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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.

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.

Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon remains a bit of a mystery

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes.

We simply don’t see NHL teams without GMs into August, yet that’s where the Minnesota Wild are at. It’s highly unusual that the Minnesota Wild are looking for a GM as late as August 6. Technically, they’re not the only NHL team without an official GM, though, largely thanks to the way Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon operates.

Making a strange occurrence even stranger, acting Hurricanes GM Don Waddell has been interviewing for that Wild GM position, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo (sub required). He can interview for that gig because, simply put, Waddell isn’t under contract with the Hurricanes.

Hurricanes fans don’t necessarily need to panic, particularly with what seems to be a strong and beneficial analytics influence coming from Eric Tulsky. This situation does underscore another notion, though: this team’s outlook hinges on Dundon’s own.

Now, that’s true with just about every NHL team. After all, the owner writes the checks, arranges arena deals, and hires the GMs who do the rest. Even by those standards, Dundon stands out as an owner to watch.

[MORE: Three Questions | 2018-19 in review | Hurricanes under pressure]

At the moment, it seems like the NHL is still testing out how much of an X-factor Dundon might be.

By most standards, the Canadiens’ offer sheet to Sebastian Aho was almost comically weak. Indeed, Aho at $8.454M is such a steal that it’s already listed as one of the best contracts in the league.

While I believe the offer sheet was as much Habs GM Marc Bergevin doing some PR work, the structure including a $21M signing bonus served as a test. After Dundon’s curious investment in the failed AAF, would he balk at paying Aho a bunch of money up front?

The Hurricanes ended up answering that question by emphatically matching the Aho offer sheet, and even sending out a sassy tweet or two.

It doesn’t totally erase doubts, though: what happens when the Hurricanes are asked to spend money on less-obvious players than a true, young star like Aho?

After all, they might be pinching pennies with Waddell, seemed to do so in allowing reigning Calder Cup-winning AHL coach Mike Vellucci to walk, and may have even skimped marginal dollars with their former radio announcer.

Crucially, none of those decisions guarantee major losses for the Hurricanes. Really, the Hurricanes might as well name analytics darling Eric Tulsky their GM at this point, and it’s possible that strong prospects drove the success of the Charlotte Checkers as much as any schemes or speeches from Vellucci. The Hurricanes have spent money to get an edge, too, including going off the beaten path by buying out Patrick Marleau to gain Toronto’s first-rounder.

So we’ll need to wait and see if Dundon spends at key times.

With Justin Faulk entering a contract year and Dougie Hamilton two years away from a new deal, will Carolina be able to maintain its sterling surplus on defense, which was the biggest factor in their 2018-19 success? If Petr Mrazek and James Reimer don’t get it done as their goalies over the next two years, will the Hurricanes make bolder investments in net? What happens if Andrei Svechnikov ends up proving he’s at an Aho-like level after playing out the next two years of his rookie contract?

The Hurricanes are off to a strong start with Dundon as owner, and there are factors that point to that continuing. Still, it remains to be seen how this team — and its intriguing owner — ends up weathering the inevitable storms that come in both hockey and sports.

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.

Some surprises among NHL’s worst special teams units

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Earlier on Friday, PHT looked at the 13 teams who scored more goals than they allowed on special teams when you combine 2017-18 and 2018-19 season totals. If you’re a math whiz like me, you realize that leaves us with 18 teams on the negative side of the “special teams plus/minus” ledger.

[Part 1: Teams on the positive side.]

As a refresher, the very simple formula for special teams plus/minus is:

(Power play goals [PPG] for + shorthanded goals [SHG] for) – (PPG against + SHG against) = special teams plus minus.

Let’s run down the list of minuses (when you combine 2017-18 and 2018-19 results), with some commentary.

Teams at -16 or worse during the past two seasons combined.

  • Edmonton Oilers: -12 last season, -32 combined. Not surprising, even with Connor McDavid being capable of concealing some blemishes.
  • Detroit Red Wings: -17 last season, -32 combined. Also not a surprise.
  • Montreal Canadiens: -14 season, -29 combined. The Canadiens were a sneaky-strong team at even strength last season, so improved special teams play could mean playoffs.
  • Anaheim Ducks: -24 last season, -26 combined. One of two California teams who were a special teams disaster in 2018-19.
  • Philadelphia Flyers: -18 last season, -25 combined. Will Chuck Fletcher’s many changes lead to competence in this area?
  • Chicago Blackhawks: -16 last season, -24 combined. Much like the overall picture, a few dynamic scorers couldn’t fix all problems.
  • Ottawa Senators: -3 last season, -20 combined. Honestly, -3 seems like a small miracle considering the Senators’ skill squalor.
  • New York Islanders: -6 last season, -17 combined. The Trotz effect: improved PK, meh power play.
  • Los Angeles Kings: -28 last season, -17 combined. The other California disaster. When your power play only creates 22 more goals than it allows, you’re not going to have a good time.
  • Vancouver Canucks: -6 last season, -16 combined. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser may just keep Vancouver respectable here.

Teams with negative special teams, but less than double digits. Closer to mediocre than outright bad, generally speaking.

  • Columbus Blue Jackets: +6 last season, but -9 overall. The Blue Jackets failed to hit 40 PPG in either season, and now they lost Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for the PK. Gulp.
  • St. Louis Blues: +5 last season, -8 overall. Back in the day, I complained about Alex Ovechkin being on the Capitals’ power play point far too often; now I’m chiding the Blues for not putting Vladimir Tarasenko in the right “office.”
  • Washington Capitals: -6 last season, -8 overall. Well, this is puzzling. During the past two seasons, Washington’s 104 power-play goals ranks eighth in the NHL, while they’re tied with Vancouver for the fifth-most allowed at 108.
  • New York Rangers: -11 last season, -6 overall. All of that incoming talent, plus Mika Zibanejad? Yow.
  • Buffalo Sabres: -1 last season, -5 overall. Pro tip: More Rasmus Dahlin, less Rasmus Ristolainen.
  • Dallas Stars: +6 last season, -4 overall. Joe Pavelski could make their top quintet absolutely terrifying.
  • Nashville Predators: -12 last season, -3 overall. If the Predators still rely on too many point shots, then what are we even doing?
  • Carolina Hurricanes: even last season, -2 overall. For all that’s holy, put Dougie Hamilton on the first unit instead of Justin Faulk. C’mon.

Here is the full list of 31 teams group from highest special teams plus/minus to lowest from 2018-19; you can also check the plus teams here. Some teams were positive one season and negative the other, so this chart adds some context.

TEAM special teams +/- 2017-18 +/- two years +/- PPG SHGA PPGA SHGF
Tampa Bay 43 8 51 74 3 40 12
Florida 19 7 26 72 13 43 3
Arizona 15 -13 2 42 9 34 16
Calgary 14 -6 8 53 7 50 18
Winnipeg 13 16 29 62 7 52 10
San Jose 12 24 36 57 9 45 9
Colorado 9 14 23 63 5 58 9
Boston 8 20 28 65 15 49 7
Pittsburgh 8 18 26 56 15 45 12
Minnesota 6 -1 5 49 4 44 5
Dallas 6 -10 -4 45 2 41 4
Columbus 6 -15 -9 34 6 30 8
New Jersey 5 13 18 45 10 40 10
St. Louis 5 -13 -8 50 7 43 5
Vegas 4 12 16 39 2 44 11
Toronto 1 12 13 46 9 41 5
Carolina 0 -2 -2 44 8 44 8
Buffalo -1 -4 -5 46 9 41 3
Ottawa -3 -17 -20 46 8 45 4
Washington -6 -2 -8 49 5 55 5
Vancouver -6 -10 -16 43 8 48 7
NY Islanders -6 -11 -17 33 1 44 6
NY Rangers -11 5 -6 44 4 58 7
Nashville -12 9 -3 33 8 45 8
Edmonton -12 -20 -32 47 7 62 10
Montreal -14 -15 -29 31 4 46 5
Chicago -16 -8 -24 48 7 63 6
Detroit -17 -13 -30 39 7 56 7
Philadelphia -18 -7 -25 40 11 51 4
Anaheim -24 -2 -26 36 10 55 5
Los Angeles -28 11 -17 35 13 54 4

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.

Key defensemen enter contract years, possible free agency

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Despite being the most exciting offseason since PHT started in 2010, the NHL will probably always lag behind the NBA when it comes to stars moving in free agency.

Rudely, players like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid don’t even flirt with drama, instead sticking with their teams by signing extensions, often almost at the first possible moment they legally can. Again, rude.

So, it’s important to get that disclaimer out of the way. Chances are, the fascinatingly robust list of pending free agent defensemen will narrow down, possibly starting before the 2019-20 season begins.

But, even so, it’s quite the list, and a lot of these defensemen will earn enormous, team-changing raises, whenever their next deals get signed.

And, hey, sticking with your team can still alter its course. Just look at how scary that Drew Doughty extension ($11 million AAV through 2026-27) seems today compared to when Doughty re-upped with the Kings in July 2018.

Let’s consider some of the most intriguing names, split by UFA and RFA designations. Cap Friendly’s listings were helpful in putting this together, and being that these lists aren’t comprehensive, you may enjoy digging deeper there to find even more.

Prominent UFAs

Alex Pietrangelo (Blues), Roman Josi (Predators), Tyson Barrie (Maple Leafs), Torey Krug (Bruins), Jared Spurgeon (Wild, more on them here), Justin Faulk (Hurricanes), Jake Muzzin (Maple Leafs), Justin Schultz (Penguins), Christopher Tanev (Canucks), T.J. Brodie (Flames), Sami Vatanen (Devils), Travis Hamonic (Flames).

The headliners of this list – particularly Pietrangelo and Josi – must have licked their chops when Erik Karlsson signed that mammoth eight year, $92M ($11.5M AAV) contract with the Sharks. Pietrangelo and Josi don’t boast multiple Norris Trophies, yet they might also be healthier than Karlsson when he signed his deal, so there could be interesting value debates.

Either way, Roman Josi’s borderline-insulting $4M won’t cut it after 2019-20.

The marquee names are the most intriguing, yet there are interesting situations as you go down a rung and more. And those are the players who are arguably more likely to sign with new teams.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Would Toronto be able to bring back even one of Barrie or Muzzin after next season? Are the Hurricanes destined to move on from Faulk, or would they instead keep Faulk and move someone else, like Dougie Hamilton? Players like Faulk, Schultz, and Vatanen could see their value shift in big ways depending upon how well or poorly they perform in 2019-20. Will P.K. Subban‘s arrival hurt Vatanen, or will the former Ducks defenseman thrive in a more relaxed role next season for New Jersey?

There are a lot of intriguing situations to watch there.

Notable RFAs

Josh Morrissey (Jets), Thomas Chabot (Senators), Samuel Girard (Avalanche), Mikhail Sergachev (Lightning), Ryan Pulock (Islanders), Darnell Nurse (Oilers), Brandon Montour (Sabres), etc.

These players don’t have the same leverage as they’re restricted, but it should still be interesting if there’s a ripple effect when the Jets have to pay Morrissey, and how strenuous negotiations could be between Chabot and the penny-pinching Senators. Tampa Bay’s really brought Sergachev along slowly, and you wonder if they’d be wise to try to extend him before a potential breakthrough?

***

Again, extensions will kill some of the wildest daydreams by crossing names off the list long before July 2020. Don’t assume your team will happen upon a Pietrangelo or Spurgeon.

That said, there are certain “something has to give” situations. The Maple Leafs may know that they’re only getting Muzzin and Barrie for a limited time. The Bruins have a tight squeeze happening, especially with Charlie McAvoy still needing an RFA deal this summer.

Either way, teams should savor deals like Josi at $4M, because they won’t last much longer.

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.