The Carolina Hurricanes wouldn’t be denied their highly-coveted right-handed defenseman on trade deadline day, even if it wasn’t a big name that many had expected.
It wasn’t Josh Manson. It wasn’t Colin Miller. It wasn’t David Savard.
It was Jani Hakanpää.
Now, if you’re a normal person, you probably had some variation of this reaction...
It only takes a little digging to find out what the Hurricanes saw in the big Finnish blueliner, though, and today we will break it down and figure out why the Canes made the move.
Why Haydn Fleury was Expendable
For years, we’ve talked about how deep Carolina’s blue line is and how Haydn Fleury was always the odd-man-out.
That changed somewhat this season as the now 24-year-old defenseman saw himself get steady playing time, albeit in a limited number of minutes, but still, he played every night and got third-pairing ice time.
When you’re in the position that Fleury was in, you have to take those minutes and prove that you deserve more, and the unfortunate reality was that he didn’t give the club much of a reason to give him elevated minutes.
Let’s use Jake Bean as an example. He came in and got the same small minutes that Fleury got, but he quickly showed that he has the tools to be more than a 12-minute defenseman. In addition to playing on the second power-play unit, he took penalty kill minutes away from Fleury and has quickly adjusted and become serviceable in that role.
In all likelihood, Carolina’s new acquisition will take up some of that PK time, but the point remains that Bean showed more difference-making facets in his game than Fleury did this season.
The difference between Bean and Fleury is that Bean has something that he is obviously good at. He can move the puck and generate offense (plus, he has more youth and team control on his side). What is the one thing that Fleury does better than most other players? He can skate well, but does that actually matter if you’re not using that skating ability to make difference-making plays at either end of the ice? He has a big frame, but the constant knock on him is that he hasn’t used it to his advantage at the NHL level. He just doesn’t have that one thing about him that makes him untouchable, especially as a bottom-pairing defenseman.
The guy they traded for on Monday has that one thing that separates him from other players. Hakanpää’s physicality stands out, and the thing that stands out in his game happens to be what the Hurricanes need.
Fleury now gets the opportunity to hit the reset button and get a good deal more ice time in Anaheim. It’s a great opportunity for him, and while it would have been great had he figured it out in Carolina, it just didn’t happen.
It was time to move on for both parties.
It also takes an option off of the table for Ron Francis and the Seattle Kraken when the expansion draft rolls around, so there’s some value in that they didn’t lose him for nothing. They got a pending UFA who fits what they want from a guy in his role. And they got a late draft pick, just for kicks.
Waddell suggested that the expansion draft played a role in the move, but it wasn’t anywhere close to a deciding factor. Mainly, they just liked the player they were getting and paid a price that they were comfortable paying.
As for Fleury’s tenure with the Hurricanes... we’ll always have his performance in the bubble. And no one can say a bad word about how he carried himself as a pro. He showed up, he worked hard and he treated everyone with respect.
Anaheim gets a good person with something to prove. I’m not counting him out yet.
What Jani Hakanpää Brings
Don Waddell and company set out to acquire a right-handed defender who can play shutdown defense, play the body, and be relied upon to hold his own against tougher opponents.
The club opted to shy away from the bigger names on the market that would have cost a greater quality and quantity of assets, instead going for a lesser-known player who brings a lot of those same abilities.
This was the right call. They didn’t need to go out and spend a first-round pick to get a guy to round out their top-six on the back end. At the 2020 trade deadline, they overpaid for a defenseman who I’m still not sure they really needed, but they avoided making a similar mistake this time around.
Hakanpää isn’t a household name, but he certainly isn’t an inexperienced young player. He turned 29 two weeks ago and was drafted by the St. Louis Blues 11 years ago. He didn’t break into the league on a full-time basis until this season, but he has 298 games of Liiga experience to his name to go with 179 AHL games, most of which came in the Blues’ organization from 2013 to 2015.
He was a fairly productive player for the Liiga’s Kärpät, a team run by Hari Aho, where he was once a teammate of Sebastian Aho. A lot of his production came by way of a spot on the power play, where he was used as a net-front guy (he is 6’5”, 218 pounds), similar to how the Boston Bruins once utilized Zdeno Chara’s massive stature as a disruptor for opposing goalies.
Of course, he won’t have that role in Carolina and won’t be expected to produce offense. His responsibilities are very clear. He will be the anchor to an offensive defenseman on the team’s third pairing - likely a rotating door of Jake Bean and Jake Gardiner.
“Jani is a big, physical defenseman,” said Waddell in the Hurricanes press release on Monday. ”As a right-shot, he will be an ideal partner for an offensive-minded, left-handed blueliner.”
That’s the role that Hakanpää served in Anaheim this season, playing alongside Cam Fowler and forming the Ducks’ most productive 5-on-5 defensive pairing as the duo was on the ice for 23 goals for and was a positive in expected goal share at 50.23% on a team with a league-worst 45.61 expected goal share at 5-on-5.
His heat maps tell you all you need to know about him. He is a shutdown defenseman in every sense of the word, even if it means his team won’t generate any offense either.
The Hurricanes will hope that surrounding him with a Stanley Cup-competing roster will help him round out his game a little better, but even if he remains a one-dimensional player, he should be a good fit next to Bean and Gardiner on the third pairing and let them do what they do best.
He excels is in laying the body. He has the third-most hits in the NHL this season with 168. Jordan Staal leads the club in hits among players who started the season in Carolina with 91. Cedric Paquette has 112 hits split between his time with the Hurricanes and the Ottawa Senators. Hakanpää isn’t that much bigger than Fleury, but he uses his body to his advantage.
He also blocks shots. His 65 blocked shots rank 33rd-most in the NHL and is one more than Jaccob Slavin’s 64, which leads the Hurricanes.
Hakanpää brings a number of things that the Canes felt like they needed, and it makes sense that this was the guy they wanted to go with. He is a rental, technically, as he is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Waddell told the media that they don’t necessarily view him as a rental, though. If things work out, he’s a guy they’d like to keep around. His price tag would be pretty negligible, though he could get a raise from his current $750k salary if he does stick around.
Like most teams in the league, the Hurricanes had a quiet deadline day (this year’s trade deadline featured half as many trade as the 2020 deadline), but while they didn’t make a huge splash, they did address a need and they decided to not tinker too much with a top-of-the-standings roster.
Was that the right decision? Only time will tell, but the Hurricanes feel good about where they are right now.
Now, if only they could find a way to beat the bottom-dwelling Detroit Red Wings...