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Hurricanes reinforce banged-up blueline by adding Skjei, Vatanen in deals with Rangers, Devils

Losing Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce left the Hurricanes' blueline shorthanded, but Carolina GM Don Waddell made two moves to bolster his defense, adding Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. It sends a message that the front office believes this team is a real contender.

Consider Carolina Hurricanes GM Don Waddell a man of action. Dougie Hamilton remains on the shelf with a fractured fibula, and Brett Pesce sustained an upper-body injury over the weekend that coach Rod Brind’Amour described as “long term,” meaning the Canes entered trade-deadline day minus their best two right-handed defensemen.

Hours later: come on down, Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei.

On the same day the Canes upgraded as center with Vincent Trocheck, they scored Vatanen from the New Jersey Devils for center Janne Kuokkanen, defenseman Fredrik Claesson and a conditional 2020 fourth-round pick that can become a third-round selection. Then they picked up Brady Skjei from the New York Rangers for a 2020 first-round pick.

In terms of pure shutdown ability, the Hurricanes haven’t adequately replaced Hamilton and Pesce. That would be next to impossible to accomplish in a day. But in terms of mobile top-six defensemen, Waddell has done extremely well patching up some major roster holes. Vatanen, a righty who can play both sides, hasn’t lived up to the potential he showed early in his career with the Anaheim Ducks, and he has struggled to stay healthy – but he’s a respectable puck-mover capable of logging a second-pair workload. Skjei has a similar profile – outstanding skater, showed promise early in career but hasn’t quite lived up to it. He and Vatanen won’t be hammering opposing checkers into submission during the post-season, but both are more than capable of skating the puck out of trouble.

And if Pesce and/or Hamilton return ahead of schedule in time for the playoffs, the Canes will be absolutely stacked on defense. If they don’t, the depth on hand is already pretty remarkable: Jaccob Slavin, Skjei, Vatanen, Jake Gardiner, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Haydn Fleury and Joel Edmundson. A good team, the Hurricanes have fought back against some bad injury luck and sent a message that they believe they can contend. Whether their goaltending can come through with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer both hurt is another story, but Trocheck, Vatanen and Skjei should help them have the puck more. Vatanen has been battling a foot injury, but the fact Carolina acquired him despite already dealing with so many injuries suggests he should be back soon.

The Devils and GM Tom Fitzgerald were a virtual shoo-in to cash out on pending UFA Vatanen. A fourth-round pick is decent, and Kuokkanen, while not a top-tier prospect, has acquitted himself as a playmaker quite well in the AHL. He has little left to prove there and already has 11 NHL games to his name at age 21. He can probably jump directly into the Devils’ lineup. Claesson is a throw-in, an AHL defender who can help in a pinch, but not much more.

Given they extended Chris Kreider today for seven years at a $6.5-million AAV, and that pending RFA Tony DeAngelo is due a monster raise in the summer, the cap numbers weren’t going to add up for Rangers GM Jeff Gorton. It was thus understandable why he decided to sacrifice Skjei, who carries a $5.25-million cap hit for four more seasons after this one. Landing a first-round pick for him feels like a fair return. And the Rangers will eventually need to make space for a couple prime ‘D’ prospects in their pipeline, including K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist.

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