I’ve been covering trade deadlines with the Carolina Hurricanes pretty much every year since 2008. Most of them have been rather mundane: a Josh Jooris-for-Greg McKegg here, a Viktor Stalberg-for-a third rounder there. Nothing really moved the needle, which was fine last year, not so much in 2018.
But today? Never before have we seen the Hurricanes swing for the fences on deadline day the way they did this year.
Two years ago, I remember sitting in the conference room at PNC Arena writing the following, smoke rising from the keyboard as I pounded in righteous indignation:
Francis continued to toe the company line on Monday. We’re not going to sacrifice the future. The prices to buy were too high. We think we have a team that can make it, and remember, we’re only three points out. And on, and on, and on. It’s a straight copy and paste from last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Pull back the curtain and there’s nothing there.
It was 728 days ago I wrote that. Today, it feels more like 728 years.
Today, the Hurricanes have a GM who actually said the following: “You watch what happened Saturday night and how this team responded to that situation. I can’t even think about what those players were thinking, minus two goalies, minus [Brett] Pesce for most of the game. We owe it to those players to give them the best chance for success.” It’s music to the ears of Hurricanes fans who had become accustomed to seeing management sit on their hands at the deadline.
On a day that capped off the wildest and most unpredictable week the Hurricanes have ever seen, it seems appropriate that the Canes made perhaps the most unexpected deal of deadline day - and they did it early, picking up Vincent Trocheck from the Florida Panthers for...well, it was quite a haul. We’ll get to that in just a second.
First, the deal that wasn’t made. The Hurricanes didn’t seem to be hot on the trail of Robin Lehner after the Blackhawks’ price scared them off, and GM Don Waddell said that they’re somewhat optimistic that Petr Mrazek’s injury isn’t a full-fledged concussion; he called it a neck injury and said that he is in the concussion protocol, but it seems to be a short-term situation. Whether that’s a week or two, it leaves the Hurricanes running with Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg for the time being, but if they really do expect Mrazek back sooner rather than later that’s probably the prudent (non-)move.
Now, onto Trocheck, and let’s talk about who left before we talk about who came in. Erik Haula, bless him, went through a whole lot in the past year, and he never really seemed like he fit in here. His pending free-agent status probably had something to do with that. On a personal level, I always enjoyed talking to him, and I hope he’s able to settle down once this season is done. But the Hurricanes were always unlikely to re-sign him, so there’s not much lost there.
Lucas Wallmark could have been the heir apparent to Jordan Staal, but he was stuck in a strange spot. Rod Brind’Amour clearly preferred Staal in the defensive specialist role, and obviously he wasn’t dislodging Sebastian Aho on the top line anytime soon. That left Wallmark in limbo, more talented than most stereotypical number 3/4 centers but effectively blocked from moving any higher on this roster.
Staal’s going nowhere for at least a few more years, and I’m fairly sure the Canes see Jack Drury as his spiritual successor down the road, so Wallmark was expendable - although not without trepidation. He’ll slot in as a combo 2/3 center in Florida, behind Aleksander Barkov and interchangeable with Haula for the rest of this year before having a clear shot at becoming the Panthers’ second line center next season. That’s more his spot anyway, and I think he’ll be successful in that role.
Chase Priskie was made redundant last week when the Canes picked up Joey Keane in the Julien Gauthier deal, and Eetu Luostarinen didn’t have an obvious path to an NHL job in the Canes organization. The fact that these two specifically were traded is less important than what they represented: for the first time in God knows how long, the Hurricanes leveraged their organizational depth to get a needed piece. They made what I saw someone call an NHL 20-style trade: four quarters that may or may not add up to a dollar.
And that’s what Trocheck is: a needed piece. The Hurricanes have been crying out for a second-line center all season, and his acquisition balances the Canes down the middle quite nicely. (To that end, Waddell said that he had been talking to Panthers GM Dale Tallon about Trocheck back to last season.) Brind’Amour could never count on Haula to fill that role, mostly due to lingering issues from his knee injury, and while Trocheck comes with his own injury baggage he seems to be more past them than Haula is. The fact that he’s signed for two years past this one at a reasonable rate also helps.
But the Hurricanes weren’t done. They had to pick up a defenseman to cover for Brett Pesce’s injury, which I’m told is similar to the one Calvin de Haan suffered in the playoffs last season and will require surgery, either now or after the season, that will sideline him for 5-6 months. Sami Vatanen was an obvious target, and the return - a number-nine defenseman in Freddie Claesson, a lottery-ticket winger in Janne Kuokkanen and a fourth-rounder that could rise to a third - again demonstrates the Hurricanes dealing from a position of strength to fill a need. It’d be nice if Vatanen wasn’t currently injured, but Waddell said that he expected Vatanen to return in early March, so that’s...maybe two weeks, tops? The Canes can weather that, in all likelihood.
Which brings us to Brady Skjei. Whatever he contributes this season is almost beside the point, because the Hurricanes brought him in as the top-four defenseman they’d been looking for all season. It would be no surprise to see Jake Gardiner salary-dumped somewhere this summer, a la de Haan to the Blackhawks, and that would leave the Hurricanes with a top four of Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Pesce and Skjei, plus a presumed spot for Jake Bean to run the power play. Suddenly, that looks a whole lot more solid than the alternative.
Did they give up a lot to get him? Well...yes and no, in that you’re trading for a player with flaws (Waddell went to lengths to say he was being acquired for his defensive-zone play, not for any offensive upside) and that’s always shaky to spend a first-round pick on. On the other hand, the Hurricanes did have two first-round picks, and did need a top-four defenseman, and Barclay Goodrow cost the Lightning the same price, and you’d rather have Brady Skjei than Barclay Goodrow, right?
The only possible disaster here would be if the Maple Leafs fall out of the playoffs and the top-ten protection on their pick kicks in, forcing the Canes to send their own to the Rangers and leaving them without a first-rounder. But, again, the Hurricanes have picked in the first round every year since they spent a first-rounder to pick up Jordan Staal eight years ago, and every so often it’s probably fine to live a little. It was a risk worth taking.
That’s the bottom line here: the Hurricanes took risks at the trade deadline for the first time in a very long time, and whether they pay off or not, at least they’re trying. And it led to a press conference moment we haven’t seen much of in this organization’s history: when asked how they would make everything work under the salary cap, Waddell said “first of all it’s nice to have an owner who’s willing to spend his money, because we spent a lot of money today.” He continued: “It’s a strong message that we’re here to win, Tom’s committed to winning, and we’re looking forward to taking the next step.”
The general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes praising the owner for being willing to spend money. It truly was a deadline day unlike any other.