Hurricanes Face Tough Decisions With Their RFAs

After the Carolina Hurricanes were eliminated from the 2021 Playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning last week, the team will enter their offseason loaded with question marks. Don Waddell and his crew will do everything in their power to improve the group by whatever means necessary, but they’ll also have their hands full with keeping their core intact.

The Hurricanes have nine players scheduled to become restricted free agents this summer, and some are cornerstone pieces of the franchise, including Andrei Svechnikov and Alex Nedeljkovic. They will also have to make decisions on some depth pieces and prospects. Here’s a look at the team’s options, contract comparables, and whether a player is likely to receive a qualifying offer.

Forwards

Andrei Svechnikov

Andrei Svechnikov is the most important player on this list. The 21-year-old budding superstar forward will need a new contract for the first time in his career. Before the season began, Elliotte Friedman reported that the Hurricanes had considered an 8-year extension with a $7.5 million AAV, but that Svechnikov decided to bet on himself and would opt for a bridge deal.

Coming off a disappointing season, Svechnikov might be wondering if he made the right decision. According to Sara Civian of The Athletic, Svechnikov said, “It wasn’t my best season, but it was tough with everything.”, and that he plans to continue improving his game during the offseason. Despite his struggles, he finished with 42 points in 55 regular-season games, and 8 points in 11 playoff matches. 

A three-year bridge deal is the likely outcome here. Anything more would make Svechnikov an unrestricted free agent when it expires. A two-or-three year deal would give both sides a clear indication on what his long-term value will be as enters the prime years of his career, and therefore keep him in Carolina for the long haul.

Three notable bridge deals provide a decent comparison for what Svechnikov should receive. Patrik Laine signed a two-year deal with a $6.75 million AAV with the Winnipeg Jets in 2019, while Matthew Tkachuk and Mat Barzal each signed three-year deals worth seven million dollars annually in the past couple of seasons. Taking their similar production and trajectory into account, Svechnikov ranks somewhere in the mix, and his contract will likely reflect that. Matt Cosman did a great job breaking this down, and you can read his article here!

He’s proven to be among the best young forwards in the NHL and is poised for a major breakout. Game-to-game consistency has been a problem for him, but the same can be said of almost any young player. On his best nights, he can be the most dangerous forward on the Hurricanes; with a relentless motor driving to the net and a release that can beat any goaltender. It’s about putting the tools together and establishing consistency, which will come with experience and maturity.

All things considered, Tkachuk and Barzal’s contract terms seem like a good benchmark for Svechnikov, and I expect him to receive something similar. His deal is the top priority for the Hurricanes, although management might choose to focus on him a little later into the offseason given that they can retain his rights. Either way, Svechnikov should be a Cane for a very long time, and this contract is the first step towards that.

Projected contract: three years, $20 million ($6.67 million AAV).

Warren Foegele

After avoiding arbitration last summer by signing a one-year extension worth $2.15 million, Warren Foegele enters another offseason as an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent. Because of his AAV last season, the Hurricanes will need to guarantee a qualifying offer of the same salary to retain Foegele’s rights when free agency opens on July 28. That will also allow the two sides to negotiate a deal over the summer or head to arbitration.

Foegele’s career as a Hurricane has been marred with inconsistency, and that makes his value difficult to judge. He’s had moments of brilliance – like his 2019 Playoff run and against the Washington Capitals, in particular. But for most of his time in Raleigh, been on the verge of a breakout season, which has yet to happen. He’s now 25 years old, and he’s a bottom-six winger, at best. He works as hard as anyone on the ice, but his hockey sense and his hands just can’t keep up with his feet.

Warren Foegele Carolina Hurricanes
Warren Foegele, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Foegele’s future with the team will likely depend on the Hurricanes’ plans for both Brock McGinn and Jordan Martinook, who are similar players and unrestricted free agents. The Canes needs to shore up their depth scoring, so bringing back all three of them seems like a lateral move, especially with players like Jesper Fast and Steven Lorentz already in the mix.

Foegele doesn’t have much of a case for a raise if he opts for arbitration since his point production dipped slightly from last season. He might also be an underrated target for the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. If Carolina wants to swing a deal with Seattle to protect Brady Skjei or Jake Bean, they could offer up Foegele with another asset. Kraken GM Ron Francis was the one who drafted Foegele when he was in Carolina, so Francis is familiar with him and thinks highly of him.

Every option seems to be on the table when it comes to Foegele, and no outcome would surprise me. He could be back in Raleigh next year, he could be traded, or he could be exposed in the expansion draft. I also can’t imagine a huge commitment in terms of dollars or term here. If he’s brought back, it’ll likely be on a bottom-six type contract.

Projected contract: two years, $4.5 million ($2.25M AAV).

Morgan Geekie

Morgan Geekie is a first-time restricted free agent with a qualifying offer worth $840,000, which makes him a lock to receive one. At only 22, he’s shown steady improvement since he was drafted, and his performance throughout this season is proof that he deserves a spot on the roster.

Morgan Geekie Carolina Hurricanes
Morgan Geekie, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

“Geeks” is a dangerous presence from below the goal line, where his vision allows him to pick and dish the puck to open players in the offensive zone. He had seven points in the Hurricanes’ final 13 games on the fourth line, and he’s earned an extended look in the team’s bottom-six next season. His first two steps when accelerating have noticeably improved, which was the main thing holding him back.

As such, he does have value and could warrant protection in the expansion draft. Assuming the Hurricanes don’t sign any of their UFAs before the draft, the final protected forward could come down to either Geekie or Steven Lorentz – who were both drafted by Francis. Considering the options available, I don’t think either of them will be selected, but it’s still possible. I expect Geekie to be re-signed and become a full-time forward next season.

Projected contract: one year, $840,000.

The Others

The Hurricanes have two other forwards set to be restricted free agents, but considering their status (or lack thereof), neither of them figure to have a future in Raleigh.

First up is 24-year old “prospect” Yegor Korshkov, who was acquired in the Alex Galchenyuk trade. Korshkov is a 6-foot-4, 187-pound power forward with proven goal-scoring ability at the AHL and KHL levels. However, he recently extended his contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl where he’ll play again next season. The Canes could give him a qualifying offer to retain his rights, but when Russian players leave North America after not being able to establish themselves in the NHL, it’s rare that they return. So – without ever actually seeing him – it’s likely that we’ve seen the last of Korshkov.

Second is Spencer Smallman, who is a great player but, unfortunately, has had constant injury problems since he was drafted in 2015. He’s a character player but doesn’t have a dynamic skillset needed at the pro level. Smallman will be 25 in September, and, after playing just six of a possible 33 AHL games this season, the Canes will likely move on. I could see him stay on an AHL deal, but I’ll be stunned if he receives a qualifying offer.

Defensemen

Jake Bean

The biggest question mark on defense is 2016 first-round pick Jake Bean, who finally broke into the NHL as a regular this season. What makes this situation murky is that the Hurricanes may not be able to protect him in the expansion draft (with Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei ahead of him), and he’s another Francis draft pick.

At 23, he doesn’t have a ton of NHL experience but showed reasons for optimism in his rookie campaign. He’s a fluid skater, not afraid to attack and make a move against a defender, and he’s got good vision and playmaking ability. Defensively, he’s a work in progress and needs to refine his overall technique. He’s also too vertical when defending along the boards and gets pushed around very easily as a result.

Jake Bean Carolina Hurricanes
Jake Bean, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

He has 44 games of NHL experience, so he’s not going to break the bank on his upcoming contract. If he survives the expansion draft (which is a big if), he showed enough this season to warrant a spot in the top-six defensive pairings next season, unless the team tries to revitalize Jake Gardiner. Bean has proven everything he can in the AHL, so expect him to be on an NHL roster somewhere in 2021-22.

Even though his upside is still unknown, I’m not sold that he’ll evolve into a trusted top-four defenseman. He’s still young and learning how to adapt to the NHL’s pace and physicality, and he played well on the second power-play unit. He’s worth keeping to develop – which would also make him an intriguing option for Seattle. I won’t be shocked by any outcome for Bean this offseason.

Projected contract: one year, $950,000.

Max Lajoie

Maxime Lajoie is still relatively unknown – he only played two games for the Hurricanes during the first-round series against the Nashville Predators. He was thrown into the fire and held his own, which is likely thanks to the 62 NHL games he played for the Ottawa Senators before coming over in a trade for Clark Bishop in January 2021.

Lajoie spent most of the season in the AHL with Chicago, and I had the pleasure of chatting with Sin Bin News staff writer Andrew Rinaldi (@SinBinWolves), who does a phenomenal job covering the Wolves. Rinaldi suggested that the 23-year-old was the most NHL-ready prospect in Chicago this season:

“[Lajoie] ran the top of the key on Chicago’s first power-play unit and was excellent at generating offense, but I thought it was his play without the puck that was most impressive and is most indicative of a prolonged NHL career. Max’s positioning was impeccable, and as the year went on he became more comfortable making the right plays out of the defensive zone. He shone the brightest on the penalty kill, where he would lay his body on the line in the shooting lanes to come up with huge shot blocks at key moments in games. With Max out there, opponents had fewer options, and loose pucks in his corner consistently found the glass and exited the zone.”

Rinaldi also mentioned that Lajoie’s overall game will give him a real chance to seamlessly transition to the Hurricanes’ lineup, especially since the Wolves’ system is similar to Carolina’s.

“Max epitomized coach Warsofsky’s brand of hockey that’s developed for a seamless transition to Carolina. Strong both on and off the puck, never takes a shift off, and positionally sound. I’d imagine after a two-game playoff debut this year that he’s fighting for a regular lineup spot coming up here.” 

Andrew Rinaldi (@SinBinWolves)

Lajoie is an RFA without arbitration rights, so he won’t have much leverage. The Hurricanes will likely offer him a two-way contract with a high salary in the AHL, considering his value at that level. However, he can really push for a spot on the NHL roster, especially with the potential overhaul at his position this summer. Either way, I expect to see him play NHL games next season, and he could prove to be part of the solution moving forward.

Projected contract: one year, $850,000 in NHL/$125,000 in AHL. (with $300,000 guaranteed).

Goaltenders

Alex Nedeljkovic

About four and a half months after clearing waivers, Alex Nedeljkovic was named a Calder Trophy finalist, awarded to the NHL’s best rookie. “Ned” took the league by storm, and cemented himself as the franchise’s goaltender of the future, which the Hurricanes have lacked since Cam Ward.

At 25, Nedeljkovic is at the age when goaltenders tend to break out, which he did with a 15-5-3 record and led the league in both goals-against average (1.90), and save percentage (.932 percent). He was sensational all season, and followed that up with a .920 save percentage and his first four playoff wins.

Alex Nedeljkovic Carolina Hurricanes
Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

Finding comparables for a 25-year-old rookie goaltender with top-level success isn’t easy, but Jordan Binnington eerily stood out with nearly identical stats in every category. Binnington had a 1.89 GAA and a .927 save percentage in 32 games as a 25-year-old rookie in 2019, and was also nominated for the Calder. He parlayed that success into a two-year, $8.8 million deal with a $4.4 million AAV. The only difference between the two is that Binnington’s St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup that season, but that may not leverage into the Canes’ negotiations.

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A two-year bridge deal makes sense, as it would be hard for either side to commit long-term on just 38 games of NHL experience. A bridge deal – similar to Binnington’s – would give Carolina the chance to see if Nedeljkovic can replicate or sustain his performance over a larger sample size, and it allows Nedeljkovic the chance to earn himself a long-term, big-money contract. Binnington signed a six-year, $36 million extension ($6 million AAV) midway into the second year of his deal, and the Hurricanes could do the same.

It’s fair to say that Nedeljkovic has earned the “1A” role moving forward, regardless of whether Petr Mrazek or James Reimer are re-signed. He’s given the team fantastic goaltending and has finally lived up to the hype that’s surrounded him since he was drafted in 2014. The job is his to lose, and we can only hope that he runs with it.

Projected contract: 2 years, $8.5 million ($4.25M AAV).

Jeremy Helvig

It seems like the 2015 fourth-round pick Jeremy Helvig has reached the end of his journey with the Canes. Since he turned pro in 2018, he’s made more headlines for an arrest on suspicion of battery (2020) than for his play, with five AHL starts over three full seasons. He’s now 24 and hasn’t shown any signs of being more than an AHL goalie, and with the long-awaited Eetu Mäkiniemi coming over from Finland to compete with Beck Warm in Chicago’s crease, Helvig’s time to breakout has passed.

Projected contract: Won’t be tendered a qualifying offer.

Recap

The good news is that most of the Hurricanes’ core is already signed long-term, and key players joining that group like Svechnikov, Geekie and Nedeljkovic are under team control for the time being. Management has some tough choices to make, specifically with Foegele and Bean, whom may or may not be around next season, depending on the team’s plans.

On the flip side, the players likely to depart aren’t much of a loss in the grand scheme of things. Nothing was ever expected of Korshkov, and Helvig – despite showing promise in junior – was always a longshot and dug his own grave. Overall, the team remains in a strong position, both at the NHL level and with their prospect group, and that makes it a great time to be a Hurricanes fan.


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