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A Look at the Hurricanes’ Blue Line Heading into the Offseason

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Will there be a lot of turnover for the Hurricanes’ defense this offseason? Likely not.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes have grown to be synonymous with defense, and that won’t change this offseason.

On the surface, having upwards of $28 million invested into the blue line could spell some roster turnover to use that money elsewhere, but it doesn’t have to.

Today, we’re taking a look at what the Canes have on the back end and what, if anything, will change from season-to-season.


The Core

Jaccob Slavin (26), Brett Pesce (25), Dougie Hamilton (27)

The Hurricanes have something that a vast majority of the league can only dream of having - three top-pairing defensemen.

Slavin and Hamilton, when healthy, have made up the one of the best defensive pairings in hockey dating back to the second half of the 2018-19 season. Hamilton had the second-best real on-ice goal share among all NHL defensemen at 5-on-5, and his heat maps are rather incredible.

Dougie Hamilton 2019-20 heat maps in all situations.
HockeyViz.com (@IneffectiveMath)

Hamilton was a hugely positive player on both ends of the ice and in all situations in 2019-20. Had he not gotten injured and missed the final 21 games of the shortened regular season, he very well could have been the Norris Trophy winner and almost certainly would have been a top-three finalist. He finished seventh in voting despite missing the time he did.

Now, the Hurricanes have to determine his value and whether or not they will sign him to a long-term extension. I wouldn’t expect that to happen any time soon, though.

Given the state of the world and the NHL, the Alex Pietrangelo situation is something that the Canes will monitor closely. He’s a right-handed number one defenseman who is set to hit the open market this month, and the deal he gets should set the ground work for Hamilton’s next contract. Hamilton is also three years younger than Pietrangelo.

Canes owner Tom Dundon has already said that they have no intention of letting him walk or go elsewhere, but until the deal is signed, nothing is a given. The Canes have another year to make it happen, though.

Pesce had a down year, and his numbers show that. What certainly didn’t help was playing with Joel Edmundson who, by almost every metric, was the worst defenseman on the team in 2019-20. The 25-year-old then capped things off with a season-ending shoulder injury that required surgery, and this wasn’t the first time he’s had serious shoulder issues. This is absolutely the most unsettling thing about this player.

With that in mind, the Hurricanes love him and it would take something crazy for another team to pry him from Carolina. There’s very good reason for that. Pesce’s 2019-20 season was a far cry from his defensive impact in the three years prior. In fact, this past season was the first season in his career wherein he wasn’t a positive defensive player in terms of isolated shot impact compared to league average.

Not having him in that series against the Boston Bruins made a real impact. If you have him in the lineup, there’s a real possibility that the series goes six or seven games and we’re having a different discussion about the team right now. Remember, each of their losses were by just one goal (excluding an ENG in one game).

With the idea of trading him on the table, I’d like to propose a scenario: let’s say the Hurricanes trade Pesce. Okay, now they’re down one of their three first-pairing defensemen. That’s fine though because they still have Slavin and Hamilton, right? Well, again, Hamilton is a UFA after this upcoming season. What if they can’t make a deal? I think they will make a deal, but literally nothing can be assumed when we’re talking in these real terms. So, what if they can’t make it happen with Hamilton? They’re already out on Pesce. Fast forward to the 2021-22 season and you have one top-pairing defensemen. That would be devastating for a team whose defense practically drives their entire identity.

This is a doomsday scenario, of course, but if you move Pesce, especially without a contract extension signed by Hamilton, you are running a massive unnecessary risk. So for all of those reasons and many more, I don’t think Pesce is going anywhere. He’s too good, he’s too valuable, and it would be a risk that could end up putting you in an awful position.

The question now is who his partner will be on the second pairing. Slavin-Hamilton is etched in stone, as it should be, and the Edmundson-Pesce experiment just didn’t work. That leaves probably two real options, which we’ll get into now.


Rounding Out the Top-Six

Brady Skjei (26), Jake Gardiner (30), Haydn Fleury (24)

There’s a lot to unpack here.

The Hurricanes signed Gardiner almost 13 months ago with the intention of playing him with Pesce. It took a couple of weeks for the Carolina coaching staff to land on Edmundson-Pesce for that pairing, and Edmundson’s inexplicable, totally improbable, almost unbelievable six-game point streak in November earned him a spot there for the remainder of the season.

That made Gardiner the odd-man out in the top-four, which didn’t change as he had a brutal stretch of play coupled with some remarkably bad luck.

Fast forward to the trade deadline, the Canes went out and got Skjei from the Rangers. Undoubtedly, the plan now is for Skjei and Pesce to make up the second pairing. The former Ranger has a lot to like in his game and his strengths should make him a good fit in Carolina’s system.

Skjei is a big, lanky defenseman who skates very well, but he had a devil of a time living up to his big contract with the Rangers as he struggled mightily in the defensive zone and didn’t provide enough offense to make up for it outside of the 2017-18 season where he was a big plus offensively.

This was obviously a trade where the Canes made a bet on their system being good enough that they could turn Skjei in to a legitimate top-four defenseman. Their track record under this regime suggests to me that they can make it happen, but it’ll take some effort to do it.

Carolina loves big, mobile d-men and Skjei certainly fits the bill there, and with Pesce next to him, that could allow him to do the things he’s good at while having the safety net of an extremely good defender.

So, again, Gardiner would be the odd-man out.

This time around, though, I don’t think it spells doom for the veteran offensive defenseman because of the growth that Fleury experienced as the season went on and his number was called upon on a consistent basis.

For the first time, it looks like Fleury has an actual role on this team. He was very impressive in the postseason, and he played some of his best hockey with Gardiner in spurts last season. He’s an RFA, but I don’t anticipate there being much trouble with getting him signed, assuming he doesn’t end up in an arbitration meeting.

The discourse surrounding Gardiner in his first year in Carolina was painful, and in some cases it was ill-informed and based on pre-conceived notions. Almost always, these things even out and I’d expect a different stat line for him in year two of his four-year contract.

Even when he was at his worst, he was still making quality plays with the puck and just didn’t get the bounces to go his way. After Pesce and Hamilton departed the lineup due to injury, he was noticeably better in all three zones. Now, that doesn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes that cost the team. He is a player who will have those moments, but if he’s being given the right opportunities, his good moments should outweigh those head-scratchers.

Even last season, the Hurricanes were a better team in the offensive zone when he was on the ice, and his isolated offensive impact at 5-on-5 was slightly better than Slavin’s. And believe it or not, they were better off defensively with Gardiner on the ice compared to Edmundson - by a fairly large margin.

The possibility also exists that the Canes plan on using the Seattle expansion draft to help solve this issue.


Outside Looking In

Jake Bean (22), Joey Keane (21), Roland McKeown (24), Gustav Forsling (24), Jesper Sellgren (22)

Yet again, Bean is left without an avenue to an NHL roster spot. Barring a trade, it’s going to stay that way. We’re nearing the point of decision time, though. He has one year left on his ELC and was named the best defenseman in the AHL last season after his all-rookie season in 2018-19.

Here’s to hoping he gets a look at some point. He has to be considered the top call-up option, especially if one of Hamilton, Skjei, or Gardiner goes down at any point due to injury (*vigorously knocks on wood*). The expansion draft looms following this upcoming season, and the Hurricanes won’t risk losing him for nothing when that time comes.

One point I’ve hammered with regards to Bean is, if the Canes don’t plan on giving Gardiner consistent minutes on the third pairing and second power play unit, they might as well trade him now and give those minutes to their 2016 first-round pick. Instead of giving Gardiner (who costs just north of $4 million against the cap) 12-14 minutes a night, just give it to Bean, shed the money and move on. To be clear, I think keeping Gardiner and playing him in the right role is the better option, but if they aren’t willing to do that, using Bean would probably be the smarter way to go about it.

The Canes bought themselves some time with the deal to get Keane. He’s got plenty of team control and he had an all-rookie season last year in the AHL. McKeown is an RFA and is quickly growing out of “prospect” status. He turns 25 in January and hasn’t been given a look at the NHL level since Rod Brind’Amour took over behind the bench. He has arbitration rights so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get dealt in a minor trade for a player with more team control. If not, he’ll be the captain in Chicago (RIP Charlotte) next season.

Forsling is a 24-year-old pending RFA with arbitration rights - just like McKeown. He had a good year in Charlotte. We’ll see what happens with him. Anton Forsberg got a one-way deal in arbitration, so it wouldn’t be any surprise if a similar deal is awarded to Forsling, who has played in 122 NHL games.

Sellgren, a Carolina 2018 sixth-round pick, is still playing in the SHL - now with Frolunda. He had a great showing in Charlotte’s Calder Cup run in 2019 and has shown out in his training camps in Raleigh. He turned 22 in June and is under contract with the Canes whenever he comes to North America.


UFA

Trevor van Riemsdyk (29), Sami Vatanen (29)

The Hurricanes already moved a pending UFA for an asset, and it’s possible they’ll look to do it again with one of TvR or Vatanen.

At this point, it looks like van Riemsdyk’s Carolina tenure will end. Injury problems and a logjam on the back end plagued the final year of his two-year contract with the team, and it doesn’t look like there’s a need for him, nor do the numbers really add up for him.

Vatanen had some really good moments in the postseason, but he also had some really bad moments. The team likes him (obviously) and I think they’d try to keep him in an ideal world, but I don’t think the numbers will work. They already have four defensemen signed through 2022-23 and that doesn’t include Hamilton.

If they opt to trade Gardiner and pass on Bean because they prefer Vatanen’s right shot on the power play, maybe it works, but as things stand right now, I think he’s hitting unrestricted free agency.


Wrapping It Up

After the Hurricanes iron out their RFA deals, they should have somewhere in the ballpark of $3 million in cap space with 11 forwards, six defensemen, and three goalies under NHL contracts. A move for a goalie, if one is made, would be accompanied by a shedding of either Mrazek or Reimer, so there should still be enough room to add another mid-level forward contract if they go that route.

I don’t think it will be necessary to trade a defenseman for the sake of cap space in 2020-21, but beyond this upcoming season, decisions will have to be made in order to support extensions for Hamilton and Andrei Svechnikov, among others.

There will be talk about trading Skjei or Gardiner this offseason, and while it could happen, I don’t expect it unless they want to add real salary via a deal for a forward. With the current state of affairs in the league, I don’t think there will be much roster turnover, especially with the team already filling needs via the in-season trades for Skjei and Vincent Trocheck.

If we know anything about this team, though, it’s that they can spring a deal at any time and most of them will be straight out of left field.