Does Gardiner signing make Hurricanes the NHL’s best defense?

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Jake Gardiner’s four-year deal with a $4.05 million AAV is such a great bargain — health pending — that the rest of the NHL should almost feel robbed by the Carolina Hurricanes.

(It really is imperative to note the risks with his back before we pat the Hurricanes on their backs … but that’s exactly what is happening here.)

While Gardiner isn’t getting any richer beyond a break in state taxes (he carried a bargain $4.05M cap hit with the Maple Leafs, too), the overarching narrative is that the rich got richer. To be more direct: a Hurricanes defense that already ranked among the NHL’s best in 2018-19 now enjoys an upgrade, as Gardiner is, for my money, even better than the underrated Calvin de Haan. He’s also about $500K cheaper.

So, yeah, the rich got richer.

It brings some interesting questions to mind, including: does this make the Hurricanes’ defense the absolute best in the NHL?

Few can even compare to the Hurricanes from a value standpoint. Consider:

  • Some expected Gardiner to make somewhere in the $7M or $8M range, so it must be stated again and again that this is a remarkable steal.
  • The best bargain of this group might be Jaccob Slavin, who has mostly been a strong top pairing guy (if not No. 1 defenseman) at $5.3M, which is his rate through 2024-25. Then again, maybe you prefer Brett Pesce, another gem who costs just a $4.025M cap hit through 2023-24. It’s honestly ridiculous that the Hurricanes are getting four years or more of Gardiner, Slavin, and Pesce for about $13.5M combined. Pesce and Slavin move the needle in a variety of ways, as you can see from this RAPM even-strength comparison for the last three seasons from Evolving Hockey.

  • Infomercial voice: “But that’s not all!”

While Gardiner, Pesce, and Slavin have contracts that indicate that they should be around for quite some time, the Hurricanes have two other prominent defensemen in less certain situations. Dougie Hamilton is a highly useful blueliner with significant offensive talent, and carries a reasonable $5.75M cap hit for two more seasons. It’s true that I’d argue Justin Faulk has sometimes been pressed into situations where he was a little over his head (Carolina should go with Hamilton or Gardiner as their power play QB, for example), he’s quite useful, and cheap for one more season at $4.833M.

The Hurricanes have already spoken about possibly embracing having a boatload of right-handed defensemen with Faulk, Hamilton, and Pesce battling for minutes, and Gardiner gives them a capable lefty to replace De Haan. This group might be so deep that it forces someone like Faulk out, but at the moment, those five defensemen at under $25M is pretty absurd.

  • Even if Faulk gets shipped out, the Hurricanes have a chance to maintain a luxurious and elite defense.

They have some interesting prospects to consider in Haydn Fleury (seventh overall pick in 2014) and Jake Bean (13th overall from 2016), so they may be able to counter trade-related losses or injuries. Naturally, Fleury and Bean are also cheap as they’re currently on rookie contracts.

***

The Hurricanes have long been analytics darlings because they hog the puck like few other teams, only to see leaky goaltending let them down. That changed in 2018-19, as they got enough goaltending and scoring to supplement that sturdy defense, making it all the way to the 2019 Eastern Conference Final.

Gardiner is arguably a step behind De Haan defensively, but overall likely brings more value thanks to considerable offensive skills.

Carolina’s defense seems well-suited to prop up Petr Mrazek or whoever else might be in net on a given night, and we’ll see if this ends up being a winning formula. Let’s ponder the question in a poll to wrap things up, then: does Carolina now have the NHL’s best defense? Feel free to share arguments for other blueline groups in the comments.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.