Following the first training camp session of the year for the Carolina Hurricanes last week, Justin Faulk sat down at his locker as practically every member of the media in attendance surrounded him.
He knew exactly what the questions were going to be.
On Monday of that week, reports came out that the Hurricanes were deep into trade talks with the Anaheim Ducks surrounding Faulk. The extra layer in this scenario was the language in his contract that gives him the right to submit a list of 15 NHL teams, to which he would have to approve any trade that he were to be involved in. The Ducks were on that list.
This is far from the first time that Faulk has been in the middle of trade rumor madness, but up to this point, those rumors had never reached the point where specific names from other teams (in this case, Ducks forward Ondrej Kase) had been reported to be involved in a trade for Faulk.
Over the next few days, weeks, and perhaps months, Faulk will have decisions to make about his future, as will the Hurricanes. The 27-year-old blue-liner is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and after contract negotiation talks between the Canes and Faulk’s representation over the summer went nowhere quickly, his future in Carolina is very much up in the air.
Oddly enough, after years of the prevailing theory being that the Canes should trade a defenseman for a forward whenever they get the chance, maybe now that’s not the case.
If the Hurricanes opt to trade Faulk for a forward prior to the start of the season, it takes the open spot in the top-nine away from Martin Necas, who is the presumed favorite for locking down a spot in Carolina’s opening night lineup and has been described by many as one of the best players outside of the NHL.
Is the upgrade that Carolina would get out of a forward really worth it in that scenario? Would the player that Carolina acquires for Faulk really be that much better than Necas? Or, for argument’s sake since he’s had an excellent camp, Julien Gauthier?
I’d wager that the answer is no. I think it’d be more valuable to have Faulk on your blue line to start the year and have Martin Necas in the NHL and playing in a significant offensive role. If Necas is ready to play (and, by all accounts, he is), blocking him from the NHL again couldn’t possibly do more good than bad for his development.
This is also assuming that Carolina can even fetch a forward that fits the description of a young top-nine or top-six right-shot forward with term on his contract. Ondrej Kase certainly fell in that category and would’ve been an excellent get, but that was presumably their best option in a trade, which is why they tried to pull the trigger on it. Now, if Carolina wants to get this deal done in short order, you’re moving on to worse options - options that are less and less discernible from Martin Necas.
Players like Kase just aren’t readily available in the NHL, so I’m not even sure where Carolina could go from here with regards to finding a gem of a young forward. The only name that comes to my mind is Nikolaj Ehlers in Winnipeg. While he’s not a right-shot, he’s the caliber of player that, if you can make that deal, you do it every day of the week. Perhaps Winnipeg is feeling desperate now that Dustin Byfuglien’s future is up in the air and Don Waddell can take advantage of that situation, but I’d have a very hard time seeing that kind of trade happen without Carolina giving up a lot more than just Faulk, especially since both of Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are not with the Jets right now because of their contract disputes.
Regardless of who you get back for Faulk, you lose a really important piece of the puzzle in one aspect - the penalty kill. Last season, Faulk ranked fourth among Canes d-men with 1:43 of PK ice time per game. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like much, but it is. That gets even more clear when factoring the loss of Calvin de Haan, who ranked third among the d-core with 1:59 of PK ice time per game. So, if you get rid of Faulk, you have to turn to the likes of Haydn Fleury, Trevor van Riemsdyk (who, again, won’t be ready at the start of the season), Dougie Hamilton, and Jake Gardiner to take up what adds to roughly 283 minutes worth of PK time.
Does it really make sense to let either of Hamilton or Gardiner take those minutes? They could be capable, but obviously, it makes way more sense to let them focus more on the power play and on even strength minutes, given the strengths in their game. Haydn Fleury can take up some minutes, but do you want to bank on him being able to handle all of that in what is his ultimate make or break season?
While Faulk’s penalty killing ability is far from something to write home about (I have no argument there, it’s a fact that I am completely aware of), could limiting his usage on the power play and re-assigning his focus to the penalty kill help? They acquired Gardiner to be a power play quarter back on the first unit, which was the role Faulk was forced into last season and many years prior. And in Carolina’s preseason game on Wednesday, Faulk wasn’t even on either unit. Instead, Gardiner, Hamilton, Necas, and others manned those units.
Another option (an option I would be much more open to) would be to trade Faulk for something or someone and bring in another defenseman who can kill penalties more effectively, but given Rod Brind’Amour’s comments in the past about keeping this group in tact, I wonder if swapping out parts like that is something the team would want to do, especially now that training camp is well underway and considering that Faulk is a prominent leader on that team. It could be an option, but I don’t know how realistic that theory would be.
If Carolina is truly ready to stop forcing Faulk into a prominent power play role, I think it’s then worth trying to make him a better penalty killer.
In this alternate reality I’ve created, this is what I’d suggest the defensive pairings, power play units, and penalty kill units look like:
Dean Chynoweth likes to tinker with the defensive pairings, so obviously Slavin would also see time with Pesce in some situations and the Pesce/Faulk duo could also get looks, given how good they were last season
Barring an unexpected development, I think the best option is for the Canes to stand pat, keep Faulk to fill out their blue line, have him focus on the PK as opposed to the PP (and perhaps use him as a right-handed trigger man, as needed), give Necas the chance he has earned, and then go from there.
If we are a month into the season and Necas clearly isn’t doing what he needs to do in order to stay in a prominent NHL role or Faulk is still a liability on the penalty kill, it would make sense to explore your options again (van Riemsdyk would also be healthy and likely able to take up some PK minutes at that point, as well). But for the time being, it’s okay to have five top-four defensemen - it certainly was last season.
Even with Faulk’s pending UFA status, the Canes benefit from having him and now that they are contenders, you have to bite the bullet on some pending UFAs and risk losing him for nothing, assuming it comes to that. I’d value keeping Faulk and losing him in unrestricted free agency more than moving him for a draft pick (which the Hurricanes already have six of in the first three rounds of the 2020 NHL Draft), a forward who is marginally better than Necas, or a player who wouldn’t contribute to this year’s Hurricanes team (unless it’s some kind of high-end prospect, which I don’t see being a realistic option, anyway).
Now that Carolina’s forward depth chart is filled to the brim, the benefits that come from moving Faulk for a forward are suddenly much less applicable to this Canes team...
... at least for now. Get back to me in a month or so, and my opinion could be very different.