If off-season action was measured on some sort of mystical Richter scale, no teams in the Metropolitan Division would have created bigger shock waves than the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. Even the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins sent considerable ripples through the division, though it could be argued the latter did so for all the wrong reasons. Somewhere in the middle, though, would be the Carolina Hurricanes.
Yes, as we enter into the back half of July and inch closer to the third week of signing season, the Hurricanes haven’t exactly been inactive, but Carolina’s movement hasn’t quite been of the same headline-grabbing variety as New York’s additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Kaapo Kakko or New Jersey’s blockbuster acquisition of P.K. Subban, which came the day after they drafted Jack Hughes with the first-overall pick. It could even be said that the Hurricanes’ summer hasn’t been as splashy as that of the Flyers, who added Kevin Hayes, Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun via trade, and Carolina certainly hasn’t shipped out a talent the same caliber as Phil Kessel nor signed a deal as debatable as Brandon Tanev’s, so that puts them slightly behind the Penguins.
What the Hurricanes have done so far this summer, however, is cross items off of their summer wish list and check the boxes that needed to be checked. And even though it wasn’t the contract Carolina intended, nor the dollar figure or term the team was aiming for at the outset, that begins with the re-signing of Sebastian Aho to a five-year, $42.3-million pact that came by way of a matched Montreal Canadiens offer sheet.
Make no mistake, either, that taking care of Aho was No. 1 with a bullet on the Hurricanes’ off-season docket, and while his pact, with its $8.454-million cap hit, is undoubtedly more than Carolina was hoping to have to dish out and the term shorter than the organization would have wanted for unrestricted free agency reasons, it allowed the Hurricanes to do two things. First, it saw them lock up the cornerstone of the offense and a 21-year-old who proved himself as a first-line pivot last season with a breakout offensive performance that brought with it promise of an even brighter future. Second, it allowed Carolina to flex some financial muscle, which is something the franchise has done little of in recent years and proof positive that owner Tom Dundon can put his money where his mouth is when push comes to shove.
But it’s the moves that have followed the Hurricanes’ matching of the offer sheet – an action that was made official one week after the offer sheet was made but one the ownership and management made clear was coming within hours, maybe even minutes, of Aho putting pen to paper – that stand to see Carolina build off of the Bunch-of-Jerks hype that began last season.
Offensively, for instance, the Hurricanes have addressed their need for more depth and more punch. Even before the opening of free agency, the Hurricanes leveraged the Vegas Golden Knights’ difficult cap situation into the acquisition of versatile speedster Erik Haula, who, despite missing almost all of last season due to injury, has scored 31 goals and 62 points in his past 91 games and could be a sneaky 20-goal scorer. And after waiting out the crowd, Carolina went and landed Ryan Dzingel on a fairly team-friendly, low-risk two-year pact that sees the two-time 20-goal scorer arrive as a readymade middle-six scorer.
In those moves, the Hurricanes have more than replaced what was lost in the free agent departure of Micheal Ferland, who scored 17 goals last season, and even if captain and 23-goal scorer Justin Williams decides to leave Carolina or hang up his skates, there shouldn’t be a single tally lost. Add to it a full season of Nino Niederreiter and the growth of Andrei Svechnikov and there’s reason to believe the middling offense can flirt with a spot in the top-third of the NHL next season.
And while Carolina tinkered with its defense, shipping out Calvin de Haan in what amounted to a cap-clearing deal, they did so without shaking up the core of the group. In fact, all four of the top-minute rearguards are set to be back next season, and the Hurricanes seem primed to graduate at least one blueliner to full-time NHL duty next season, be it Haydn Fleury or Gustav Forsling, who was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in the de Haan deal.
The Hurricanes also got their wish as far as the crease is concerned, too. GM Don Waddell had made clear that he intended to bring back at least one half of last season’s tandem and he did exactly that when he inked Petr Mrazek, who was a hero during the late-season charge, on a two-year pact. And while Mrazek’s inconsistency and up-and-down play might be of some concern, he was a perfect fit in Carolina last season. Of the 43 goaltenders who played at least 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Mrazek ranked ninth in save percentage (.931), sixth in high-danger save percentage (.863) and 10th in goals saved above average per 60 minutes (.31). New backup James Reimer finds himself in a much better situation with the Hurricanes, too, and after an ugly season with the Florida Panthers, there’s reason to believe Reimer can return to his old form.
The icing on the cake among all of this, though, is that the structure of the roster hasn’t changed enough and the core group hasn’t been altered in such a way that Carolina should see any major shift away from the aspects of their game that made them so successful last season. The Hurricanes added where they needed to while being able to maintain the pieces that made them a possession juggernaut and the league’s expected-goals-for king. If last season’s underlying numbers are any indication, Carolina has the makeup to again be a force.
So, sure, the Hurricanes may not have made the big signing or blockbuster deal, but the reality is that they didn’t need to. It’s been a calculated summer, and one that sets Carolina up to make its biggest splash when the puck drops next season.
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