The Carolina Hurricanes have been busy throughout the off-season following their first trip to the post-season in a decade, a run that saw them earn a place in the Eastern Conference final.
Earlier this summer, Carolina shipped defenseman Calvin de Haan and prospect Aleksi Saarela to the Chicago Blackhawks for Gustav Forsling and Anton Forsberg. Days later, the Hurricanes moved prospect Nicolas Roy to the Vegas Golden Knights for winger Erik Haula. Then came the acquisition of goaltender James Reimer, which was followed by the notable free agent acquisition of winger Ryan Dzingel.
But the Hurricanes have saved their most notable move of the off-season – at least to date – for the final days of summer: on Friday, Carolina announced they have inked the top remaining unrestricted free agent, blueliner Jake Gardiner, to a four-year, $16.2-million contract. Gardiner was considered the top defenseman of the UFA class entering July 1. The 29-year-old three goals and 30 points in 62 games last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs while averaging 21-plus minutes per contest.
Gardiner is no small addition for the Hurricanes, to be sure. While his own-zone ability has been scrutinized at times, he’s sure to bring a boost to the middle of the blueline offensively and, given his three goals and 33 power play points over the past three seasons, his production with the extra skater stands to be a boon to the Hurricanes’ special teams unit. That’s not to mention the price tag is something of a coup. Heading into the open market, some believed the defenseman was in line for a pay day in the $6-million range. Instead, his new deal carries a $4.05-million cap hit, identical to what he was earning on his previous five-year pact with the Maple Leafs.
But the signing, impactful as it might be for the Hurricanes, does present some issues.
Already, the Hurricanes boasted a defense corps that featured Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Justin Faulk and Dougie Hamilton, and the expectation was Forsling, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Haydn Fleury and prospect Jake Bean would battle for spots on the bottom pairing. It’s that depth that made de Haan expendable earlier in the off-season. With Gardiner’s addition, though, the defensive logjam is such that Paul Bunyan would have trouble clearing it. But that’s only one of the problems that Gardiner’s signing presents.
The other, and possibly the more pressing, is that there’s now some cap clearing necessary in Carolina. With the defender locked up at a hair over $4-million per season, the Hurricanes’ are operating some $1.5 million over the spending limit. True, teams can exceed the salary cap by 10 percent in the off-season, which is to say the move is above board, but the need to become cap compliant by the beginning of the campaign will now put pressure on Hurricanes GM Don Waddell and Co. to cut salary one way or another.
One option is trimming of the fat from the roster and demoting fringe players who are unlikely to make an impact with the big club this season. For instance, Forsling and center Clark Bishop could be sent to the AHL's Charlotte Checkers to make room for Gardiner’s salary. The combined $1.57 million would be enough to make it work, too. The hangup there, though, is that neither are waiver exempt, opening up the possibility one or both could be plucked from the Hurricanes’ roster without the organization receiving any return. And given that’s not an ideal scenario, all signs point to Carolina exploring Option No. 2: shipping out another defenseman, thus giving the Hurricanes the ability to check both the logjam- and cap-clearing boxes in one fell swoop.
The Hurricanes trading a blueliner isn’t an altogether novel idea. It has long been speculated that Carolina has considered making such a move, and two rearguards in particular – Faulk and Hamilton – have been the focus of the most trade chatter over the past year.
As he’s in the final year of his contract, some believe Faulk as the most likely candidate to move. With his $4.83-million cap hit, the 27-year-old would be a prime trade chip for a team looking to add a puck-moving, minute-logging blueliner, and the premium placed on right-handed defensemen could see the Hurricanes land themselves quite the return. The only caveat to that is Faulk's possession of a 15-team no-trade clause. That limits Carolina's trade options.
Hamilton, however, does not have a similar clause. In fact, he has no trade protection whatsoever. In addition, the 26-year-old, who has two years remaining on his contract at $5.75-million per season, wasn’t as integral to the Carolina blueline last season. Hamilton, who is also a right shot, was consistently fourth in average ice time among the top-four Hurricanes’ defensemen and logged a full five minutes fewer per game during the post-season than Faulk. Moving Hamilton also frees up nearly $1 million more than moving Faulk, albeit Carolina would sacrifice the security of the additional year on the contract and risk losing another blueline cog next summer.
One way or another, though, something has to give. Either the Hurricanes shuffle money to the minors and enter the campaign with one of the league’s most loaded defense corps or Carolina has to make a cap-clearing trade that will make them compliant come opening night. The only thing that’s certain is that Gardiner’s signing won’t be the last time we’re hearing from the Hurricanes this off-season.
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