The Carolina Hurricanes made another aggressive offseason move Friday when they bagged one of the top defenseman on the free agent market, Jake Gardiner. Carolina came to terms with the 29-year-old former Toronto Maple Leaf on a four-year, $16.2-million contract.
The move had many in the hockey world scratching their heads. Although Carolina got a great defenseman on a favorable deal, the Hurricanes already boast one of the strongest defensive cores in the NHL. Not only are they overloaded at the position, the signing also puts Carolina above the salary cap for next season, which will force general manager Don Waddell to do more roster maneuvering in order to make the team cap-compliant.
Waddell wouldn’t have made this addition if he didn’t have a plan. And while the Hurricanes could make roster moves before the season starts to bury some contracts in the AHL and get underneath the cap ceiling, it doesn’t make any sense to carry eight NHL-caliber defensemen into the season. With an abundance of valuable defensemen at Carolina’s disposal, it appears a trade is looming in Raleigh. So, which player is the most expendable?
Justin Faulk on the Hot Seat
The subject of many trade rumors this past year, longtime Hurricane Justin Faulk is now sitting in an even hotter seat after the Gardiner signing. Faulk, 27, is entering the final year of his contract with Carolina, and though Waddell has expressed interest in re-signing him this summer, there hasn’t been much success in negotiating an extension. It’s possible he’d rather explore free agency next summer after eight years in Carolina in which he only made the playoffs once.
Faulk finds himself the odd man out in an elite, well-rounded top-four of Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, and now Gardiner. All four are also tenured past next season, at a combined cap hit of $19.125 million. With Faulk’s contract expiring, he’ll be seeking a more lucrative contract than Gardiner, which Carolina simply can’t afford.
Not only was Faulk’s potential salary dished out to Gardiner, but his playing time could be too, should he start the season with the Hurricanes. Gardiner works with a toolkit similar to Faulk’s – both are mobile defensemen who move the puck well and can work the power play from the back end. Though prone to defensive gaffes at times, they each possess a strong transition game.
However, they differ defensively. Faulk kills penalties and is overall more physical than Gardiner, who relies more on his stick work and agility. Gardiner is also a left-handed shot, which is an asset for Carolina’s right-handed-heavy blue line.
Though Faulk only has one year left on his contract, he would still net a good return for Carolina. The Hurricanes strengthened their depth up front by acquiring Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel this summer, but trading Faulk for another top-six forward could give the Hurricanes the edge they need to make another playoff run. All the signs are pointing to a trade – one may even already be in the works.
Do Other Defensemen Get Moved First?
Another soon-to-be unrestricted free agent (UFA) defenseman on Carolina’s roster is Trevor van Riemsdyk. Van Riemsdyk, 28, has spent the last two seasons with the Hurricanes in a serviceable third-pairing role. But after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, he may not be ready for opening night on Oct. 3. Returning to game shape after four-to-six months of recovery isn’t easy, and that could also potentially hurt his trade value. Even without a trade, it’s possible this could be his last year with the Hurricanes.
Waddell could also look to some of the younger players fighting for a spot on the roster, like Jake Bean or Gustav Forsling. Bean, a Hurricanes’ 2016 first-round draft pick, enjoyed a strong year in the AHL last season and may be ready for a promotion. Forsling, recently acquired in a trade, has split time between the AHL and NHL the past three seasons in the Chicago Blackhawks organization.
Other fringe defensemen like Haydn Fleury and Chase Priskie recently signed contracts with Carolina. To move Fleury or Priskie now to accommodate Gardiner would be giving up on guys they just instilled belief in. If the team deals one of its budding defensemen, Forsling and Bean are the best options. Forsling is replaceable, and Bean holds good trade value.
Trading a prospect defenseman would keep the Hurricanes’ current lineup intact, but if head coach Rod Brind’Amour and Waddell want to give their young players an opportunity to succeed, the two best trade chips are Faulk and van Riemsdyk.
Clock Is Ticking for Faulk
Looking at the roster even without Faulk, Carolina’s defense unit looks daunting. The offensive-minded Hamilton is complemented by the elite defensive specialist Slavin. Gardiner is free to skate and roam around on the second pairing, while anchored by the ever-reliable Pesce. That leaves the third-pairing spots to be wrestled over by players like Fleury, van Riemsdyk, Bean and Forsling.
It shouldn’t be a surprise if Waddell already has a loose arrangement in place to move Faulk. The Hurricanes’ alternate captain has a modified no-trade clause (NTC) in his contract, which means he can submit a 15-team list of acceptable trade destinations. Waddell has had a long time to work out a potential deal for the American defenseman, so that NTC shouldn’t be as big of a hindrance as it may seem. The only difficulty may be moving his $4.83-million cap hit. Playoff-bound teams seeking depth on defense should pursue Faulk, provided they have the appropriate cap space.
Since van Riemsdyk is still recovering from his shoulder surgery, Faulk will likely start the season on Carolina’s blue line. But once van Riemsdyk is back to form and the young guys are ready to take over those minutes, the plan to move Faulk could be put into action. Trading their veteran defenseman for assets is Waddell’s best play, and that move may just be one phone call away.