The list of players the Carolina Hurricanes have acquired through free agency over the years who didn’t have a prior connection to the organization in some form has been, to be charitable, rather underwhelming.
The hits? Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney in the summer of 2005 are obvious. Ron Francis in 1998 sticks out as a signing meant to make a statement for a team struggling for relevance in the wake of moving to North Carolina moreso than a pure hockey move, although even as seen through that lens it was a successful signing. (Yes, he played for the club in Hartford, but was traded away before the Karmanos regime took over, so we’ll count it here.) Arturs Irbe wasn’t a bad call, and neither was (gulp) Alexander Semin in the year he joined the team on a one-year deal. The less said about his five-year extension the subsequent summer, the better, but that came after he was a known quantity.
In the middle you find guys like Patrick Dwyer, Alexei Ponikarovsky (hey, don’t laugh, he wasn’t bad for 3⁄4 of a season and then turned into the draft pick that became Jaccob Slavin), Frantisek Kaberle and Jay Harrison. None of them were unqualified successes, but they at least held their own.
But then at the bottom? The likes of Stephane Yelle, Trevor Letowski, Josef Melichar, Brad Isbister, Tomas Kaberle, Jakub Nakladal and Jamie Storr would like a word.
In fact, there are way more swings and misses in the Canes’ free-agent history than there are hits, which justifies Tom Dundon’s belief that shopping for free agents is largely an exercise in picking through other teams’ recycling bins - and makes the Canes’ signing of Calvin de Haan on Tuesday even more notable.
Not since (shudder) Tomas Kaberle signed in 2011 have the Canes splashed more than two years on a free agent from outside the organization. Before that, it was Tom Kostopoulos (?!) in 2009. Stillman and Oleg Tverdovsky got three years on the open market from Carolina, and Francis signed for four years in the summer of 1998.
That’s it. That’s the list. Five free agents - six if you count de Haan - in the Canes’ 22 offseasons in North Carolina have received deals longer than two years.
The Hurricanes, of course, are far from alone in avoiding big-ticket free agent signings, with examples like the ones Andrew mentioned on Tuesday serving as cautionary tales in how to spend money foolishly. But ponying up for de Haan in both money and term serves notice from Dundon and Don Waddell that they will be willing to spend when it’s appropriate to do so.
For a team that’s been the target of “team in crisis!!” headlines since Francis’ departure in March, this is a noteworthy rebuttal. It should - but, we all know, it won’t, not in some quarters - prove that the Canes aren’t going cheap for the sake of simply making a buck on the back of underpaid front-office executives.
Obviously it’s too early to declare de Haan’s signing an unqualified success; there’s still plenty of time for the deal to go sideways, and as James Wisniewski will tell you, the best-formulated plans sometimes have plot twists in store that no one sees coming. But enjoy this deal for what is it: a bold statement from the Hurricanes’ new braintrust that, if the right player for a situation is out there, commitments of time or money won’t stand in the way of improving the club.
Who knows what the future holds, but at least for right now, it’s fair to say that the Canes will no longer be reduced to shopping in bargain bins in free agency, crossing their fingers that a player signed on the cheap will pan out while knowing all along that it’s highly unlikely to happen. It’s been a long, long time since Canes fans could realistically say that, and it’s a breath of fresh air years in the making.