Jim Rutherford has already stated that one of his intentions this off-season is to sign a first-line winger to help out Eric Staal. There is no doubt that this has been a glaring need for the Hurricanes this season as Staal has had to make due with linemates like Jiri Tlusty and Chad LaRose. Those two players are on pace to have career seasons but even then, neither of them gives the Canes a threatening first line so getting an upgrade there will be critical. When thinking of who Rutherford might pursue this off-season, the two big ticket names are Zach Parise and Alexander Semin, both of whom are going to command a hefty contract and have multiple suitors. As much as I love the idea of the Canes signing Parise, the likelihood of him coming to Raleigh seems low, so we need to look for a back-up plan.
Going over the wingers who are set to become UFAs at the end of the season, if the Hurricanes can't land a big name they will probably have to overpay for someone or "buy low" on a quality player who is coming off a bad season. There are actually many of these players available and I could easily see the Hurricanes making a push for one of them. Who are these players and is it the right way for Carolina to go in free agency this offseason? After the jump we'll take a look at this issue.
Assuming that the big names are off the market, there are a few types of players that the Hurricanes can go after to fill their holes on the first line. The first option is to sign someone who is proven at the NHL level, is coming off a good season and will cost a good amount of money but not too much. One player of this category is PA Parenteau of the Islanders, who is on pace for a 72 point season. Parenteau is a late bloomer but he's been a capable top-six winger the last two seasons and could be seeking a big payday this summer. Is he right guy for the Hurricanes to go after, though? His underlying numbers are very solid but I'm very weary of him because he didn't produce until he started playing on a line with John Tavares, who is emerging as one of the league's best playmakers. Parenteau's game is also pretty one-dimensional as he starts a lot of his shifts in the offensive zone and it makes me wonder how much of his success is related to the situation he is in. Eric Staal has the ability to make his linemates better so it's very possible that Parenteau can be a productive player on the Hurricanes, but what are the odds of him replicating this season and is giving him a big contract a good idea?
I am sure that GMs will be more cautious to give out big contracts as a reward for recent success after seeing the Sabres get burned by that Ville Leino signing but Parenteau and Leino are different players. With the right linemates and correct usage, Parenteau can be a very useful player in anyone's top nine but where he ends up will come down to how much money he wants. I expect for him to command a salary of at least $3 mil. per season and that's definitely in Rutherford's price range. I'd still approach with caution with signing him, though. Another player in this category would be David Jones of the Colorado Avalanche who is on pace to have consecutive 20 goal seasons despite putting up some awful possession rates. He's someone I'd be much more cautious about signing than Parenteau because of that and his shooting percentage over the last couple of years is around 16-17%, and that's not sustainable in the long run.
Another category of players are those who are on the downsides of their career but can still be productive in a top-six roel and the first guy who comes to mind here is Ryan Smyth of the Edmonton Oilers. Smyth wiill be 36 next season but he can still play against other team's top lines, be used in all situations and be an effective net-front presence that will be a big help to the powerplay and the first line. The 20 goals and 40-55 points that Smyth produces on a regular basis isn't worth his $6.25 mil. cap hit but he's probably going to be available for much less than that this off-season.
While Smyth can be an effective first liner, he isn't exactly a "pure goal scorer" at this point in his career and is more suited for the "Tomas Holmstrom stand in front of the net" role but the possibility of him and Staal playing together is a nice thought. Age is the other concern with him because at 36 his production could be prone to fall off. You also have to factor in that whichever team signs Smyth to a mutli-year contract is going to be on the hook for his cap-hit even if he retires. Mikael Samuelsson is another player who is available this summer and at 36 years of age, he is also in this class. He's been productive for the Florida Panthers this year when healthy, but he's missed about half of the season and doesn't bring much to the table if he isn't scoring. I also wouldn't consider him an idea first liner and the same goes for most of the other older players who are set to become free agents (Sullivan, Sykora, Hejduk, etc.).
The other thing Rutherford could do is "buy low" on a player who has had a good career but is coming off a bad season and will likely be available for a low cost in the off-season. There's a few of these players who I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole (Knuble, Blake, Brunette, etc.) but I am interested in a couple of them, namely Brad Boyes and Dustin Penner. Boyes has seen a fall from grace the last three seasons as he's gone from a 30-goal scorer to having only 23 over the last two years. A poor shooting percentage is partially the reason for this because his possession numbers are respectable, but his shot rate is way down from what it was in past seasons. The last few years, Boyes was averaging at least 2 shots per game and that has dropped significantly this year. Boyes has the talent to be a great top-six player and contributor but his numbers have taken a nose-dive this year and it makes you wonder if he's worth taking a chance on.
As for Penner, he's having an awful year with only seven goals and 17 points and he's also earned a reputation around the league as a "lazy" player. Penner's shot rate is down a bit but he's still a positive possession player and a reason for his goal-scoring being down is that his shooting percentage has submarined to below 7%. He's not the 30-goal scorer that he was in Edmonton but Penner isn't nearly as bad as he's been this year and he could be available for a low price this off-season. Considering that Jiri Tlusty and Chad LaRose have been playing on our first line for most of the year, I see no reason why Penner can't.
The problem with "buying low" on players like Penner and Boyes is that Rutherford did the exact same thing with Ponikarovsky last off-season and it didn't work out. Forward production tends to drop off when they reach their 30's and we saw that with Ponikarovsky. Boyes and Penner are different players but if they are only useful in a checking role once the Hurricanes sign them, then they would be in the same boat as they were this year with Ponikarovsky.
Building through free agency is always a big gamble, which is why Rutherford needs to look a lot of different players and factors in his quest to find a first line winger this summer. Just about anything on the market can be considered an upgrade from the Hurricanes' current group but a team on a budget needs to be careful with how they spend their money and overpaying for an unproductive free agent can end up really hurting a franchise.