Here we go, folks.
Only three weeks until the NHL trade deadline, a day referred to as one of the two biggest days that got former general manager Ron Francis fired - the other day being July 1, day one of NHL free agency.
The Carolina Hurricanes are clinging onto the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference after their shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday. They’re tied with the Philadelphia Flyers in points with the same number of games played, but they are winning the primary tiebreaker of regulation wins (changed from recent years where it was regulation + overtime wins, which is now the second tiebreaker).
So, with all of that in mind, what Don Waddell and his merry band of assistant general managers do? Dougie Hamilton’s injury still leaves a large hole that’s practically impossible to fill. Is there any sort of external options that can ease things? What about a scoring forward, or a goalie?
Oddly enough, as things currently stand, Carolina’s biggest strength entering the season appears to be their biggest need as the deadline nears, due in large part to Hamilton’s injury.
Pierre LeBrun of TSN and The Athletic wrote on Monday that New Jersey’s Sami Vatanen would be a sensible trade option for the Hurricanes at the deadline.
The pending UFA Vatanen, a right-hand shot D who can play both sides, would help fill the void left by Dougie Hamilton’s injury. The Hurricanes, in doing their diligence, I’m told, have talked to New Jersey among other teams while they search the D market.
Vatanen, a Finnish right-handed puck-mover, has had his name on the block all year as the Devils have toiled away at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. LeBrun speculates that he’d cost a 2020 second-round pick and the Devils could retain a portion of his $4.875 million cap hit this season before he hits unrestricted free agency in July.
The 28-year-old was a highly-regarded young defenseman not too long ago when he broke into the league with the Anaheim Ducks, but it’s been more tough sledding for him over the past two seasons.
He’s a small (5’10”, 185-pounds) player who moves well and has found a role on the power play, where he has ten of his 23 points this season.
It’s an interesting suggestion. Hamilton leaves a void offensively, and Vatanen can bring offense.
Beyond that, though, I have a hard time with this one. With the Canes being as cap-strapped as they are, the Devils retaining cap value would still put Waddell and company in a tough spot. You’re committing to that being your “big move”.
I would argue that there are better options than Vatanen: Alec Martinez in Los Angeles and Brenden Dillon in San Jose are more attractive options, from my point of view. Both are veteran, playoff-hardened defensemen who prioritize the defensive zone first. You don’t get the potential offensive upside that you do from Vatanen, but you get a big upgrade defensively.
I would also argue that there is an option that’s better and more responsible as a “Plan A” than any of the ones I’ve mentioned above:
The 2016 first-round pick is in the midst of his sophomore season as a professional hockey player, and he’s already achieved quite a lot - a Calder Cup trophy as a rookie, an AHL All-Star nod as a second-year player, and an awfully impressive stat line of 20 goals, 58 assists, and 78 points in 113 AHL games. He’s still 21 years old.
This is the main reason why Vatanen-centered trade talks lose my attention in short order. Why would you move an asset out for a player who eats up all of your remaining cap space, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer (a prospect that we know Tom Dundon doesn’t love), and might not even be a substantial upgrade from what the team has in Bean, a player they have developed into one of the best defensemen outside of the NHL who is as NHL ready as he’s going to get?
If Carolina needs more offense on the blue line, option one needs to be promoting Bean. Ideally, that move gets made in the near future and allows Rod Brind’Amour and his staff to get a look at him before the deadline.
Martinez, Dillon, and defenseman of their ilk are a different conversation, though. I don’t see a Martinez in Charlotte right now - the closest thing would be... Gustav Forsling? Maybe? A deal for a player like that makes more sense than a deal for a player like Vatanen - a player like Bean.
The only potential argument I can see would be based on an assumption that Bean could be a defensive liability. My rebuttal to that would be that Vatanen is far from a Rod Langway candidate and has worse defensive metrics, both in general and relative to his teammates on a fairly abysmal New Jersey club.
It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that Bean could take a spot in the top-six, kick out Trevor van Riemsdyk, and help make up for the offense they lost when Hamilton broke his fibula.
Elsewhere on the Blue Line...
I’ve talked a lot about Jake Gardiner in recent weeks, and I’ll talk about him some more today.
You cannot silence me. (ed. note: this is categorically true, no matter how much we try)
Fresh off of the All-Star break, Gardiner has continued to play well, and he might’ve played his best game with the Hurricanes on Sunday against the Canucks.
His one-man breakout and offensive zone entry led to Carolina’s first goal of the afternoon. He got the secondary assist on Nino Niederreiter’s spin-o-rama backhander that glided along the ice and underneath Thatcher Demko.
Nino Niederreiter with a big goal to open the second period. Jake Gardiner skates it all the way up ice, and Teuvo Teravainen found Nino for the turnaround backhander in the slot. Tie game. pic.twitter.com/VzdEwWxXyU— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) February 2, 2020
Gardiner went on to see 19:59 of ice time and put up his routinely good possession numbers, relative to his teammates and the league average. His play, confidence, and PDO have all risen steadily over the last three weeks. He’s turning into the player the Hurricanes need him to be. The next aspect of his game that Carolina needs to grow is his dynamic abilities offensively. We have seen that special talent flash a lot more often as of late, and it’s leading to promising results.
He’s getting there.
Haydn Fleury is also getting there. I wrote last week that I believe he’s improving and he needed more of an opportunity to prove it, and after watching him these past two games, I’m gaining a bit more confidence there.
He has assists in two of his last three games, but the area that’s most important for him is the defensive zone. For the first time in his career, Fleury is making a statistically above average isolated impact in his own end at 5-on-5, according to HockeyViz. He also has largely positive possession numbers relative to his teammates.
The eye test and numbers support each other. He’s been much better.
Fleury has seen 15:24 of average ice time over his last four games, which isn’t anything notable on its own but is a significant step up from the 11:23 he averaged in the 25 games prior.
Now, do you pursue a Martinez or a Dillon and unfairly make Fleury the odd man out (again)? Does that potential acquisition or call-up take the spot of TvR, who is currently slotted well above his pay grade next to Jaccob Slavin? Those are among the questions that the Hurricanes will need to answer in the coming weeks.
Elsewhere on the Trade Front...
I want to circle back to LeBrun’s speculative trade piece because there are other names out there that stood out to me, starting with Anaheim Ducks forward Ondrej Kase.
Flash back to the preseason, when the Hurricanes reportedly reached an agreement with the Ducks on a trade that would send defenseman Justin Faulk to Orange County (California, not Chapel Hill) and bring Kase to Raleigh. Faulk nixed the deal after short contract extension talks with the team, as was his contractual right, and ended up with a lucrative new deal in St. Louis.
Four months later, the Ducks aren’t going to make the playoffs and Kase’s name is still floating around. Will a deal happen now?
It’s hard to envision that happening, especially after the return of Justin Williams and the developments with Erik Haula before the All-Star break. There doesn’t seem to be much room on the depth chart, but I maintain that he’d be a fabulous fit on the Hurricanes, and I assume that the front office feels that way, too.
The other interesting one: Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Ron Hainsey in Ottawa.
The Senators are likely demanding a first-round pick for JGP, who is in the midst of a very well-timed career season with unrestricted free agent nearing on his horizon. The Hurricanes have their own first-rounder in 2020 and, potentially, Toronto’s first-rounder (Carolina gets their 2021 first-round pick if Toronto breaks into the top ten in the 2020 NHL Draft).
Ottawa will likely fetch an overpayment from some team for Pageau due to his career season and the uncharacteristically thin rental market. Carolina almost certainly won’t be the team to do that, but his skillset would give Brind’Amour a versatile weapon at 5-on-5, the penalty kill, and the power play.
And you can throw Hainsey in the deal so Williams doesn’t have to hit the early bird special at Golden Corral by himself on road trips.
Elsewhere on the Organizational Depth Chart...
So, uh... how ‘bout this Julien Gauthier, eh?
If you haven’t been keeping tabs on the Charlotte Checkers, you might want to sit down before I break this news to you.
Gauthier, Carolina’s second of two 2016 first-round picks, has 12 goals and 19 points in 16 AHL games after being reassigned following a short stint with the big club in mid-December. He has 15 goals in his last 19 AHL games, dating back to December 4.
The 6’4”, damn-near 230-pound power winger reached 27 goals in 70 games a season ago in Charlotte. This season, the 22-year-old is on a 70-game pace of 43 goals.
Let’s be clear, these aren’t Valentin Zykov “stand in front of the net and let pucks deflect off of you and into the net” kind of goals. These are “young player maturing and learning how to use his body effectively and play professional hockey at a high level” kind of goals. He can skate, he play in different situations, and most notably, he can score goals in staggering quantities.
Unreal burst of speed from and it's 4-1 thanks to this shorthanded goal! pic.twitter.com/UT8qAIeE8S— Charlotte Checkers (@CheckersHockey) February 1, 2020
Again, we’re in a weird spot with Gauthier right now. With Williams back in the lineup and a pretty full top-nine as currently constructed, Gauthier’s well deserved call up will likely be on hold. He’s grown tremendously over the past two seasons, and he’s very close to getting the chance he’s worked for. Barring injuries or some serious roster shuffling, though, he might have to wait until training camp.
It sucks for him because he’s done just about everything he could possibly do to earn that chance. Things can change quickly, though. Perhaps his next chance is closer than it seems.