Hurricanes Need to Thin Out Defensive Logjam

Just when you thought the Carolina Hurricanes had solved their defense surplus and we could finally stop talking about it, we’re back to square one.

Trading away Justin Faulk in September was a necessary move that gave the Hurricanes a balance of six NHL-proven defensemen to start the season while Trevor van Riemsdyk recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. But now that van Riemsdyk is healthy, the ‘Canes are being forced to sit one of their seven blueliners when all seven should be playing regular NHL minutes.

The two men on the bottom of the totem pole are van Riemsdyk, who becomes an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at season’s end, and Haydn Fleury, who has battled to earn a permanent spot in the lineup the past three seasons. Van Riemsdyk is a six-year veteran who has played 322 games for the Chicago Blackhawks and Hurricanes. Fleury has been playing the best hockey of his career this season and deserves to be in the lineup. So what’s the best course of action?

7 Defensemen, 11 Forwards Needs to be Retired

The seven-defensemen, 11-forward lineup strategy is used occasionally by coaches dealing with injuries up front. Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour has turned to this tactic for three games this season with forwards Jordan Martinook and Erik Haula out of the lineup, but this configuration hasn’t been working, and it’s time for the experiment to be put to rest.

The Hurricanes have lost all three games in which they’ve run seven defensemen. Beyond the lack of success, Brind’Amour doesn’t exactly use his bench advantageously in these situations. Fleury is averaging just shy of 13 minutes per game when Carolina dresses six defensemen. But in the three 7-D games, Fleury’s time-on-ice (TOI) has been drastically reduced, even resulting in a career-low of 1:30 Oct. 24 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Fleury took just three shifts that game.

Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour
Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Though it hasn’t worked out yet, Brind’Amour added he doesn’t mind the seven-defensemen structure. “It’s a little tougher to manage sometimes, but your better guys get a lot more ice time out of it,” he said following Wednesday’s practice.

Obviously things changed in a hurry, as later that evening the Hurricanes recalled forward Eetu Luostarinen. The recall of Luostarinen, their second-round draft choice in 2017, finally gives Brind’Amour 12 healthy forwards to his disposal, but it doesn’t address the extra defenseman – Fleury – whose services are being wasted watching from the press box.

The Obvious Solution

The Hurricanes have a noticeable lack of scoring depth up front. Even when healthy, players like Brock McGinn and Warren Foegele have been filling top-six spots. And while they’re both high-energy players who are effective when used to their strengths, their role is not to be a main generator of offense. If the Hurricanes encounter any more injuries to their top offensive players, it could quickly become a problem.

It’s no secret Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell is seeking a top-nine forward to fatten out the forward corps. It’s been especially rumored the ‘Canes might have interest in the New York Islanders’ Joshua Ho-Sang or Jesse Puljujarvi from the Edmonton Oilers – two players who have had fallouts with their respective teams. But if it was really that simple, the trade would have already happened by now, and since it hasn’t, it could suggest Waddell is feeling sketchy about taking a risk on them and may be looking elsewhere.

Don Waddell Carolina Hurricanes
Don Waddell, Carolina Hurricanes, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Carolina’s gap up front should have been addressed by moving Faulk, who had higher trade value than van Riemsdyk or Fleury does. But instead, Waddell settled for defenseman Joel Edmundson, and 19-year-old prospect forward Dominik Bokk, who is still several years away from being a candidate for that position.

Now, Waddell has three lower-end defensemen on expiring contracts, and one will have to go if they want to make any attempt at balancing their lineup. Edmundson and van Riemsdyk are pending UFAs, while Fleury will be a restricted free agent (RFA) this coming summer.

Which Defenseman Should Go?

Ideally, the Hurricanes should find a suitor for van Riemsdyk or Fleury, as Edmundson has become a valuable penalty killer and strong physical presence on Carolina’s blue line. It’s uncertain if van Riemsdyk is interested in returning next season or if he wants to test the free agent market. However, it’s clear Brind’Amour prefers him in the lineup to Fleury, who has been scratched four times in the seven games since van Riemsdyk’s return.

Trevor van Riemsdyk, Carolina Hurricanes
Trevor van Riemsdyk, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Preferably, you want an equal composition of left- and right-handed defensemen and the Hurricanes have that with van Riemsdyk. He’s also more experienced at 28 years old and combined with his UFA status and $2.3-million cap hit, it dampens his value to teams seeking affordable back-end depth.

Enter Fleury. Fleury is younger at 23 years old, and as a former seventh-overall draft pick who has struggled to earn ice time with the Hurricanes, he could flourish in a fresh, new environment. But that’s just one of the reasons Fleury should be the player on the trading block in Carolina.

Haydn Fleury Hurricanes
Haydn Fleury, Carolina Hurricanes, Mar. 1, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With a higher trade value than van Riemsdyk and more potential for longevity, Fleury can offer teams – even those tight against the salary cap – a cheaper option to add to their blue line. He comes with a cap hit of only $850,000, which is a steal as a young stay-at-home defenseman on your bottom pair. His pending RFA status would make it easier to re-sign him at the end of the season, and he has plenty more game to offer – he just needs to be given the confidence and opportunity to let it all out.

Defensive Depth Is Not a Concern

Injury scenarios must always be considered, but the Hurricanes have a wealth of defensemen with the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers ready to fill a spot if need be. Gustav Forsling and Frederik Claesson, both acquired over the offseason, have over 100 games each of NHL experience.

Meanwhile, youngsters Jake Bean and Chase Priskie have gotten off to hot starts with the Checkers, most notably Priskie, who is currently tied for the lead in points among AHL rookie defensemen with eight points in 10 games.

The Hurricanes are known to stockpile defensive gems in their system and they have plenty of guys coming down the chute in the next few years. They’re best off paying their dues with the Checkers for now, but they can be emergency options in the event of a Carolina blue line catastrophe.

It’s been a struggle for Fleury throughout his young career. He was drafted ahead of players like William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dylan Larkin and David Pastrnak, and has never been able to elevate his game to the expectations of a top-10 pick.

He was looking to solidify himself with the team after signing a one-year contract in July in what was supposed to be a prove-it year. He’s been on the fringe of the Hurricanes’ lineup since his 67-game rookie season in 2017-18, but now that the ‘Canes are becoming a serious contender and the roster is filling out, the demand for talent and strength has never been higher, and he continues to be pushed down the depth chart.

It would be to the benefit of the Hurricanes and Fleury to either make space or move on, because as Fleury enters the prime of his career, there are plenty of teams that would be happy to have him on their side, and plenty of value for the Hurricanes to collect in return.