The Hurricanes face a number of key decisions this offseason. Do they re-sign Dougie Hamilton? What does Andrei Svechnikov’s second contract look like? Who’s going to be Alex Nedeljkovic’s goalie partner? What do they need - and what can they afford - to add to this group?
There’s another, less discussed decision that they need to make. And it’s one that will likely impact at least some of the ones listed above, particularly the first and last ones: What do they do with Jake Gardiner?
Since signing a four-year, $4.05 million AAV contract shortly before the start of the 2019-20 season, Gardiner’s Hurricanes tenure has been a bit of a roller coaster. He got off to a rocky start to that first year before finishing it much stronger.
He started the 2021 season strong, looking like the top-four, puck-moving defenseman the team thought it was getting, and one capable of running the second power-play unit. But back issues then derailed his season, as he was in and out of the lineup the rest of the way and only ended up playing 26 games in the regular season.
He played just one game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a strong effort in game two against Nashville, before sitting out the rest of the way. While the team never stated his back was an issue in the playoffs (he was listed as a healthy scratch), it seems that, with the Canes struggling to score in round two against Tampa Bay, it could have used his skillset in the lineup.
At end of season exit interviews, Don Waddell said that Gardiner had “had some MRIs done” and was discussing his next move with doctors, but did not have a further update.
It should be noted that Gardiner was listed among the players expected to play in a Minnesota summer league, which would seem to hint that his back might be OK; at least, good enough to take part in what amounts to conditioning games.
The question now becomes: What do the Hurricanes do with Gardiner? Even if he does come into next season fully healthy, back issues are notoriously tricky, and there’s always the risk they flare back up.
Even assuming a clean bill of health for Gardiner, can a Hurricanes team that is about to get a lot more top heavy afford to spend $4.05 million on a defenseman who will be playing on the third pairing? Perhaps not.
So, what are the Hurricanes’ options for what to do with Gardiner this offseason?
If the team is comfortable with where Gardiner is health wise, there’s certainly an argument to be made for keeping him. He provides a valuable skill set, and played very well when healthy last season. Especially in the postseason, the absence of Gardiner’s ability to move the puck up the ice and quarterback the second power-play unit was noticeable.
If the Canes end up letting Hamilton walk, Gardiner could provide some much-needed offensive ability on the blue line. And, if they opt to expose Brady Skjei in the expansion draft and he gets claimed, Gardiner could slide up into the top four alongside Brett Pesce (a pairing that was very good in a limited sample size last year).
The issue comes if the Canes extend Hamilton, especially if they also keep Skjei. Assuming Hamilton gets around $8 million, the top four on the blueline of Hamilton, Skjei, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin would cost the Hurricanes a combined $22.58 million. Add in Gardiner’s $4.05 million cap hit, and that’s over $26 million for five defensemen.
In the flat cap world, that’s not something a team that also needs to try to upgrade its forward group can afford.
Whether or not it makes sense for the Hurricanes to keep Gardiner likely depends on what else they do on the blue line, especially with Hamilton and Skjei. If one or both of them are gone, it’s probably a good idea.
If they’re both back, this team can’t really afford a $4.05-million third-pairing defenseman.
Buy him out
I’m going to start by saying it’s pretty hard to see this happen, and I’d be pretty surprised if it did. The Canes just got Alex Semin’s lengthy buyout off the books, and, while Gardiner’s wouldn’t be nearly as cumbersome, it’s hard to imagine them rushing out to pay another player not to play for them. And, to be honest, Gardiner hasn’t really done anything to warrant a buyout. He played well when healthy/in the lineup last year.
However, the NHL is a business, and it’s an option, if not a likely one. According to CapFriendly’s buyout calculator, a buyout of Gardiner would cost the Hurricanes about $1.29 million against the cap this upcoming season, $1.041 million in 2022-23 and $1.4 million in 2023-24 and 2024-25. So, the team would save about $2.75 million against the cap this year and a little over $3 million next year.
The flip side of that is they’d then have money on the books for an additional two more seasons past when Gardiner’s contract would have ended. That might not be as big of a deal then as it’s not a large cap hit, and the cap should again be increasing at that point. However, putting dead money on the books should always be viewed as a last resort.
A buyout probably isn’t the best option for a player who’s still shown he can be very effective, but it would ultimately save the Canes cap space in the short term.
Pay Seattle to take him in the expansion draft
This would potentially solve multiple problems at once. It would allow the Hurricanes to avoid losing a player such as Brady Skjei or Jake Bean while also clearing Gardiner’s cap hit off the books, freeing up that money to go towards a Hamilton extension, possible additions, etc.
Here’s the issue though: Ron Francis knows he’d be doing the Canes a huge favor by taking Gardiner. While his skillset could prove valuable to the Kraken, he’s far from the most desirable target the Canes will be leaving unprotected. And they’d have to cut a side deal with Francis in order for him to take the blue liner.
That deal probably wouldn’t come cheap, and might even cost the Hurricanes their first-round pick in this draft. With a late pick in what’s said to be a weak draft, however, protecting the rest of the roster and clearing the cap space may be worth it.
Unless they part with a premium asset, the Canes would almost certainly have to retain salary on Gardiner. However, as with Seattle, if they find a team with cap space looking to pick up assets (similar to what the Canes did with Partick Marleau in 2019), they could trade the full contract.
But, even if the Canes trade Gardiner for a modest return and retain 50% of his salary, they’d save a little over $2 million this year and next, and, as opposed to a buyout, wouldn’t have money on the books past the expiration of the initial contract.
If the Canes do decide to part ways with Gardiner this summer, trading him and retaining some salary is probably the most likely option.
I do want to be clear that this commentary is not meant to criticize Gardiner himself, or say the Hurricanes absolutely have to get rid of him at all costs. As stated, when healthy he was very good last season.
However, this is a team looking to take the next step towards true Stanley Cup contention, and that must do so with several key free agents to either re-sign and replace, all amidst a flat-cap landscape. If Gardiner’s going to be a third-pairing defenseman next year, he may be a luxury the Hurricanes simply can’t afford as they look to get over the hump.