At the 2019-20 NHL trade deadline, down two elite right-handed defensemen to long-term injuries, the Carolina Hurricanes went out and got not just one but two new defensemen in Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen.
Now, hockey’s gearing up to return and the Hurricanes are looking at eight, legit NHL defensemen and wondering who the hell is going to make the final cut and Vatanen is one of those players hoping to make an impact.
“I’m ready to go,” Vatanen said over Zoom after Tuesday’s practice. “Health wise, I feel 100%. I have no worries about that… I haven’t played since February, so I have to take these practices as hard as I can and try to get myself ready. We’ll see. We have a good group here and everybody’s pushing each other. It will be nice to see who’s going to play. It’s a good battle for everybody and I think everybody’s enjoying it.”
Vatanen is in his eighth NHL season, having spent time with the Anaheim Ducks and the New Jersey Devils previously, putting up 45 goals and 194 points in 434 career games. Vatanen is also bringing playoff experience having played in 44 playoff games and making the Western Conference Finals twice with Anaheim.
The Canes acquired him from the Devils, for Fredrik Claesson, Janne Kuokannen and a conditional fourth-round pick (Carolina GM Don Waddell feels that the pick is no longer owed to New Jersey due to the stipulations on it).
Vatanen was on IR when the Canes traded for him though it was assumed he would be able to return before the postseason. He was sidelined from an injury he sustained on February 1 in a game against the Dallas Stars where he blocked a slapshot high up on his leg.
After a setback, he wasn’t able to return before the season shut down and many fans lamented over the fact that it seemed that Vatanen was going to have cost the team a prospect for no playing time, but the NHL restart allows Vatanen another chance to offer something for the Canes and the depth of the blueline isn’t something that necessarily bothers him.
“We have a really good team here,” Vatanen said. “These guys play really fast hockey. They want to forecheck hard and move their legs all the time. That’s their game. It was hard to play against them, and it’s fun to see these guys and how hungry they are for winning.”
While Vatanen remained off the ice through most of the shut down, he maintained his workouts and did manage to start getting back to skating when he was home in Finland. He said he returned to Raleigh a bit earlier to get in extra work as well and now feels ready to push himself.
Outside of being physically ready, Vatanen isn’t worried about meshing to the Hurricanes’ system.
“You get used to the systems and everything pretty fast,” Vatanen said. “When I got traded from Anaheim to New Jersey, it took a couple weeks, but I think you watch the games and you get to know the guys. It will usually go fast. But of course I was injured, and I have a chance to start with a clean slate right now.”
Head coach Rod Brind’Amour is one of the people who are ready to put faith in Vatanen, though he is going to have to prove it in camp if he wants to earn a spot over the guys that were there for the whole season.
“He’s a talented, talented player,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to be in the mix. You’re talking power play, we’re certainly trying to find him a spot. That’s what he does; he’s good at it. But he hasn’t had any reps with us, and there’s a learning curve. We can’t wait five games to see if it’s going to work with him. So those are things that we’ve got to iron out now, for sure.”
Vatanen isn’t necessarily touted for his defensive abilities though that part of his game is there. His real upside lies in his offensive ability and more precisely, as Brind’Amour stated, his power play skillset.
The defenseman showed a strong showing on the power play despite being a part of a struggling New Jersey team and his isolated charts from years past show he has strong underlying numbers.
The fact of the matter was that Vatanen was brought in to help the power play after Hamilton went down. The first power play unit struggled with Jaccob Salvin as the point man and Vatanen would have allowed a player with the proper skill set to try and fill Hamilton’s gap.
With Hamilton now back, the Hurricanes have the option to have two power play specialists to run each of the units if Vatanen can find himself as a good fit with the team.
Helping that fit may be Vatanen’s familiarity with his fellow countrymen already on the team.
“It was nice to come here and I got to spend some time with [Teravainen] and Aho,” Vatanen said. “It’s been really nice. I played with Teemu [Selanne] and Saku [Koivu] when I first got in the league, and I haven’t played with anybody since. So it was something different. It’s been nice. I’ve been hanging out with them and doing things, so they’ve helped me a lot.”
Sebastian Aho also had high praise for Vatanen, who he said he knew before he was acquired by the team.
“He’s a good player,” Aho said. “When he was younger he used to be a really offensively minded D-man and I feel like he has the two-way game now too. He has a good shot and he’s a smart player. Really good all around D, so I’m sure he can help us in many ways. “