The Carolina Hurricanes went into the 2020 offseason with few options and even less in cap space. After a second-straight playoff departure at the hands of the Boston Bruins, the plan for president and general manager Don Waddell seemed to retain as many young pieces as he could and continue to develop a promising team.
With the tentative start of the 2020-21 season set for Jan. 1, here’s a look at the Hurricanes’ defensive situation and who could be dark-horse candidates to crack the lineup for the new season.
What Was Lost
Heading into the offseason, the Hurricanes were already committed to a 17-man roster with 10 forwards and two goalies for 2020-21. However, the team took some losses on the defensive end.
The Hurricanes traded Joel Edmundson for a fifth-round pick and saw defensemen Sami Vatanen and Trevor van Riemsdyk walk in free agency. Still, general manager Don Waddell remained patient, adding just one noteworthy player in winger Jesper Fast and nothing to the blue line.
On paper, the defensive losses that Carolina saw this offseason don’t appear all that significant — van Riemsdyk had the highest average ice time of any of the casualties at 14:52 last season, good for 13th most of Carolina skaters. However, the front office’s plan to remain cautious in free agency means that the remaining pieces will have increased pressure to elevate their game in a big way if the team wants to get over the hump.
Hurricanes fans undoubtedly would have liked to see their team be more aggressive in free agency to help make up for the defensive holes, but the talent is still evident on the blue line for the team.
The top pairing of Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin is considered one of the best in the league. Hamilton again proved himself indispensable last season, on track to have his best statistical season with 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists) in 47 regular-season games before fracturing his left fibula. He returned to record two points (one goal, one assist) in five postseason games. The 27-year-old is entering his final season of a six-year contract. Waddell has made it clear that he intends to re-sign Hamilton but said that those talks had not begun yet.
“We’re getting close to talking about it,” Waddell said last Thursday. ” He is a UFA at the end of the year, so we’d like to get that one done sooner than later.”
The Hurricanes also have longtime Hurricane Brett Pesce and deadline addition Brady Skjei, who was playing well with the New York Rangers but contributed just two assists in eight games for Carolina in the playoff bubble. They are expected to be the second pair, though the two have yet to play together due to Pesce’s right shoulder injury that kept him out of the restart. The injury was expected to keep him out four to six months, still putting him on track to be ready for the new season.
The team also has veteran Jake Gardiner, whom they inked last offseason to a four-year deal. He provided a passable depth piece and saw increased playing time when Hamilton and Pesce went down with injuries, though his minus-24 plus/minus, a career-worst, didn’t inspire much confidence for the future.
The Hurricanes have options for what to do for this defensive situation. Free agents still remain on the market like veterans Jonathan Ericsson or Karl Alzner. The front office could even bring back Vatanen to see if his production improves over a full season, though moves would need to be made to make cap space.
The talent is unmistakable, but more pieces are needed, especially after a dormant free agency period. If Carolina wants to be successful without shaking up the lineup too much, it may need to dip into its prospect pool to fill in some of the defensive holes that remain.
Prospects on the Bubble
The lack of talent added this offseason might worry some, but optimists would tell you Carolina’s absence in the free agency gold rush is actually a good thing. Where others scramble to fill the gaping holes in their lineup with aging veterans or journeymen players, the Hurricanes can simply look to their youth. The team possesses one of the best farm systems in the league due to a couple of impressive drafts that have loaded them up with young, promising talent. And it may be time to put that farm to the test on the defensive end.
Young defenseman Haydn Fleury signed a two-way contract in October through 2021-22 and is considered the most likely candidate to get a starting nod come the new season. The 24-year-old already has good experience with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 45 games last season.
Another contender is 2016 first-round pick Jake Bean, who could be an excellent fit for the seventh defenseman this season. He proved to be a great two-way player with 48 points (10 goals, 38 assists) and a 2019-20 AHL All-Star team appearance.
Other prospects like Anttoni Honka and Gustav Forsling are also possible candidates to fill in. Honka is an extraordinary offensive defenseman who can pinch in five-on-five and help out on the power play. Forsling was recently signed back on a two-way deal after setting AHL career highs in goals and assists last season. Both players could see themselves called up in 2020-21 as a seventh man, especially if the Carolina blue line catches the injury bug again.
|Projected Pairings and Possible Depth Players|
|Jaccob Slavin||Dougie Hamilton|
|Brady Skjei||Brett Pesce|
|Jake Gardiner||Haydn Fleury|
|Depth||Anttoni Honka||Jake Bean|
The name of the game is options, and right now the Hurricanes still look to have plenty of those. It’s just a matter of making the right ones.