Hurricanes head toward free agency with questions up front

Van Riemsdyk shores up defense; Carolina still in need of top-line forward

Charles LeClaire—USA TODAY Sports
Trevor van Riemsdyk was traded to Carolina from the Vegas Golden Knights. (Charles LeClaire/—USA TODAY Sports)

RALEIGH —— Many expected the expansion and NHL drafts to lead to a flurry of moves, including from the Hurricanes. Carolina general manager Ron Francis had hyped —— as much as he’s capable or willing, which isn’t much —— the opportunities Carolina could have at both events to bolster their NHL roster.

That presumably meant targeting a top-six forward to strengthen the Hurricanes’ offensive muscle, especially after the team already made efforts to fix its troubles in goal with the trade for and signing of former Blackhawks backup Scott Darling earlier in the offseason.

The move to add one of Darling’s former teammates, defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, on the day after the expansion draft had some believing Francis was preparing to move one of his blue line big four (Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin) to add offense.

But the van Riemsdyk deal, which had Carolina sending one of its three 2017 second-round picks to the new Golden Knights in exchange for the defenseman Vegas had selected a day earlier in the expansion draft, seems to be more about shoring up the Hurricanes’ third pairing than moving one of its prized D.

That doesn’t make it a bad move. Van Riemsdyk —— who played the last two-plus seasons with the Blackhawks, including contributing to their Stanley Cup-winning team in 2015 —— is a proven NHLer who comes to Carolina with one year and just $825,000 remaining on his salary. He’ll be 26 when the 2017-18 campaign begins, and the Hurricanes would still hold his rights after next season as a restricted free agent.

And the third pairing, while not a glaring problem like goaltending or needed scoring, was an area of concern this offseason. Van Riemsdyk, a right-handed defenseman, could fit nicely with the returning Klas Dahlbeck or former first-rounder Haydn Fleury, both lefties, in the Nos. 5 and 6 roles.

Van Riemsdyk joins a slew of former Blackhawks in the Hurricanes’ locker room. On top of Darling, Carolina has former Chicago players Joakim Nordstrom and Teuvo Teravainen from that 2015 Cup team as familiar faces for the two Raleigh newcomers.

“I think that will make the transition a little easier,” van Riemdyk said via conference call last week. “Obviously I know Scotty and Teuvo and Nordy. Like I said, I know Brett Pesce (from their time together at the University of New Hampshire) very well. And Noah [Hanifin], I met him for a month out in Germany [at the World Championships].”

Francis did re-sign part of the team’s supporting cast from last season, inking 30-year-old forward and Masterton Trophy finalist Derek Ryan to a new one-year deal that will pay him $1.425 million in 2017-18.

Ryan bounced throughout the lineup for Carolina last year, finishing the season with 11 goals and 18 assists in 67 games, and will likely be utilized similarly in 2017-18.

The Hurricanes also made decisions on their pending restricted free agents, re-signing defensemen Trevor Carrick and Jake Chelios to one-year, two-way deals, and making qualifying offers on forwards Brock McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe. Patrick Brown, who would have been an unrestricted free agent on Saturday, also signed a new one-year, two-way deal.

Forwards Andrej Nestrasil and Erik Karlsson, along with goalie Daniel Altshuller, were not qualified and will be free agents on July 1 unless Carolina re-signs them before then.

Francis has been reluctant to dive head-first into the free agency market in his three seasons running the team, opting instead to dip in his toe with low- and mid-priced additions like last year’s July 1 signings of Viktor Stalberg and Lee Stempniak, respectively.

Francis, however, does have work to do to get to the NHL’s salary floor ($55.4 million) with around $50 million currently committed —— which includes more than $6 million combined tied up in goaltenders Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, a number the team surely like to cut in half.

The free agent market at forward is relatively thin, though the Hurricanes could look to use another team’s cap woes —— and Carolina’s wealth of space —— to strike up a deal similar to the one that brought Teravainen and Bryan Bickell (and his $4 million cap hit) to Raleigh last June.

They could conceivably take a run at someone like James Neal, who was claimed by Vegas and has just one year and $5 million remaining on his contract. Neal played for Hurricanes assistant GM and newly named Charlotte Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers in the mid-2000s.

Regardless of what they end up doing, Francis knows there is still work to be done.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was hoping to maybe take a few less picks,” Francis said of trying to make a deal at the draft. “We had an awful lot of discussions in the last little bit about trying to move picks for players. They just didn’t pan out the way we hoped.”