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Bunch of risks: Hurricanes’ puzzling offseason raises questions

The Hurricanes entered this offseason with the goal of improving the team to take the next step to true cup contention. It’s hard to argue that they did that.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Five Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The Hurricanes entered this offseason with a number of key decisions to make. Now, with the draft, and the first several days of free agency, come and gone, most of those decisions are made. Other than possibly adding a top/middle-six winger, next year’s roster is pretty much filled out.

Carolina came out of a season that saw it win its first division title since 2006 and fall to the eventual repeat champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round, looking to improve itself and take that next step towards Stanley Cup contention.

With a little over two months until the start of the season, here’s what the Hurricanes have done in terms of the NHL roster:

OUT: Dougie Hamilton, Brock McGinn, Alex Nedeljkovic, James Reimer, Petr Mrazek, Jani Hakanpaa, Cedric Paquette, Warren Foegele, Jake Bean, Morgan Geekie

IN: Jordan Martinook (re-signed), Ethan Bear, Ian Cole, Josh Leivo, Derek Stepan, Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Smith

So, is the team better, which was the goal? It’s hard to say that now, especially after the risks Carolina took with its two most important decisions.

That’s not to say all of the moves they made were bad. Some were fine - even good! Cole is a good addition on a one-year deal - a physical, defensively sound, shot-blocking defenseman who should be a good piece in the Hurricanes’ third pairing.

Trading a player in a situation where both sides were ready to move on in Warren Foegele for a promising young defenseman in Ethan Bear was a very smart move. It stings to lose a long-time, heart and soul player like McGinn, but the deal the Penguins gave him - four years, $2.75 million AAV, was one the team was probably fine to pass on.

Josh Leivo is a low-cost addition to the bottom six. Derek Stepan should be a fine fourth-line center. Re-signing Jordan Martinook - a leader in the locker room and community - at a slight discount was a good move.

But none of those represented the team’s two most important decisions - either-re-signing or replacing Dougie Hamilton, and figuring out what to do in net. And, in making those decisions, the Hurricanes took some big-time risks - ones that make it difficult to call this group better on paper.

Let’s start with Hamilton. He’s, simply put, one of the very best defensemen in the NHL. He just finished fourth in Norris Trophy voting and made the NHL’s second All-Star team.

He’s an elite play driver and power-play producer, and a player the Hurricanes arguably couldn’t afford to lose.

The contract the Devils gave Hamilton is certainly going to be a risk as it ages, and would have been for a Hurricanes team that will have other players to pay. But, over the course of a cup-contention window, teams usually have to give out at least one “bad”/risky deal. The Chicago Blackhawks certainly knew the long-term contracts for players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook probably wouldn’t age well. Ditto for the Los Angeles Kings with Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick.

But do those teams, who won multiple cups in their windows, regret those deals for a second? Probably not. And, as this offseason, and the Arizona Coyotes, have demonstrated, you can usually find a way to make a bad contract disappear. And, if you were going to give out a “bad” deal that might not age well, a team supposedly trying to win now could do worse than giving market value to a legit top-pair defenseman and one of its best players over the last three years.

The Hurricanes appear to have taken a two-pronged approach to replacing Hamilton. Bear will no doubt take on some of his minutes in the top four, and could get a look on the power play. But the primary power-play replacement is the controversial Tony DeAngelo, signed to a one-year, $1 million contract.

We’ve already gone over how risky, not to mention immoral, it is from an off-ice perspective to bring in a player whose track record includes a physical altercation with a teammate in New York and a suspension in the OHL for violating the league’s harassment, abuse and diversity policy resulting from a slur directed at a teammate.

But it’s also risky from an on-ice perspective. While it’s true that DeAngelo is a year removed from a season that saw him post 53 points, including 19 on the power play, in 68 games, after playing just six games last season, it’s not a guarantee he gets back to that form. And he’s not exactly a defensive stalwart (the heat maps at the bottom show offense created against his team when he’s on the ice).

With Hamilton and Jake Bean gone, there’s a ton riding on DeAngelo’s ability to be an effective power-play quarterback.

That’s not the only risk the Hurricanes took, however. They made the surprising decision to trade Alex Nedeljkovic, coming off a stellar season that saw him nominated for the Calder Trophy - to the Detroit Red Wings for Jonathan Bernier (who they didn’t sign) and a third-round pick.

Nedeljkovic then signed a two-year deal with Detroit at a $3 million AAV. The Hurricanes apparently weren’t willing to pay that to a goalie who’d been in their organization for five years. He was coming off a stellar run, in which he led the league in save percentage and finished with the lowest goals-against average, but the sample size (27 career NHL starts) was miniscule for goalie standards.

Don Waddell said the Hurricanes, looking to contend for the cup, wanted a veteran goalie, a more proven, safer, option. That’s logical, and was a thought process that, while not popular, was easy to follow. The next steps they took, however? Not so much.

Based on recent years, it’s hard to call Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta safer options than Nedeljkovic, or Petr Mrazek, for that matter.

Raanta was great for the Coyotes when healthy, but that was just the issue, as he faced a slew of injuries in recent years. But the contract he was given - two years, $2 million AAV, was reasonable, especially if he was paired with a safer partner.

Well, the Hurricanes didn’t do that. They signed Andersen, who, in fairness, from 2013-2019, was an excellent goalie for the Ducks and Maples Leafs. But they’re betting big, to the tune of a two-year deal with a $4.5 million AAV on a goalie whose numbers plummeted as he also faced some injuries over the past two seasons.

Last year, in 23 starts, Andersen posted an .895 save percentage and 2.96 goals-against average. The Hurricanes are apparently so confident in a bounce back that they were comfortable giving him more than either of Nedeljkovic, or Mrazek, who was excellent when healthy last season, is coming off a much better three-year run than Andersen and, ironically, signed with the Maple Leafs, will get with their new teams.

Now, it’s entirely possible pivoting to that tandem proves to be a great move for the Hurricanes. Both are not far removed from much better performances, and could both do better playing behind the likes of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei.

But, today, on paper, based on last season alone, it’s hard to argue the Hurricanes got better in net.

It’s hard to argue they got better at all, in fact. Adding another top-six forward - which Carolina has plenty of cap space to do, even after signing RFA forward Andrei Svechnikov, would help a lot.

But, this was a team that entered the offseason looking to get better and take the next step. After letting an elite talent like Hamilton walk, and switching to two very high-risk, high-reward goalies, it takes a pretty big leap of faith to be confident this group is better than the one Carolina finished the 2020-21 season with.