By this point, anyone who follows the Hurricanes or has been paying attention to them knows that their top priority this summer is to acquire a top-four defenseman. GM Jim Rutherford has made this clear a few times and those who watched the team last year should know why defense is such a huge need for this team right now. The Hurricanes have been one of the worst teams in the NHL at preventing shots on goal for the last few years and have ranked near the bottom of the league in penalty killing on top of that. Not all of this is on the defense corps alone because the forwards not being committed to all three zones is just as big of a problem.
The defense corps has a lot of room for improvement, though. The Hurricanes have a couple nice pieces to build around in Justin Faulk, Tim Gleason & Joni Pitkanen but after them, they have a slew of guys who are best suited as third-pairing defensemen and not a lot of depth. As we saw last year, this can lead to a lot of problems in the event of an injury and it should motivate the Hurricanes to bolster their depth on the blue line, which is why adding a top-four defenseman is the key priority this off-season. Unfortunately, acquiring one will not be easy, nor will it be cheap.
If Mark Streit and Sergei Gonchar signing for over $5 mil. a year a piece is any indication of how the free agent market will be, then the Hurricanes trying to improve their defense corps through free agency will likely result in them losing a battle. Either they can try to overpay for someone like Rob Scuderi, which may not be the best option for a team that has less than $8 mil. in cap space as of right now. If that doesn’t work, then they will have to settle for someone like Andrew Ference, Ron Hainsey or Jordan Leopold who could end up being marginal improvements over what they had last year at a higher cost. Neither are ideal options, so the Hurricanes may have to explore some trading options. To many, this could mean trading down in the first round in exchange for a “top four defenseman,” which looks like a possibility right now, but there could be another way.
If you go back to some of the trades made at least year’s draft, you might remember that the New York Islanders acquired defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a second round draft pick. The Washington Capitals also acquired center Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars in exchange for a second round pick and prospect Cody Eakin. It would be very wise for the Hurricanes to follow in their division rival’s footsteps and see if there is a team willing to trade a second-pair defenseman in the final year of his contract for an early-round pick or a similar package. The return may not be as good as it would be if they dealt the #5 pick, but at the very least it is a decent low risk move for Carolina and a better way to improve their defense corps than through free agency. The Islanders especially benefited from this deal last year, as Visnovsky was one of their better defensemen after he joined the team. Is there anyone of his caliber available, though?
It’s hard to know who is available right now and who isn’t, but if the Canes want to target a defenseman who will be an unrestricted free agent next year, they have options. Someone like Dan Boyle, Kris Letang, Jay Bouwmeester or Dion Phaneuf is probably off-limits because they are too expensive and it would cost a lot more than a 2nd round pick to acquire them. However, if the Canes want someone like Rostislav Klesla, Tom Gilbert, Stephane Robidas, Matt Greene or Brooks Orpik, then they should give these teams a call and see if a second round pick and/or a prospect is enough to land them.
Carolina may not have as much leverage as the Islanders or Capitals did last year since this year’s free agent class is inferior, but if these teams aren’t planning to re-sign these players after next year, then it is possible that they can acquire them without giving up their spot in the first round. None of these players are going to fix the Hurricanes defense, but no one in the free agent market is going to do that either and giving up a second round pick is not that great of a risk if you want your team to be better in the present rather than five years down the line. In the hype of draft weekend, everyone is always focused on what the next “big trade” will be without thinking about smaller trades that can also be very effective. The Islanders showed that with the Visnovsky deal last year and the Hurricanes should consider making a similar move.