After the disasters that were the Carolina Hurricanes' third and fourth lines in 2013, the 'Canes and GM Jim Rutherford are expected turn to the NHL free-agent market to revamp the team's offensive depth this summer.
July's unrestricted free-agent (UFA) crop of quality bottom-six skaters is, fortunately, an abundant one. With Chad LaRose, Tim Brent and Tim Wallace all pending UFAs, Carolina should be among the most prominent teams searching for players of that role.
Of course, the looming makeover of the third and fourth lines is certainly a needed one in Raleigh. The 14 'Canes forwards that cycled through those lines this season accounted for just 18 goals while the six first- and second-line forwards accounted for 77. In the latter half of the campaign, that brutal disparity was one of several factors that led to the club's dive down the standings.
Even Rutherford, generally not one to be overly specific with his future plans, has hinted that the bottom six was due for a big change this summer.
He stated as much at the franchise's end-of-season press conference, via team reporter Michael Smith: "When we talk about changes, a lot of those unrestricted players are going to get caught in the changes we make. I’m not saying all of them, but I would say a lot of them.”
In addition to LaRose, Brent and Wallace, Drayson Bowman and Kevin Westgarth could be on their way out, too. Bowman had an invisible year and, at only 24, could be dangled as trade bait, as Luke DeCock of the News & Observer mentions; Westgarth not only lost most of his fights but was also essentially worthless in the offensive zone.
If that entire group heads elsewhere, the 'Canes could be left with just young third-line center Riley Nash (an RFA this offseason) and veteran defensive forward Patrick Dwyer returning from this spring's third and fourth lines—and that's probably a good thing.
Which out-of-town UFAs could Rutherford look towards to fill those holes and improve the team's offensive depth in 2013-14?
Below, we analyze five ideal UFA forwards he and the rest of the 'Canes should target this summer.
2013 cap hit: $541,667
This spring, the 'Canes discovered the value of a player like Bryan Bickell—a solid third-line defensive forward with the offensive ability to move up if necessary—the hard way. Dwyer did the best he could while filling in for Tuomo Ruutu on the second-line wing, but his uncharacteristic minus-seven rating shows the price of the additional minutes.
Bickell's versatility, meanwhile, would add superb injury insurance as well as a reliable, experienced checking forward presence.
The 6'4", 233-pound 27-year-old scored 23 points and a plus-12 rating in 48 games for Chicago this spring and has now added eight more points (including six goals) in 14 postseason appearances. He's also by and large the Blackhawks' most physical player, leading the team in hits in both the regular season (with 108) and playoffs (with 41).
While Bickell is certainly due for a tremendous raise over his current paycheck, any new contract shouldn't break the bank whatsoever for Carolina. His entrance into the fall lineup would add a fantastic new facet to the Hurricanes' entire offense.
2013 cap hit: $1.75 million
Despite declining offensive production, veteran winger Ruslan Fedotenko would provide plenty of much-needed experience to this 'Canes roster.
The two-time Stanley Cup champion (2004 with Tampa Bay and 2009 with Pittsburgh) registered 13 points and a plus-eight rating in 47 games for Philadelphia this season. In a full-length campaign, he's probably a good bet for at least 20 to 25 points.
But it's off the box score where Fedotenko makes the biggest difference. He led all Flyers' forwards with 34 blocked shots this season and ranked second in shorthanded time on ice, averaging an impressive 2:51 per game.
Those defensive skills would be greatly beneficial to the Hurricanes' 28th-ranked penalty kill and, in terms of shots against, 30th-ranked defense.
2013 cap hit: $825,00
The Hurricanes have seen plenty of multi-faceted center Matt Hendricks in many rivalry games with the Washington Capitals over the years.
Bringing the 31-year-old to North Carolina, however, could be a very smart move.
Hendricks, who didn't play his rookie season until 2009-10, scored five goals and three assists in 48 games in 2013. Moreover, he also ranked first on the Caps in faceoff percentage (56.8 percent on 259 attempts), third on the Caps in hits (with 93), second among Caps forwards in blocked shots (with 31) and third among Caps forwards in penalty killing (averaging 1:44 of shorthanded ice time).
Then, consider Hendricks' shootout talents—he's 9-for-16 for his career.
Simply put, the man can do it all. He's a fantastic candidate to add to Carolina's third- or fourth-line center depth.
2013 cap hit: $1.4 million
If the underperforming Westgarth is dealt this summer, the addition of UFA enforcer Eric Nystrom will be a must.
The current Dallas Stars winger didn't just lead the Stars in hits this year, he literally crushed the competition—Nystrom's 122 hits topped second-place Antoine Roussel's 75 by a mile. Moreover, only Vernon Fiddler topped Nystrom in shorthanded ice time (he averaged 2:10 per game), and his seven goals (and four assists) weren't too bad, either.
All of that is just extracurricular activity for the 30-year-old Nystrom, conversely, compared to his primary purpose. According to HockeyFights.com, he lost just one of seven fights this year—and that just about says it all.
Moreover, Dallas may not be overly interested in bringing him back this summer. Per Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News:
I think (Nystrom) definitely wants to return, but you have to (weigh) whatever Eric gets with what players like Garbutt and Roussel are getting. If the Stars believe they can get by with cheaper alternatives, they might allow Nystrom to test free agency.
Could he be throwing the haymakers in a red and white jersey next fall?
2013 cap hit: $1.0 million
Maxim Lapierre is perhaps the purest fourth-line center to be found in this year's free agent crop. He's thrived in such a role over the years and, at only 28, still has plenty of long-term viability.
The 6'2" center's 116 hits led the Vancouver Canucks in 2013. He also worked in penalty killing, spending 1:38 of his 10:52 average ice time per game doing so, and won 274 (50.6 percent) of his 542 draws. His four goals and six assists in the lockout-shortened campaign were right around his usual production pace.
Like most of the players mentioned in this list, Lapierre, too, played a full, 48-game season this spring.
He'd be a suitable improvement over Brent on the Hurricanes' bottom trio.
Next week, check back for our in-depth list of free-agent defensemen the 'Canes should pursue.