As the new season approaches, the Carolina Hurricanes have a few final situations to settle before October. Cam Ward and Eric Staal are both approaching the end of their respective deals, and the indication from both players is that they’d like to finish their careers with the only NHL team they’ve ever known. This is good news for the Canes, as their current roster looks iffy enough without losing their #1 center and starting goaltender in the process.
However, problems may arise when it comes down to the dollars and cents of their new contracts, as that’s when the two sides want vastly different things. With Peter Karmanos’ self-imposed cap on the Hurricanes, general manager Ron Francis will want to sign the two players for as little as possible, while still being considered fair. The less cap room they take up, the more that can be spent filling in other holes in the lineup. Staal and Ward, obviously, will want the high end of a fair price. But what constitutes a fair price for the two aging stars?
Staal’s price will come down to one thing: How he (or his agent) feels he matches up against other centers in the league. At one point in his career, Staal was one of the best young centers in the NHL. He was good for at least 70 points in a season on a fairly consistent basis, and had the uncanny ability to take over games seemingly on a whim. His play earned him a seven-year, $57.75 million contract back in the 2009-2010 season. The $8.25 million cap hit was considered high at the time, but it was reasoned that he would have been offered at least that much on the free market anyway, so better for the Canes to bite the bullet and keep their franchise center.
But I can say that Eric Staal's $8.25 million is tied for 10th-highest in the NHL, which seems interesting. #NHL
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) July 22, 2015
In recent years, Staal has fallen off to the wayside when it comes to discussing the league’s best centers. Part of this is due to young talent like Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux entering the league, but there’s no denying that Staal is no longer in his prime. So where Staal ranks determines how much he could ask for in this contract extension.
There have been recent signings around the league that could set a bar for Staal’s extension. Yesterday, the Philadelphia Flyers signed Jakub Voracek to an eight-year, $66 million dollar deal, giving him a similar cap hit to Staal’s current contract. Since Voracek essentially put up a point-per-game pace for two out of the last three years, something Staal has done only once over the past five seasons, this would be considered high for Staal’s new deal.
On Monday, New York Rangers center Derek Stepan signed a six-year deal with an average yearly cap hit of $6.5 million. Stepan was a restricted free agent coming off a year where he put up 55 points in 68 games. Last year, Staal put up 54 points in 77 games, so their point totals are similar. But Stepan is just entering his prime years, while Staal is leaving his, so theoretically speaking, Staal should be asking for less than $6.5 million a year.
Of course, expecting Staal to drop from over $8 million a year to less than $6.5 is a bit of a pipe dream. But considering his age, his recent play, and hoping for a loyalty discount, the Canes could attempt to sign Staal for a little over $7 million and have both sides happy.
Ward is in a bit of a different situation than Staal. His play has dropped dramatically since he signed his current contract, and that deal was signed on the belief that he would continue to improve, and not simply plateau as he did. In addition, his recent injury history should drop the asking price as well, since there’s no telling if his back injury will affect his play even more as he gets older.
What ultimately will determine Ward’s price is how much faith the organization has in newly acquired Eddie Lack. If the organization believes Lack can play the starter role, the Canes need to pay Ward like a backup, since that may very well end up being what he becomes. However, many goaltenders have been brought into the Carolina organization over the years, all with the expectation to “challenge Ward for the starting position.” So far, none of them has done so successfully. Anton Khudobin was the most recent, and the closest to accomplishing the feat, but a poor season last year gave Ward the starter’s role once again.
There’s no doubt that Ward will be making less than his current $6.3 million/year deal, as he’s nowhere near the same tier as Carey Price ($6.5 million/year) or Braden Holtby ($6.1 million/year). If the Canes can manage the negotiations well, they might be able to sign Ward in the range of $4.5 million, a price that better reflects his current skill level. However, considering Ward’s significance to the organization, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get closer to the $5.2-5.5 million range.
Will it Be Enough?
If the two players sign their new deals as predicted, it doesn’t save much space for the Hurricanes. Combined, the two new deals may create about $2 million, which would essentially offset the buyout cost of Alexander Semin. The new space may go straight into new deals for Elias Lindholm and Ryan Murphy, two of Carolina’s recent 1st round picks. It may also go straight into Karmanos’ pockets, as this past year’s attendance could not have helped the Canes’ financial woes.
The Canes organization is rebuilding where they can, while keeping their star players around to bring fans to the seats. With new deals for Staal and Ward on the horizon, they may not create as much cap space as some fans are hoping for, but as long as the deals don’t cripple the team when the organization decides to go from rebuilder to eventually contender, most fans will be happy to see #12 and #30 stay in Carolina uniforms.
Jonathan Gardner currently lives in Raleigh, NC and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.