Phew. For a second there, we were starting to get worried. Following what had been a run of three consecutive summers featuring a trade between the Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks, during which time the two teams combined for four total trades, we had gone an entire season and nearly 14 months without the two teams so much as exchanging future considerations. In what was a sign that all is right in the world, however, the Hurricanes and Blackhawks were back at it again Monday, linking up to execute a deal no one really saw coming.
Amid speculation that Carolina was looking to move out one of its right-handed blueliners – Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk or Brett Pesce – the Hurricanes have instead shipped off one of their lefties, sending blueliner Calvin de Haan and forward Aleksi Saarela to Chicago in exchange for defender Gustav Forsling and goaltender Anton Forsberg. And if we’re to lean on the old axiom that the team receiving the better player in the immediate is the team that shall be dubbed the winner, then this sure looks like a victory for the Blackhawks.
The 28-year-old de Haan is undoubtedly the best present-day player included in the four-piece deal and locked up on a reasonable contract with a $4.55-million cap hit for another three campaigns. He stands to make a real, tangible impact in Chicago next season, too. Yes, de Haan is slated to miss the start of the campaign following off-season shoulder surgery, but he’s a legitimate middle-pairing upgrade for a Blackhawks team that sorely needed one. Chicago was porous defensively last season, and de Haan brings a pure defensive element that has been missing for some time. If anyone is over the moon about this deal, it’s likely Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford, who is going to receive much better insulation with de Haan in the lineup.
Saarela is no slouch, either. He’s fresh off of a combined 37 goals and 69 points in 86 games across the regular and post-season with the Calder Cup winning Charlotte Checkers. His full-season point total was the second-best among all Checkers scorers. Unlike Carolina, where he was stuck behind a roster of up-and-comers and had been passed over in the system by a few prospects, Saarela has a shot to crack and make an impact on a Chicago lineup that is thin in the depth department. He has potential to replace the bottom-six scoring that was lost when the Blackhawks moved Dominik Kahun to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Olli Maatta in mid-June.
Why, then, would the Hurricanes make the move? Well, what seems to be at work is some measure of cap clearing ahead of what projects to be a busy off-season in Carolina. Standout scorer Sebastian Aho is a restricted free agent and is going to need a new, big-money deal from the Hurricanes, while Carolina’s other free agency considerations include RFAs Brock McGinn, Haydn Fleury, Alex Nedeljkovic and now Forsling and Forsberg. It’s the unrestricted free agents, plus the potential additions, that pose the biggest cap problem, however.
Captain Justin Williams is able to hit the open market should he so choose, but one imagines the Hurricanes will see if they can bring him back. Besides Scott Darling, who is still considered a potential buyout candidate, Carolina also has no goaltender under contract. They’re surely going to continue to explore the possibility of bringing back Petr Mrazek or Curtis McElhinney – the former provides more of what the Hurricanes need than the latter, but the price will also likely be higher – but failing that, Carolina will need to hit the market and search for a keeper. And with $20-million in spending room prior to Monday’s deal, there was potential for the cap crunch to be on, which has been an awfully foreign concept in recent years.
Aho alone, for instance, is likely to consume at least one-third of the $24.7 million in cap space the Hurricanes have available, and that’s probably a conservative estimate. A starting goaltender, be it Mrazek or otherwise, is probably going to cost in the $3-million to $4-million range. That is, of course, assuming Carolina doesn’t swing too far in either direction by buying big or simply going back to the scrap heap again this summer. Add in a new deal for Williams and a million here and a million there for the RFAs and cap space dries up somewhat quickly. So, while the return may not have been what some would have expected for de Haan, who signed his four-year pact with the Hurricanes last summer, it’s possible that it was the best offer on the table that didn’t require Carolina to bring significant money back the other way.
That’s not to say the trade was completely without upside for the Hurricanes beyond cap space. Forsling has shown a measure of offensive upside and there’s ample room for the 23-year-old to grow. As a third-pairing blueliner and potential second power play piece, the Hurricanes could do worse. With the right guidance, he might be able to reach his ceiling and turn into a handy second-pairing defender. As for Forsberg, he hasn’t exactly proven himself to be a steady NHL second-stringer and is sporting a career .901 save percentage in 45 big-league games, but he’ll come cheap and can compete with AHL goaltender of the year Nedeljkovic for the backup job next season.
But, again, what will be important to watch in the days and weeks that come are corresponding moves. In one sense, this is a stage-setter. The Blackhawks now have a minor logjam on the blueline, and de Haan’s acquisition mean another defender isn’t long for the organization. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, will continue to reorganize and shuffle around parts of their roster. After a season of long-awaited success and a return to the post-season, don’t expect this to be the last time this off-season we hear from Carolina.
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