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Improving the Defense, an Unenviable Task

The Hurricanes defense has been as issue for a while now, but what options are available to Jim Rutherford to address this issue?

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth season in a row, the Carolina Hurricanes are staring at the probability of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs. General Manager Jim Rutherford believed that he had assembled a roster that was capable of Playoff hockey, but injuries and holes in the lineup have looked to squash those Playoff hopes. While the Hurricanes added some top-end forward skill last offseason, some pieces haven't exactly fit together as expected and it doesn't appear the new talent is enough to get the Canes over the hump. So what is JR to do now? How does he get this team back into the Playoffs?

These questions might seem easy to us, but nothing is ever as easy as it appears. A glaring issue surrounding the Hurricanes for the past couple of seasons has been the team's defense. Over the past four seasons, the Canes have averaged 32.1 Shots Against per Game and 2.94 Goals Against per Game. Both of these statistics are in the bottom third of the league during this time. The construction of the defense is tilted heavily toward offensive or puck-moving defensemen and the physical stay-at-home types are lacking. But just adding a defensive defenseman may not be the answer. The idea of revamping the defense as a whole seems to be gaining traction here on Canes Country and it might be the way to go. But whichever option the Canes decide to do, there are multiple factors that will be in play to accomplish the task of recreating the defense.

Unfortunately the first factor is going to be the salary cap. The Canes have typically been a "budget team", but this season will be a different storay. Assuming that Jeremy Welsh (with his contract) is with the Canes next season and Jussi Jokinen's salary retainage is $1 million, the Canes have $56.525 million in cap space tied up among 16 players (10 forward, 5 defensemen, 1 goalie and 2 buyouts). If the salary cap is as expected, $64.3 million, that's only $7.775 million to fill out 7 positions. Let's take a look at the current Canes defense for next season.

Player 13/14 14/15 15/16 16/17
Joni Pitkanen $4.5 M UFA
Tim Gleason $4.0 M $4.0 M $4.0 M UFA
Joe Corvo UFA
Jamie McBain $1.8 M
Jay Harrison $1.5 M $1.5 M $1.5 M UFA
Ryan Murphy $1.34 M $1.34 M $1.34 M RFA
Marc-Andre Bergeron UFA
Justin Faulk $900 K RFA
Marc-Andre Gragnani RFA
Bobby Sanguinetti UFA
Michal Jordan RFA
Brett Bellemore UFA

As you can see, the Canes have 6 defensemen under contract next season, 2 RFAs and 4 UFAs. Only 3 defensemen currently have contracts that extend beyond next season. The 6 defensemen under contract for next season are only costing the Canes $14.04 million in cap space. That is well below what many Playoff teams are spending on their blueline, but are the Canes still getting their money's worth? Is a defense of Pitkanen, Gleason, McBain, Harrison, Murphy and Faulk what you want on the backend? I don't really see this group as much different than the current defense that has underachieved.

The simple answer to the defense problem would be to go out into free agency and buy a defenseman. But with only $7.775 million in cap space, buying a defenseman while filling out the rest of the roster will be difficult. If you also examine the UFA market, the defensive defenseman market isn't great. Here is a list of the top defensive defensemen currently available this summer in the UFA market. I qualified this list by only selecting players that average over 15 minutes a night and have played in at least 25 games this season.

Players Age 12/13 Salary
Ron Hainsey 34 $4.5 M
Rob Scuderi 34 $3.4 M
Toni Lydman 35 $3.0 M
Scott Hannan 34 $1.0 M
Ryan O'Byrne 28 $1.8 M
Robyn Regehr 32 $4.02 M
Ben Lovejoy 29 $525 K
Douglas Murray 33 $2.5 M

Not really much to choose from there. Most of these guys are a little long-in-the-tooth and for what they bring are pretty expensive. Hainsey is an interesting player, but he's making $4.5 million this season and is 34. Would you offer him a 3 year deal for $4 million per season? Of this group, Lovejoy is the only one that would interest me and he is really a bottom pairing guy, which the Canes have a couple of defensemen that could play in that role.

So since the UFA market has slim pickings, maybe JR will look at extending an offer sheet to a RFA this summer? While this is generally frowned upon and is costly both in salary and draft picks, it is an option GM's have at their disposal. While most offer sheets fail, some do work and sometime a trade could be worked out instead of the offer sheet. Here are some defensive RFAs that I would look trying to acquire.

Players Age 12/13 Salary
Carl Gunnarsson 26 $1.325 M
Ryan McDonagh 23 $1.3 M
Ian Cole 24 $1.3 M
Karl Alzner 24 $1.285 M
Cody Franson 25 $1.2 M
Mike Weber 25 $950 K
Jakub Kindl 26 $883 K
Keaton Ellerby 24 $700 K
Keith Aulie 23 $578 K

Now these are interesting options. They are all pretty young, some have some more development to do, but they could grow with the team. Alzner and McDonagh would be at the top of my list, but I'm sure Washington and New York have every intention on keeping them. I also like Gunnarsson and with only have 12 players signed for next season, the Leafs might have to let someone slip through the cracks. Kindl is another option and given Peter Karmanos' history with Detroit, I wouldn't be surprised seeing the Canes trying to stick it to the Red Wings. But another thing to consider is that Faulk will be a RFA after next season and if the Canes were to offer sheet someone, another team could do the same thing to Carolina next season. I do think that Cole and Aulie could be had, but both of those players need a little more development and could probably be acquired through trade.

And speaking of trades, that brings us to the last option for actual changes and the most likely. If the Canes really want to improve their defense, acquiring players through trade would be the quickest option. The problem there lies in, "you got to give something to get something." With the limited cap space, 7 positions to fill and not a slew of prospects that are wanted around the league, a problem is presented. If acquiring a top 4 all-around or defensive defenseman is high on the priority list, then a higher salary roster player would have to be going the other way. That means Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin, Tuomo Ruutu, Jeff Skinner, Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason or Cam Ward would say goodbye. Of that group, which player or players are expendable? Pitkanen would be the most obvious choice because he would be in the last year of his deal. But if you move Pitkanen, are you really addressing the need or just replacing him? Gleason would probably be another top choice because he seems to have lost a step. But how many teams out there are going to want him at $4 million a season for the next 3 years? Semin is possible, but you just signed him and he is actually working well. I would assume that the Staals are sort of a package deal and are probably safe. So that leaves Ruutu, Skinner and Ward. Ruutu is the physical forward this team needs and finding those guys is just as hard as defensive defensemen. Skinner is the future face of the franchise and everybody loves Jeff. Ward is the franchise goalie and we all have seen how this team does without him between the pipes.

So what is Mr. Rutherford to do? He got himself in this mess, but as you can tell, it's not so easy to get yourself out. He is either going to stick by the team he has put together and hope things pan out differently or he has some very difficult decisions he has to make. The way I look at it is, if JR wants to improve this team for next season, then a couple of higher salary players are going to have to be moved and some good finds are going to have to take their place. McBain needs to be traded and some usable assets need to come back. Whether that is a big bottom 6 forward or a solid defenseman or a couple of good prospects. If a good, cheaper top 4 defenseman plus maybe something else could be had for Pitkanen, then that needs to be considered. If Gleason is willing to be traded and someone is interested, then look into it. And if Skinner isn't fitting into the system you built, then maybe consider moving him if the return is worth it.

Again, these are very difficult decisions and no one would envy the task of trying to make this team better for next season. But bold and unpopular moves are probably going to have to be made. If you were in Jim Rutherford's shoes, what would you do? Just remember that you have 7 roster positions to fill and only $7.775 million to do so, unless you move someone with a contract next season.