Despite a great deal of attention and a few bargain additions, the Carolina Hurricanes’ third and fourth forward lines remain woefully undermanned as the third week of NHL free agency approaches.
The signings of fourth-line center Jay McClement and borderline NHL players Brad Malone and Ben Holmstrom will lend some support, if only as much-needed fresh faces—but they won’t come close to solving the problem.
All three bring a respectable mix of size, physicality and defensive play, yet scoring remains an issue: The trio combined for just seven goals in 113 NHL appearances last season.
Compared to the departing role players each are replacing, moreover, the improvements are even vaguer. McClement functions as a cheaper and more well-rounded but arguably equally skilled version of Manny Malhotra. Malone serves as a moderate upgrade over the invisible Radek Dvorak. Holmstrom replaces former AHL captain Brett Sutter with an almost identical skill set.
Meanwhile, youngsters such as Zach Boychuk, Brock McGinn and Chris Terry seem currently penciled in as the only candidates to replace non-qualified free agents Drayson Bowman and Andrei Loktionov, the latter of which jump-started Carolina’s sluggish power play effectively late in the year.
Two weeks ago, with the opening of free agency next on the agenda, general manager Ron Francis noted that he would attempt to address a “fourth-line need,” per Chip Alexander of the News & Observer.
Certainly on paper, and perhaps even in Francis’ mind, he has done so.
But the ‘Canes still need more.
In 2013-14, 19 forwards made an appearance for the club, but a mere five accounted for more than 70 percent (123 of 175) of the goals scored by the entire unit.
Without a strong supporting cast, the inevitable slumps of Jeff Skinner, injury woes of Alexander Semin and confidence dips of Eric Staal were amplified enormously as the team’s offense slipped under the pressure.
Francis and Co. will undoubtedly count on the steady growth of 2013 fifth overall pick Elias Lindholm (nine goals in 2013-14), a bounce-back campaign from Jordan Staal (15 goals) and the continuation of Nathan Gerbe’s unheralded scoring presence (16 goals) to ease such concerns in 2014-15.
For the Hurricanes to improve enough to make the playoffs, however, more productivity is needed.
One source of optimism—and possibly frustration as well, given Carolina’s lethargy so far this July—is that a plethora of experienced, difference-making third-liners remain available on the free-agent market.
Ray Whitney, even at 42, is still a terrific leader and capable bottom-six contributor.
Dustin Penner sports a frame (6’4″, 247 pounds) right in line with the Hurricanes’ campaign to get bigger.
Daniel Winnik had a breakout offensive performance in 2013-14 and can aid the penalty kill.
David Booth, a former 60-point scorer still at only age 29, would be the same type of revival project with which the ‘Canes have succeeded in the past.
Recent rumors have connected the ‘Canes to a couple of other free-agent forwards, too.
Questionable but popular source Eklund named Carolina among several teams in the running for Derek Roy on Thursday, while unconfirmed and eventually dismissed reports of a one-year, $1.2 million contract with Todd Bertuzzi circulated Friday.
Yet, none of the aforementioned forwards have been signed by, or (for the most part) even been associated with, the Hurricanes’ front office.
Francis presumably continues to sit on his hands—and his cell phone, and obnoxious franchise owner Peter Karmanos‘ checkbook, and his own ambition to improve the team.
Further substantial improvement to the Hurricanes’ largest weakness—the third and fourth forward lines—is clearly necessary.
Inexplicably, though, it remains uncertain whether that weakness will actually be addressed sufficiently during the remainder of the 2014 offseason.