoffs for five years running, is at a crossroads on the ice and on the fourth floor, and it is there where we focus our attention.
With all due respect to the guys in shorts, including the Carolina Railhawks who just recently enjoyed their annual beating of the L.A. Galaxy in the U.S. Open Cup, the amount of turnover in the Hurricanes front office, coupled with the growing – not to mention wildly justified – unrest among the loyal and patient fan base has shined a laser beam on the franchise over the next several weeks. And while it begins Friday night with the first round of the NHL draft, it's already underway.
Tuesday, the Canes signed three players to contracts as they began the process of putting together their roster for the inaugural season under brand new head coach Bill Peters. Veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey, one of just two players to answer the bell in all 82 games last season (Jordan Staal was the other), inked a three-year, $8.5-million deal. Nathan Gerbe's high-energy play earned him a two-year deal worth a total of $3.5 million. And 25-year old Chris Terry, who's scored 75 goals over the last three seasons for the Hurricanes' top minor league team in Charlotte, agreed to a two-way deal that guarantees him $300,000 even if he never skates at PNC Arena.
I'll classify those three signings as generous.
None, however, will tell the true story of the 2014-15 Hurricanes, and none speak to the culture change that the franchise so desperately needs. However, in today's money-driven, salary-cap laden world of professional sports, it's nearly impossible to reverse course almost overnight, which makes the draft and keeping a chess player's mentality a necessity.
A good chess player, much like a good manager in baseball, or a good parent, is always thinking several moves ahead. The Carolina Hurricanes, far from a high-revenue team the likes of some in larger markets, must think big picture at all times and not be swayed by emotions or tempted to act like big-money franchises that look to the salary cap for their governor. The Hurricanes are, as we've been told several times in the past, a "budget" team. As hard as that might be to stomach for some, it means that the dollars spent on the roster each year are far more critical than the "cap hit." So with that said, here are the main issues, as I see them, going forward with this team.
There's no doubt that for all the good that was accomplished during a 20-year run with the franchise – which includes the unforgettable Stanley Cup summer of 2006 – Jim Rutherford did not exactly leave the system in great shape. There are too many long, bloated contracts and not enough young, impact players in the pipeline, which is the life blood of teams in any sport that have to be careful how they spend every single dollar. Look at the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball as prime examples. Yes, yes, yes, I know the Rangers bought out the six years left on Brad Richards' contract. But owner James Dolan went to the men's room at Madison Square Garden and found the $20.6 million necessary to do so in the middle stall.
We don't have those kind of, well, facilities at PNC Arena.
On top of that, the Rangers are a "cap" team, guided not by smart, sound business decisions, but by the knowledge that their franchise generates so much revenue that when Dolan washes his hands, gold coins flow from the taps. To Carolina, that's where the biggest difference lies. When Alex Semin was granted the five-year, $35 million deal amid his 44-points-in-44 games lock out-shortened first season in Raleigh, I cringed. I did the same when Jordan Staal was inexplicably given his 10-year, $60 million bounty before ever taking a face-off in a Hurricanes sweater.
Wait. Why are the Canes, a professed "budget" team, spending like a sailor on leave? Where was the financial responsibility? Why are we almost completely capped-out, and worse, cap-challenged into the future? It would be one thing if those big-money deals were short-term investments, but they weren't. Those contracts are each an albatross hanging over the franchise as they aim to get better and more financially flexible. On top of that, neither player's performance belies contracts of that value, let alone length.
The salary cap for the upcoming season is roughly $71 million. The floor, the minimum each team must spend, will be about $52 million. Figure on the Hurricanes 2014-15 salaries to total somewhere in the middle of that. Let's just say, as a guide, the Canes come in around $65 million. Here's where the team sits – and keep in mind, as a "budget" team, the money spent is paramount.
The current Carolina Hurricanes payroll, which includes players under contract to play in the NHL this season and the $1 million per the team is paying Tuomo Ruutu to play against it for the next two years, is $55.7 million. That doesn't sound too bad until you realize that only includes 16 players. At a minimum, assuming a full, 23-man NHL roster, that means the team needs to add seven players for a total of $9.3 million, at an average of a little more than $1.3 million per. But remember, we're playing chess here, too. And a look to the following season says the team is still at $53.3 million for just 13 players AND staring at Andrej Sekera as an unrestricted free agent.
If Hainsey cost $3 million a year, what are you going to have to fork over to keep your team's third leading scorer in the fold on a long-term deal? Of course, Ron Francis hasn't yet paid Sekera because we're not sure if he's the 44-point, plus-4 diamond Rutherford stole from Buffalo for Jamie McBain, or the relatively blah performer the Sabres gave away for McBain after watching him for seven seasons in the NHL.
But if Sekera is even close to last year's version, the team will be lucky to get away with a $5 million annual salary, and that might be wishful thinking anyway. Either way, now we're at $58.3 million still needing nine more players to field a complete team.
Buy out Cam Ward. Yes, that is certainly an option. It's been a long time since Ward won the Conn Smythe Award as the Most Valuable Player of the Stanley Cup, and it somehow seems longer since Cam's been a top-flight goaltender.
Much of that is due to the inability to stay healthy, as Ward's played full seasons just twice since the run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009. On top of that, it would be intellectually dishonest to say that when healthy, Cam was among the top 15 goaltenders in the NHL.
So, considering his price tag for these two seasons sits at a total of $13.5 million, why not trade him, even if you have to pick up some portion of his salary, or better yet, why not just buy him out for $9 million and let Cam be someone else's problem?
The answer to the first is that this isn't your Yahoo! Fantasy League, where four guys in the bunch are paying closer attention to Yard Crashers on DIY than to what players around the league are doing.
NHL franchises are paying attention. They scout. They assess the value of players. They weigh the cost of a player at a particular position and consider all factors before making the decision to acquire a player and assign a value to what they're willing to offer in return.
Could there be a franchise willing to take a chance on a 30-year old goaltender with a history of back and knee problems with a $13.5 million price tag, even if the Hurricanes offered to subsidize the deal to a certain extent? I guess anything's possible.
Alex Semin got a $35-million deal even though this team knew of his tendency to lose interest for stretches during the season. As for a buyout, again, you could, but here's where I remind you that is still real money going out the door and remember that we're a "budget" team, so the money counts.
If you think the Canes are better without Cam Ward then you endorse this move. If you think that Anton Khudobin who, while very talented, has never played more than the 36 games he played last year – and by the way, was also injured for two and a half months! – is capable of giving the team 55-60 games, then maybe you're right.
You still need another goalie, however. Heck, even if they're unable to find a sucker, I mean trade partner for Ward, still they need to add another goalie. They might even need two.
My suggestion is that you keep Cam, hope he gets off to a good enough start, teams with Khudobin to form a strong 1-2 punch in the crease and in the middle of the year he's built his value to the point where a playoff-caliber team in desperate need of a net minder will agree to pay him AND give up a prospect in return. Right now, you won't get anything AND it will still cost the team money.
What about buying out Semin?
Same deal as mentioned before. While the $18.8 million that would still be owed is a far cry from the $28 million he's due currently, it's still money flowing out, and just releasing 30-goal scorers into the ether never makes you better unless he's a locker room issue.
There's no indication that Semin adversely impacts his teammates, and somehow, he was a plus-1 in a dreadful year in 2014. There's a chance, albeit a slim one, that another team might be enticed by his skill level to take him off your hands, but what did I just say about giving away 30-goal scorers…
What about trading the Captain?
Ahh, a very real possibility. Even though Eric Staal carries the fourth-highest salary in the league, there are plenty of teams that would be able to take that on with the salary cap rising above the $70 million mark.
The only issue from a Hurricanes standpoint is what is that team willing to give you in return and can you stomach not getting fair market value for a player who, in easily his worst year as a pro, still led the team in scoring and has five 30-plus goal seasons in his past?
The biggest problem Staal has is that he's the captain, and he follows one of the greatest captains in the last 25 years of NHL hockey in Rod Brind'Amour. There's interest in Eric, and it's a bonus that he's under contract for just one more season beyond this year, and there's nothing quite like the motivation of that next contract to give you that added push – see, Erik Cole, Sergei Samsonov or Semin.
Is the team going to bring back Jiri Tlusty? Are they going to find a better two-way, top-nine forward for under $2 million? Are they going to bring back Brett Bellemore, a 25-year old physical presence along the blue line that they simply do not have outside of 31-year old Jay Harrison?
Bellemore is unrestricted and headed for free agency unless the team acts now, and he's likely to command more than the Canes are willing to give. Are the interested in keeping Andrei Loktionov, the player they received in the Ruutu dump with New Jersey, away from Russia's KHL money? What about Manny Malhotra? He's great in the face-off circle, but over the last 29 games, Malhotra scored 1 goal, had 1 assist, was a minus-8 and played less than 8 minutes per game. What's the value, let alone the use, for that? We're trying to become a better team, right.
Heading into last season the stated goal was for the Hurricanes to become more difficult to play against. The opposite happened, and the power play continued to smell like an open container of whole milk left in a locked car during a July afternoon. That, along with the fact that there are precious few legitimate prospects in the system will be the unfortunate last impression left by Jim Rutherford's tenure with the Hurricanes.
The signing of Hainsey and Gerbe, in my view, continued the time-honored tradition of giving too much before was necessary. And it isn't that both players are overpaid, no one can say that for certain, it's that for a team like the Hurricanes, desperate for payroll flexibility, they've signed on for more of the same.
The reality is that they might be doomed either way. Even with the optimism of new head coach Bill Peters, it might not be possible for this team to turn around the slide towards oblivion. But I do know that both Staals are good players. So too, is Semin.
Skinner mostly had a good season a year ago and now needs to fill out the rest of his game to become a top-line player as opposed to just a goal-scorer. Elias Lindholm showed flashes towards the end of the year, mostly when playing alongside Skinner, and he seems to have a bright future.
Justin Faulk needs to rebound from a very disappointing year, despite receiving a spot on the bench for almost all of the Olympic hockey tournament. And, if we can get another year from Sekera similar to the one we just saw, it's reasonable to think that they'll be better than a year ago.
How much better, and will it be enough to get them into playoff contention, is the question.
If you want to clear the decks of players, that's fine, it's an option. However, it still costs money this year and beyond. And the reality is that you need talented players to compete in the NHL.
Giving them away because their production falls short of their paycheck isn't a path to prosperity. It's a guarantee of missing the postseason for the sixth consecutive year. Keep that in mind when you're signing off on the pink slips.