August 02 2012 04:04PM
Does Staal have another celebration in his future?
photo by Andy, via Wikimedia Commons
By the end of September 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes had committed $14.55M in cap space to Eric Staal and Cam Ward through the 2015-16 season. For a team that doesn't generally spend to the cap, that's a lot of coin for just two players, but the Hurricanes had already won one Stanley Cup with those two players and had just made an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the three seasons since, the Hurricanes have yet to make the playoffs.
Perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs because they just haven't been very good. In 2009-10, the team's Fenwick score (their percentage of shots, explained here) with the score close (definition for close can be found here) was just 47.5%; in 2010-11, it worsened to 46.3%; and in 2011-12 it climbed back to 48.0%. So in terms of territorial advantage, the team has been very poor to awful for the last three years. Worse still, Eric Staal has been in the red in all three seasons (again, with the score close), and Cam Ward has only been slightly better than average over that time (.923 save percentage on 4,835 shots).
With both Staal and Ward having back-loaded contracts (Staal's average salary over the next four seasons is $9.125M, while Ward's is $6.625M), the Hurricanes were facing an important decision at the 2012 trade deadline. Was it time to divest themselves of these expensive assets in order to build around a young core that would include Jeff Skinner, Brandon Sutter, Justin Falk, Ryan Murphy, and a top ten selection in the 2012 entry draft? Or was it time to build around those two expensive players in an effort to win now? The Hurricanes have left no doubt that they chose option number two.
Just how far the team needed to go can be seen with a quick look at this possession chart (note - the horizontal axis shows qualcomp, specifically Corsi relative quality of competition taken from behindthenet.ca. The vertical axis shows percentage of percentage of faceoffs taken in the defensive zone, again from behindthenet.ca. The bubbles are color-coded: blue means the player in the bubble has a positive zonestart-adjusted Corsi (explained here), clear a negative. Finally, the size of the bubble indicates absolute value zonestart-adjusted Corsi.):
Click the chart to enlarge
Click the chart to enlarge
Almost everyone is getting hammered. If the Hurricanes plan is to fix this, they'd need to make some significant changes at the top of the order in order to push everyone else down.
Jim Rutherford's Offseason
The first decision came with their own players. Several were up for new contracts and Hurricanes decided to sign both Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu to new four-year contracts that will take them through the 2015-16 season rather than let them leave via free agency. Both players also received movement restriction clauses in their contracts, further cementing their status as core players for this team over the next several years.
Gleason was used as one of Carolina’s primary options for tough minutes, and he performed reasonably well in the role. He’ll turn 30 this season, so age-related decline is at least a small concern, but I can certainly understand why the Hurricanes were eager to get a player they like for a difficult role under contract at an affordable rate. They also decided to cut ties with three other defenders (Spacek and Allen via UFA and Joslin via BO).
The decision to sign Ruutu is a little bit more suspect. He didn’t take on tough minutes and didn’t drive possession in 2011-12. That said, he’s performed better in the recent past (2009-10 in particular) and he can be relied on to provide a reasonable amount of offense. He’s not a great player, but he is a good one, and given the lack of depth up front, the Hurricanes needed to keep what they had.
The 2012-13 Roster
Plus, performance isn't the only issue. When trying to identify strengths and weaknesses in how a team is built, it's also good to look at how they're using their money. After all, it's much more devastating to have the higher-salaried players underperforming than it is a guy like Andreas Nodl. To do that, I like to use the following guideline:
Top 3 Forwards – 27.5%
Middle 6 Forwards – 20.0%
Top 4 Defenders – 27.5%
Goaltending – 10.0%
Bottom 8 Players – 15.0%
For reasons I've outlined elsewhere, I think the groupings "top six" and "bottom six" don't make much sense. As such, I'd rather talk about a team's top nine forwards. That said, I think we can all agree that elite talent is what's going to cost you the most, so I've broken that group into "Top 3" and "Middle 6". The rest of that chart should be pretty self-explanatory.
Now let's populate that chart with Carolina's squad from last season (organized mostly by cap hit rather than where they played in the lineup), assuming that the team was willing to spend up to the mid-point of last year's salary cap, which was 56.3M:
Top 3 Forwards – Staal, Ruutu, Jokinen - 26.7% or 15.05M
Middle 6 Forwards – Skinner, Sutter, LaRose, Dwyer, Tlusty, Ponikarovsky - 13.9% or 7.82M
Top 4 Defenders – Pitkanen, Allen, Gleason, Spacek - 24.3% or 13.98M
Goaltending – Ward, Boucher - 12.9% or 7.25M
Bottom 8 Players – Faulk, Harrison, McBain, Joslin, Bowman, Nodl, Brent, Stewart - 11.5% or 6.49M
You'll notice that the numbers don't add up to 100%, and that's pretty normal, as each team needs to leave some room for injury replacements (although 89.3% leaves more space than usual). You'll also notice that the Hurriances way underspent on their middle six forwards, a practice that I don’t particularly like. On defense, the spending was pretty much in line, but they got horrendous value. Joni Pitkanen spent a good portion of the season injured, and Jaroslav Spacek played poorly (although getting him from the Canadiens was still tremendous since it got them out of Tomas Kaberle’s contract).
Now let’s look at what the team did to solve some of those issues going into 2012-13, again assuming that the midpoint ($62.3M) is the target:
Top 3 Forwards – E.Staal, Semin, Ruutu - 32.1% or 20.0M
Middle 6 Forwards – Skinner, Staal, LaRose, Dwyer, Tlusty, Jokinen - 19.8% or 12.33M
Top 4 Defenders – Pitkanen, Gleason, Corvo, Faulk - 18.3% or 11.40M
Goaltending – Ward, Boucher - 11.6% or 7.25M
Bottom 8 Players – Harrison, McBain, Gragnani, Joslin (BO), Bowman, Nodl, Brent, Stewart, Wallace - 12.6% or 7.85M
The overall number is much closer to the actual midpoint this time around (94.4%), and the team has made several major changes. The biggest shift is probably the amount of money being allocated to forwards. The Hurricanes went from underspending on his area last season to overspending now. This happened largely because of three transactions:
1 – The Carolina Hurricanes traded Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin, and the 8th overall pick in the 2012 entry draft to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Jordan Staal. Brandon Sutter was one of the team’s best players last season, taking on tough assignments and a huge number of defensive zone starts. I’d feel comfortable saying that he was one of Carolina’s very best players at just 23. That’s not a player you want to give up. Now, Staal is an excellent player, one of the most dominant against tough minutes a year ago. Still, Sutter on his own was a huge price to pay for a single season of Jordan Staal. Add in a quality prospect and a very high pick, and this is obviously great value for the Penguins if they needed to move Staal along. For the Hurricanes, it became palatable once Staal became a part of that core group by signing a ten-year $60M contract extension. It was a huge price, but the Hurricanes are going to be a better team next season because of this deal.
2 – The Carolina Hurricanes signed Joe Corvo to a one-year $2M contract. Corvo is an excellent defender. He spent last season with the Bruins, but spent the 2010-11 season in Carolina playing tough minutes alongside Tim Gleason. Presumably, he’ll be doing the same thing again now, and the Hurricanes will fill the rest of their top four with Joni Pitkanen and Justin Faulk. With Corvo coming so cheap and Faulk still on his entry-level contract, the Hurricanes still had plenty of money left in the budget.
3 – The Carolina Hurricanes signed Alexander Semin to a one-year $7M contract. Corey just wrote about Semin a week ago, and I tend to agree that he’ll be a major boost for the Hurricanes up front. When the team got value on the back end, they were able to push for Semin. He isn’t a proven option for tough minutes, but he is a proven scorer, and he has consistently driven possession in second minutes. If we assume that he’ll be getting a push with zone-starts, he should help to make that line in a net plus for Carolina. That this is only a one-year deal also gives Carolina plenty of flexibility going forward.
With these acquisitions the outlook for Carolina is much more positive. A pairing of Chad Larose and Jordan Staal should be able to have some success against tough minutes, and a pairing of Alex Semin and Eric Staal should be able to do very well against seconds. The defense and goaltending should be slightly better than last season (Ward had his worst of the last three seasons last year, Pitkanen missed most of the year to injury, and some of the younger defenders should be improving with time) despite taking up less of Carolina’s budget. The Southeast is still a weak division, and I could definitely see the Hurricanes taking advantage.