When Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon introduced Don Waddell as their new general manager in 2018, he promised a renewal of life for the stagnant franchise. And in only one season as serving GM, Waddell tinkered the Hurricanes into a playoff team and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Waddell wasted little time coming into the new job, making a blockbuster trade in August last year that included sending lifetime Hurricane Jeff Skinner to the Buffalo Sabres. The new ‘Canes GM continued to make moves throughout the year, most notably plucking winger Nino Niederreiter from Minnesota in exchange for Victor Rask.
Waddell has been busy in the offseason, bringing in forwards Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel and locking up star forward Sebastian Aho. He would also like to bring back captain Justin Williams, but that ball is in Williams’ court as he contemplates retirement. Now that Waddell’s contract has been settled, he must turn his focus to the upcoming season and the other areas in which he can improve his team. Some of Carolina’s most pressing matters include goaltending, improving depth scoring, and navigating its surplus of defensemen.
What to Do With Justin Faulk
One of Waddell’s top priorities this season will be the decision regarding Justin Faulk. The eight-year Carolina veteran has been a mainstay on the blue line since he was drafted in 2010, but much like Jeff Skinner last year, Faulk is entering the final year of his contract this season and has already been rumored in trade scenarios, as it seems unlikely he’ll re-sign.
A contract extension may not make sense for several reasons. Carolina has assembled one of the best defensive cores in the league. They have a dynamic offensive defenseman in Dougie Hamilton, and two excellent penalty killers in Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. All three are younger than the 27-year-old Faulk, who will be seeking a higher salary as a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent (UFA). Carolina also has an excess of right-handed defensemen, making him all the more expendable.
With the top defense pairing of Slavin and Hamilton set for next season, Faulk gets relegated to the second pairing. Last year’s addition of Hamilton didn’t affect Faulk’s power-play ice time, but that could change next season. Offensive-minded Hamilton has plenty of experience running power plays and even scored 18 goals last season, second among NHL defensemen, primarily in a second-unit role.
Waddell Must Play His Cards Right
Waddell has options if he chooses to deal Faulk, as right-handed defensemen are a hot commodity in the NHL. With Slavin and Pesce locked up to team-friendly contracts for the next five years and Hamilton becoming a key part of the team, Faulk could be used as a valuable trade chip to bring in a player or prospect to add organizational depth. But for Waddell, getting good value back is a necessity. The return for Jeff Skinner has been often criticized, as Skinner went on to score a career-high 40 goals last season with the Sabres, while the ‘Canes got little in return – three draft picks outside of the first round and Cliff Pu, a young forward who spent last season between the AHL and ECHL.
In the case of a trade, Faulk’s modified no-trade clause allows him to submit a 15-team list of possible destinations. At a cap hit of $4.83 million, and with the potential for salary retention, Faulk could be an attractive trade deadline acquisition for playoff teams looking to give their blue line and power play an extra boost.
The question for Waddell becomes: do the Hurricanes keep Faulk as their own rental and risk him walking at the end of the year, or do they trade him for guaranteed long-term value? If both sides can’t come to an agreement on a contract extension, Waddell’s best course may be to ship him out at the deadline.
Other final-year contracts Waddell will have to deal with are UFAs Erik Haula, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Anton Forsberg. Restricted free agents (RFA) include Warren Foegele, Lucas Wallmark, Haydn Fleury and Gustav Forsling.
Solving the Goaltending Conundrum
It appears the keys to the net will be handed back to Petr Mrazek, who Waddell re-signed to a two-year, $6.25 million contract on July 1. Mrazek went 23-14-3 last season, posting a 2.39 goals-against-average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%) in 40 games. He also helped the Hurricanes reach the Eastern Conference Final in his first season in Carolina.
The question is whether he can solely take over the No. 1 spot and maintain consistency, something he’s struggled with in the past. Waddell also padded the net by trading for former Florida Panthers backup James Reimer and Chicago Blackhawks backup Anton Forsberg. And with 23-year-old homegrown goalie Alex Nedeljkovic still in the system, there could be a carousel of goalies going in and out of the Hurricanes’ net.
In an interview in July, Waddell said the plan is for the three goalies to compete for the No. 2 job behind Mrazek. Both Mrazek and Reimer are making NHL salaries – the latter earning $3.4 million over the next two seasons – while Forsberg and Nedeljkovic are on AHL contracts. This could mean another year with the Charlotte Checkers for Nedeljkovic as the young goalie continues his development. But should one of those goalies steal an NHL spot, Waddell will have a decision to make with Reimer, whose $3.4-million cap hit could be tricky to move.
2020 Draft is Important For the Future
Carolina holds six picks in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft, including two in the first round. For an up-and-coming team that’s still extremely young, the 2020 draft is critical to develop a deep roster capable of winning a Stanley Cup.
The ‘Canes have their own pick, and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round pick, which was acquired in the Patrick Marleau deal. Since that pick is top-10 protected, and the Leafs are positioned to be one of the league’s top teams next season, Carolina will likely be looking at two mid-to-late first-round picks.
The Hurricanes should be stepping into the draft, and next season, with confidence in Waddell. He’s not only shown he’s not afraid to make moves, but that he has the special ability to sell the small-market team and the city of Raleigh to sought-after free agents like Dzingel and freshly signed defenseman Chase Priskie. With Marleau’s contract coming off the books next year, he’ll also have plenty of cap room to work with. To further his success, Waddell needs to strike gold on the big decisions that lay ahead of him. Momentum is the key for Waddell, and he’s driving into next season at full speed.