Hurricanes upgrade defense with stunning Gardiner bargain

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Honestly, Jake Gardiner going into September without a contract made it feel like something fishy was going on. Were teams scared off by his back injury? Was he waiting for some contender, possibly even the Maple Leafs, to clear up some salary cap space, somehow?

Hmmm … maybe not?

In surprising news, the Carolina Hurricanes signed Gardiner on Friday, and the deal is even more surprising: a four-year pact with a paltry $4.05 million cap hit. Not only is that a stunning bargain, it’s actually the same $4.05M cap hit he carried on his last contract.

Few would have predicted that Gardiner, 29, would have signed for such a paltry sum. In fact, you could almost guarantee that the Maple Leafs were expecting him to command a higher salary, as remarkably, Gardiner is set to make less than Cody Ceci(!), who will cost $4.5M in 2019-20.

While Gardiner presents some risks if that back issue persists, this is one heck of a value on paper for Carolina, considering how much teams paid for lesser defensemen, including Tyler Myers (who carries a bloated $6M on a longer five-year contract with Vancouver). Gardiner isn’t perfect, but he doesn’t need to be on a Hurricanes defense that already ranked among the NHL’s best.

[MORE: Does Gardiner signing make Hurricanes the NHL’s best defense?]

You just don’t get many cracks at a defenseman of Gardiner’s caliber, so it remains surprising that this all came together … unless he really just isn’t healthy.

Carolina parted ways with Calvin de Haan this summer, but Gardiner represents an upgrade (again, “solid first or second pairing defender” is pretty nifty at $4.05M). He joins Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce as Hurricanes defensemen with considerable term, while Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk are also prominent blueliners whose futures are currently unsettled.

Gardiner gets a measure of control over his future with a no-trade clause, but even then, Carolina has some flexibility:

This move makes a great defensive group even better, and may theoretically help them boost a power play that has struggled for quite a while with Faulk as its QB. (I’ve been shouting from rooftops about Hamilton being the better option than Faulk for almost a full year now, but if the team just doesn’t want Dougie to run the point, now Gardiner gives them another option).

Either way, it’s a head-shaker that other NHL teams didn’t jump at the chance to sign Gardiner to this deal. It’s a cap value, and the term is the perfect mix: covering a need for four years, while mitigating some of the risks that come with signing a 29-year-old player who might hit the aging curve soon.

Again, it’s impossible to ignore Gardiner’s back issues, but that’s about the only part of this that isn’t a huge win for Carolina.

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.