Hurricanes Need to Focus on Defensive Depth This Offseason

Under Tom Dundon, the Carolina Hurricanes have made a point to lean toward offense through the draft and use free agency and trade opportunities to shore up the blue line. It is hard to argue with the results, as the team has risen to relevancy through a young, homegrown core on offense led by Sebastian Aho, Martin Necas, and Andrei Svechnikov, and a blue line largely developed by other teams (with two notable Ron Francis-regime draftees being the exceptions). However, their depth on defense is starting to suffer a bit, and now is a good time for the organization to pick up some pieces to develop in the system and supplement the big club over the coming years.

With the Stanley Cup Final having passed, the expansion and entry drafts still a week away, and free agency not opening until a week after those, we’ve hit something of a “calm before the storm” portion of the National Hockey League offseason. However, for front offices there is certainly not a lull to speak of; teams are currently taking inventory of their rosters, preparing for any scenario that may present itself between those big events of the 2021 offseason, all the while trying to figure out how to best position themselves to be the ones in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s position as league champions a year from now.

For the Hurricanes, the roster has a nice baseline to build from, and little reason to worry at present — especially after the Dylan Wells acquisition alleviated concern about the Hurricanes having to expose Alex Nedeljkovic to Seattle. There are still a few key areas of need, specifically in the forward ranks, that are getting a bulk of the attention from fans and media thus far. However, the defense continues to be overlooked, and the depth there is certainly not at the level it once was. It would be foolish for the front office to continue to largely ignore the position, save for a few mid-round draft picks and depth signings in free agency.

For years now, the Hurricanes’ strength has been their blue line. Jaccob Slavin is one of the very best defensemen in the NHL, Brett Pesce may have claimed Slavin’s former throne as “most underrated,” and Dougie Hamilton has been one of the best offensive play-drivers from the back end since he broke into the league. That trio alone set the group’s floor as one of the better units in the league, and even when injuries or ineffectiveness struck, when those three were healthy, the Hurricanes usually saw success.

Jaccob Slavin Carolina Hurricanes
Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, with Hamilton’s future unclear, whoever is unprotected between Brady Skjei or Jake Bean is looking like a great candidate to find a new home in Seattle next week. Also, with the prospect pipeline drying up at the position, it is time to turn their attention to the blue line once again. Reinforcing one of the best units in the league that largely carried the Hurricanes back into relevancy should be one of the top priorities over the rest of the 2021 summer.

Prospects and the Draft

Along with a stacked defense, another thing that has been somewhat synonymous with the Hurricanes of the last half-decade has been a stacked prospect pipeline. Interestingly, the strength of the prospect group has almost always been in the forward ranks, with just a few high-end defense prospects sprinkled in such as Bean, Adam Fox, and Noah Hanifin.

The present is more of the same. While the Hurricanes prospect pool is still one of the best in the league, the ever-polarizing Anttoni Honka is the highest-ranked defenseman in the system, and he’s not a sure thing. The quick, diminutive defenseman has the talent to be a lethal power-play quarterback and offensive play driver, but questions about his motor and defensive acumen make it questionable whether he’ll ever be able to carve out a steady role in the NHL.

Beyond Honka, there are four prospects I see as having NHL potential, but none of them currently project to be more than bottom-pairing, maybe number-four defensemen. Jesper Sellgren seems the most likely to see NHL games, as he is a Swedish Hockey League veteran who was impressive in his brief stint for the Charlotte Checkers’ playoff run of 2019-20. He’s a bit on the small side, but skates well, moves the puck effectively, and defends better than you’d expect from a 5-foot-10 defenseman.

Jesper Sellgren Charlotte Checkers
Jesper Sellgren, Charlotte Checkers (TheAHL, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander “Boom” Nikishin was a third-round pick in 2020 and has already spent a substantial amount of time in the second-best pro league in the world, the Kontinental Hockey League, which is impressive in itself at just 19 years of age. He’s big, very physical, and has shown more offensive upside than expected since being drafted. Joey Keane made his NHL debut last season and plays a good two-way game with physicality and a touch of offense, with his skating ability making him a decent bet. Finally, a wild card, is Domenick Fensore. Another third-rounder in 2020, he has elite offensive instincts and mobility, but his 5-foot-7 frame makes him a long shot to be able to defend effectively against NHL size.

Early in his tenure, Dundon said, pretty bluntly, that the Hurricanes would not be drafting defense early; they would be able to find defensemen through free agency or trade, but his preference was to take high-upside skill players in the draft. A look at the drafts under his regime have followed this strategy. However, this could be a year the Hurricanes stray from that path and take a defenseman early.

The 2021 Draft class is a tad weaker towards the top than some recent years, and with the 27th pick in the first round, it could make sense to take a defenseman at that juncture. The only problem is, defense has gotten pushed up the boards in recent years, so there may not be a defenseman worth taking when they come on the clock. Some defensemen projected to go in the area include Stanislav Svozil and Daniil Chayka. Some projections even have Carson Lambos slipping past the top 20; if that happens, the Hurricanes should jump (he’s ranked by various outlets as high as second and as low as outside the first round, it is legitimately fascinating).

The Hurricanes have knocked it out of the park in their last few drafts, almost always selecting high-ceiling players that have the potential to play in the top half of their roster, even in the later rounds when the odds of drafting players with NHL futures is substantially lower. With so many talented forwards working their way towards Raleigh, now would be a good time to invest in the defensive side and re-establish a pipeline at the position to support the mainstays on the Carolina roster.

The NHL Roster

Speaking of those mainstays, with Pesce under contract at just a $4.025 million cap hit until after the 2023-24 season, and Slavin at $5.3 million until the following year, the Hurricanes still have two top-pair-level defensemen to build around — a pretty good starting point. After that, uncertainty abounds. Jake Gardiner’s continued battles with injury and inability to crack the lineup in 2020-21 created plenty of cloudiness around his future in the league, or at least with the ‘Canes. I expect the team to protect Skjei in the upcoming expansion draft, which gives the team 3/4 of a top-four. On the positive side, that’s the harder half of your defense to fill out; on the other hand, “half” is a prevalent word there.

Brett Pesce
Brett Pesce (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

Hamilton talks have gone quiet from a media standpoint over the last few weeks, but his re-signing would make most of that point moot. Bringing back the entire top-four would make life significantly easier for the front office. Furthermore, maybe Ron Francis doesn’t select an unprotected Bean, either. That way the Hurricanes only have one slot needed to fill, which would make this hypothetical re-tooling of the defense… well, not really a re-tooling.

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But, for argument’s sake, what happens with the other three slots if the unit does get gutted? The only other defensemen with even one game of NHL experience under contract next season are Eric Gelinas, recently signed from Sweden, Keane (one game), and Max Lajoie. They could also re-sign Jani Hakanpää, which is possible, but it seems unlikely after he failed to consistently provide the steady, physical presence the Hurricanes sought when acquiring him from the Anaheim Ducks. That’s not to say he was bad, but the roster spot feels upgradeable.

Many projections and rumors have the Hurricanes targeting forwards this offseason, and I agreed with this sentiment — it was the biggest goal in the roster projection from a couple weeks ago. Secondary scoring is a big reason the Hurricanes fell short against the Lightning in the second round. However, failing to focus on your strength for too long runs the risk of weakening that position, and with the Hurricanes’ identity so reliant upon their team defense, that feels incredibly risky. So, perhaps, the Hurricanes are looking for more than another scorer in their middle six; they may be looking for a somewhat-significant piece on the back end as well.

As far as the available options go, a couple of the big names can likely be crossed off the list right away. Seth Jones would be too pricy and would likely end up being a rental if they did go that route with his contract up next summer. Tyson Barrie is basically just a downgraded version of Hamilton; worse defensively, not as dynamic offensively. If the Hurricanes let him go, replacing him with Barrie at an unlikely-to-be-significantly-less cap hit feels like a strange, lateral move. Now isn’t the time in the Hurricanes window for lateral moves.

Two of the better options I can think of as right-shot, stay-at-home defensemen are Adam Larsson, coming off a quietly good year in Edmonton, and another veteran who just won the Stanley Cup as a trade deadline rental in David Savard. Neither are offensive play-drivers, and if Hamilton were to leave the Hurricanes would need to find one of those as well, but both are rock-solid in their own end and can be counted on for 20-plus minutes of shutdown play every night. Another trade candidate I circled in the past was Josh Manson from the Ducks, as another big, mobile defender with some nastiness in his game the Hurricanes could really use.

David Savard Tampa Bay Lightning
David Savard, Tampa Bay Lightning (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Finally, one last somewhat interesting option that was just surprisingly bought out by the Minnesota Wild, Ryan Suter could potentially be a decent fit for the Hurricanes. The veteran’s best days are obviously behind him, but he seems like the type of presence that could help a largely young blue line. Despite turning 37 in January, he would be an asset on the ice too, as he just scored eight goals and 48 points in 69 games just two years ago. His price tag would likely be doable as well, and he seems like a good bet to prioritize winning at this stage of his career, which the Hurricanes can offer. It’s not like he won’t still be getting a decent paycheck from the Wild even if he plays for next to nothing, after all.

But, again, the Hurricanes’ best course of action is to simply re-sign arguably the best offensive blueliner in the game in Hamilton. If they could pull that off then also find a way to add a Suter or Savard-type, next year’s unit would have the potential to be the Hurricanes’ best yet, and the championship aspirations would really arrive.

Final Thoughts

As a team that has been built into a contender based on the strength of their defense, re-establishing the depth on their blue line is imperative for the Hurricanes to continue on their positive trajectory. With a young, still-largely-unproven goaltender likely taking the starting reins in 2021-22, this becomes even more important. The foundation is still in place for an elite group, with Slavin and Pesce in their primes as fantastic, top-four options, Brady Skjei proving to be a valuable member with great defensive and penalty killing work in the 2020-21 season, and Bean showing promise despite many rough patches in his rookie campaign. If Hamilton is back, too, the defense should be a steady force that propels the team to a lot of wins, again.

In a draft year that tends to be considered a little weaker than most, perhaps it’s time for Dundon to forgo his “we can pay for defense” philosophy and lean heavily on the position for a year. If they were able to land a couple prospects with upside at the position, then add one more tough, stay-at-home defenseman through free agency, this roster would suddenly have very few holes left not just in the present, but looking years ahead as well.

There are reportedly multiple offensive options coming available, too, and more yet will come over the next few weeks. This offseason seems sure to see a ton of shuffling between teams, and the Hurricanes should be able to add another offensive piece they need. It’s a big, interesting offseason for not only Carolina, but the NHL as a whole. Buckle up, because the next few weeks ought to be a heck of a ride.

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