Hurricanes’ Defense Changes Are Risky, but Bring Upside

The Carolina Hurricanes entered the 2021 offseason with a lot of question marks surrounding the defensive group. The top four still had three mainstays locked in, but Dougie Hamilton’s unrestricted free agency and subsequent departure created a lot of cloudiness around the group. Along with Jake Gardiner’s health concerns, Jake Bean’s clear lack of trust from the organization, and Jani Hakanpää’s general mediocrity, the team figured to have a very different look on the back end heading into the 2021-22 season. I outlined as much a couple weeks ago.

Say what you will about Hamilton (I still find myself shocked at the disdain such a star received from a large portion of the fanbase), but he was unequivocally imperative to what the Hurricanes have done over the last few years. That loss is far from insignificant. Hamilton is one of the absolute best offensive weapons from the blue line in the National Hockey League, and his signing with the New Jersey Devils left a gigantic gap that will be nigh-impossible for any one player to fill. The Hurricanes have made a flurry of moves since free agency opened, and the re-made group undoubtedly has upside. However, it is tough to look at the depth chart and think it’s been upgraded. At a time when the team should be contending, essentially going for upside instead of paying a star is a risk.

So, let’s break down what the defense corps looks like for the coming season at this stage of the offseason and consider where the team goes from here.

Offensive Production from the Back End and the Power Play

Since the 2018 Draft-day trade that sent Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin to Calgary for Hamilton and Micheal Ferland, Hamilton has scored 42 goals in 184 games — more than any other defenseman in the NHL in that span. His 121 points rank 11th-best as well. Sure, his defensive and postseason inconsistencies were frustrating, and probably a large reason the Hurricanes let him walk, but the Hurricanes would never have put together those seasons without Hamilton’s elite production.

Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes
Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Carolina did add a couple players that may be able to soften that blow, though. The replacement starts with Tony DeAngelo. We aren’t going to dig into the optics around the one year, $1 million deal the team gave the divisive offensive defenseman, but from a pure hockey standpoint, that’s a steal for a player with DeAngelo’s offensive ability — if he stays on the ice and in the organization’s good graces, that is.

Lost in the mayhem that ensued when the Hurricanes announced the DeAngelo signing, the team made what could very well turn out to be an incredibly shrewd move in trading for young, right-shot defenseman Ethan Bear. While his counting stats weren’t anything crazy (two goals, six assists in 43 games), the former Edmonton Oiler put together impressive underlying numbers on a struggling defense group. There’s a real chance he sees top-four minutes with a partner like Brady Skjei or perhaps even Jaccob Slavin, which could lead to a breakout season for the 24-year-old. Bear has the skill and offensive instincts to do so, including a cannon of a shot that allowed him to score 60 goals in his final three seasons of junior (with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League (WHL)).

Speaking of Slavin, he didn’t have his best season in 2020-21, especially with his struggles upon returning from his bout with COVID-19. However, we saw in previous years the offensive potential he possesses (six goals, 30 assists in 68 games in 2019-20, his fourth-straight season with over 30 points), so expect him to play a much larger role in generating offense from the back end. The same goes for Brett Pesce, who scored at a 37-point pace last season, the best rate of his career. Overall, these players have a ton of talent in both ends of the ice, and the potential exists for the top four to continue being one of the better groups in the league in 2021-22.

Ethan Bear
EDMONTON, AB – MARCH 3: Ethan Bear #74, Carolina Hurricanes lines up for a face off during the game against the New York Rangers on March 3, 2018 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Also a possibility, the Hurricanes do still have Gardiner under contract, but a lot of chatter around the veteran suggests his time with the team could be over — especially with a cap hit north of $4 million that could go a long way towards comfortably signing Andrei Svechnikov and having the money to make another splash on the roster, likely in the forward ranks. If not, Gardiner has always been a skilled puck mover, so perhaps he could factor in at some point in the season if the Hurricanes can’t place him on long-term injured reserve or find a way to dump his contract.

Depth and the Overall Picture

The Hurricanes have a ton of versatility in this group, with DeAngelo being the only pure offensive defenseman that will have to be somewhat sheltered in his own end. I could honestly see any of Bear, Slavin, Pesce, and Skjei spending significant time in all three phases of the game (power play, penalty kill, and even strength), although head coach Rod Brind’Amour has shown a hesitancy to load up Slavin and Pesce with power-play time because of how much they already play otherwise. They’ll basically never come off the ice.

With Carolina’s most frequent bottom pairing from the second half of 2020-21 — Hakanpää and Bean — both leaving town, the team added a solid, veteran, stay-at-home defenseman in Ian Cole to stabilize the bottom pairing. The aforementioned duo had significant struggles, especially in the rookie Bean’s case. He now has a chance to grow with a rebuilding Columbus Blue Jackets squad, which makes it a win-win deal; he may yet make good on his promise to be a good offensive defenseman in the NHL, but the Hurricanes, as a contender, understandably wanted to go with an established presence there. Cole, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins, provides that. A pairing of he and DeAngelo could be quite interesting, and effective, with Cole’s sound defensive style allowing DeAngelo to roam a bit more freely and hunt for offensive opportunity.

The team also signed Brendan Smith, a Swiss Army knife-type that even suited up in New York’s forward lines on occasion in prior years. He’s not afraid to stand up for his teammates and do whatever is asked of him, which makes him an ideal seventh defenseman.

Brendan Smith New York Rangers
Brendan Smith, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Beyond the top-seven defensemen outlined above, two young defensemen have decent chances of seeing time this year. Joey Keane made his debut late last season while the Hurricanes rested players ahead of the playoffs, and the swift-skating righty will surely be on the short list of call-ups when injuries inevitably strike. On the left side, Jesper Sellgren is one of the more NHL-ready prospects in the system, having been a top-four mainstay in the Swedish Hockey League for years now. The 23-year-old heads to the United States this year, and plays a mature, rock-solid, two-way game that should allow him to fill in pretty seamlessly when called upon.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the Hurricanes’ defense group has real upside. Saying they’re upgraded over the 2020-21 group is a stretch, though, based solely on the loss of Hamilton. It may be more balanced, and Brind’Amour may trust his bottom pairing more, but the loss of Hamilton’s dynamic offensive ability could make for some tough moments as the team adjusts early in the season. So many question marks does make this something of a gamble; the Hurricanes should really be betting on sure things, more than playing for “upside” at this stage in the organization’s timeline.

A lot of how this group shakes out rides on DeAngelo. The Hurricanes need him to provide a good portion of the offensive production, while making good on his promises of proving he has learned from his mistakes in the past. Hopefully his former Rangers teammates that have vouched for him were right, and the team ends up with a bargain replacement at about $8 million fewer.

Tony DeAngelo New York Rangers
Tony DeAngelo, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I would be remiss to not mention the other aspect of the article linked at the top, which was about the Hurricanes need to replenish the defensive pipeline in the prospect pool. They definitely made a point to do so, spending five of their 13 selections in the draft on defenders, including two of their three second-round picks. This year’s draft was such a crapshoot that it’s honestly debatable if any of them make the NHL, but Aleksi Heimosalmi and Scott Morrow especially look like nice pieces that could develop into legitimate contributors down the line.

For years, when mentioning the Hurricanes, the first thought that came to mind was usually a stacked defense. It’s not quite the loaded group it once was, even with two phenomenal talents in Pesce and Slavin leading the way. But, if things break right, the blue line is in place to nicely supplement the dynamic forward group that is going to be asked to carry the load moving forward. We’ll see how the rest of the offseason shakes out, but it’s already shaping up to be one of the more fascinating seasons in Hurricanes history.