Handicapping the 2015-16 Canes: The Forwards
(Ed. Note: This article was written prior to Friday’s roster cuts. So, you know, take that for what it’s worth.)
I think of all the positions to try to handicap, it’s the forwards that are the hardest to try to predict, because it’s not necessarily going to be the top 12 (or 14, really) players that make the team – lines need to be taken into consideration, as well as roles. The first six and last seven were pretty easy, but once you start getting closer to the middle, the difference becomes much less noticeable, and things outside of performance and talent can make the difference between being with the big club or finding yourself on a bus to Charlotte.
NOT IN DANGER
Barring an injury or a trade, these six are going to be with the big club, and will probably fill the first two lines. Sure, Lindholm and Rask could still be sent down without requiring waivers, but it’s going to take a pretty big dropoff for that to happen.
To be honest, these four are almost as much of a lock as the first six. There’s just less investment in these four if something goes “wrong” than in the six above them. Gerbe is a folk hero, and will be an interesting decision when the trade deadline comes. Nestrasil and McClement fit into roles that Coach Peters sees for them, and both are signed for the next two years. It originally looked like Nash was done as a Hurricane, but the club re-signed him (after not offering him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent) to a one year, $1.15 million contract in the hopes that he could be the player he was before getting hurt midway through the season, when he was in the top 3 on the team in scoring.
LAST FOUR IN
Assuming the Canes will fill the final 23-man roster in the traditional way, that means 14 forwards to go with 7 defensemen and 2 goaltenders. Assuming those first 10 pretty much have their spots on the NHL roster set, that means 4 forward spots are up for grabs – two wingers surrounding McClement on the fourth line, and two to be in healthy scratch purgatory, waiting to be sent down if someone else interesting ends up on the waiver wire. Nordström is probably the safest bet to stick. He’s the youngest of these four at 23, plays a two-way game, and still has some upside.
Terry, like Michal Jordan, was signed to a one-way contract ($875k) so the implication would be that the team intended for him to stay at the NHL level all season. Tied for 6th in goals on the team last year despite playing in only 57 games and in limited minutes, Coach Peters recognizes that Terry is a scoring threat at the NHL level, but perhaps Terry’s greatest tool (his shootout skills) won’t be as strong of a selling point with 3-on-3 overtime potentially dramatically reducing the amount of games that end via shootout.
Brad Malone seemed like a good candidate to get sent down early last season, failing to record a point during the first three months of the season before “breaking out” in January, scoring four goals and three assists in 11 games that month as the fourth line began to take shape. Malone’s more aggressive style makes him the closest thing the team has to a “protector”, and while the “enforcer” role is seemingly disappearing from the NHL, it’s nice to have someone on the team that will stand up for his teammates.
It might be a little over-dramatic to call this Zach Boychuk’s “last chance”, but now that there’s a different general manager in place and a different head coach that just inherited the player instead of being stuck with the stigma of drafting him and being forced to justify what we can say, seven years later, was not the best 14th overall pick in the world. It also wasn’t the worst. People love to bring up Erik Karlsson (who went the pick after him), but the Blackhawks drafted Kyle Beach, who never played an NHL game. The Kings drafted Colten Teubert, a defenseman, the pick before Boychuk. Those teams would go on to win five of the next seven Stanley Cups, so please – let’s not blame the drafting of Zach Boychuk on the Canes issues. The reality now is that Boychuk is essentially a very good AHL player, and some players are just that – very good AHL players. He’ll fight hard to make the NHL team this season, just as he has seemingly every season in recent memory, but I don’t think the club would fear losing him to waivers to keep someone else up.
FIRST FOUR OUT
If those last four were the spots up for grabs, these four are the ones I could see most easily taking one of them. They’re not necessarily the four best players remaining, but they’d be the ones I believe that would be the most strongly considered.
Derek Ryan is here (and not in the “last four in”) for two reasons – I think the team would like to see him play more regularly, and the team can send him to Charlotte without requiring waivers. Before the Canes acquired Kris Versteeg, I had Ryan making the team, just due to the lack of right-handed shooters on the Canes roster. I’m still very much on the fence with him making the club, and would put it at 45% chance of him making the club, probably at the expense of Boychuk.
Justin Shugg took a nice step forward last year, leading the Checkers in goals and points. He’s been with the Checkers seemingly forever (this would be his fifth year with them), but this is the first year he’s eligible for waivers. Still somewhat of a dark horse to make the team, but really – what’s the difference between him, Boychuk, and Chris Terry right now?
If Shugg took a step forward last season, Brody Sutter took a leap. Never a highly touted prospect and likely only drafted due to his bloodline, Sutter has worked his way from healthy scratch to fourth line contributor to 12 goals and 25 points in 45 games in Charlotte last season. Brody is a big guy (6’5″, 205lbs) and seems like an ideal fit to a 4th line – if he doesn’t make the team, I could see another team snatching him up off of waivers. He seems like a late bloomer, and could make a team that continues to develop him look smart.
TJ Hensick is essentially Zach Boychuk’s future. He’s a very good AHL player that had a few shots at the NHL level, but wasn’t able to impress enough to make it stick. Now 29 (turning 30 in December), he’ll probably get an opportunity to go to a NHL training camp every season, but end up in the AHL making good AHL money on a two-way deal. Another potential RW depth guy who saw his chances of making the NHL roster hurt by the acquisition of Kris Versteeg.
Some might argue that Sergey Tolchinsky should be in a higher tier, as he’s probably one of the most common names I hear when it comes to rookies making the team. But while Sergey can still do some pretty amazing stuff with the puck, he doesn’t have a pro season under his belt yet, and I don’t think the Canes are in any rush to put him on the big club. OUR CLIENT BROCK MCGINN had on paper a disappointing first season in Charlotte coming off of a very nice final junior season, and this season could determine whether or not McGinn is a legit NHL prospect. Phil Di Giuseppe was drafted in the same round as McGinn, and both made their full season AHL debuts last season, putting up similar numbers. Di Giuseppe’s numbers didn’t seem as disappointing as McGinn’s did; I guess coming from college hockey where numbers are usually much less gaudy than junior hockey allowed for more tempered expectations. Brendan Woods has good size but not a ton of upside. He improved a lot on his scoring from his previous season in Charlotte, so he should be a fun guy to have playing for the Checkers. Lucas Wallmark and Erik Karlsson both have been playing in Sweden in limited minutes, so it will likely take some time in the AHL before the team can get a handle on what they have with the two of them. Patrick Brown surprisingly made the Hurricanes opening night roster last season after being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Boston College. After skating in a handful of games for the Canes, he was sent to Charlotte and had a rough first season in the AHL, scoring 10 points in 60 games. A good guy to have in the locker room, but unlikely to make an impact at the NHL level any time in the near future. Carter Sandlak scored 4 points in 44 games for the Checkers last season; purely a depth player, Sandlak may be hard-pressed to get minutes in the AHL this season, let alone any NHL ice time.