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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.

What kind of GM will Ron Francis be for Seattle?

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Seattle’s NHL expansion franchise confirmed a key hire on Wednesday, naming Ron Francis as its first general manager.

The Hall of Fame center spent just under four years as Carolina Hurricanes GM, and with that, his work inspires mixed reactions. Let’s consider the good, bad, and mixed to try to get a feel for what Francis offers Seattle as its new boss.

Net losses

The Hurricanes never made the playoffs during Francis’ time as GM, and faulty goaltending was the biggest reason why. At the time, gambling on Eddie Lack and Scott Darling as replacements made some sense – though the term Darling received heightened the risks – but both gambles were epic busts.

With Alex Nedeljkovic (37th pick in 2014) still developing, it’s possible that Francis drafted a future answer in net, yet his immediate answers came up empty. Matching the luck that the Vegas Golden Knights have had with Marc-Andre Fleury seems somewhat unlikely, but Francis needs to do better with that crucial position in his second GM stint.

Building a strong young roster on a budget

It says a lot about Francis’ work in Carolina that The Athletic’s (sub. required) Dom Luszczyszyn graded the Hurricanes as the NHL’s most efficient salary structure, and apparently by a healthy margin.

Some of those great contracts were offered up by current GM Don Waddell (or Marc Bergevin’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho), yet Francis and his crew authored some stunners. Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce boast some of the best bargain contracts in the NHL.

[RELATED: NHL Seattle tabs Ron Francis as first GM]

With a clean slate in Seattle, maybe Francis and his crew can create similar competitive advantages?

Drafting wise, the Hurricanes had some big wins under Francis, most notably stealing Aho in the second round in 2015. Still, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, maybe spare yourself the thought of Carolina getting Charlie McAvoy or Alex DeBrincat instead of Jake Bean at No. 13 in 2016, and some other gems instead of Haydn Fleury at No. 7 in 2014. Maybe Fleury and Bean are late bloomers, but it’s tough to imagine them looking like the right moves. If NHL teams truly have learned from the last expansion draft, Seattle will be more draft-dependent than Vegas has been so far, so Francis may be asked to hit homers instead of singles with key picks.

(NHL GMs make enough blunders that Seattle may still get some Jonathan Marchessault-type opportunities, though, so we’ll see.)

Investing in analytics

Whether it’s Francis or Waddell, it’s difficult to distinguish which smart Hurricanes moves stem from them, and which ones boil down to brilliant analytics work from the likes of Eric Tulsky. The thing is, if Francis listens to advice in Seattle, does it really matter?

A lot must still come together, but it’s promising that Seattle already hired a promising mind in Alexandra Mandrycky. Mandrycky was hired before Francis, so there’s a solid sign they may end up on the same page.

If your reaction is “One analytics hire, big deal,” then … well, you should be right. This list of publicly available analytics hires from Shayna Goldman argues that Seattle is off to a good start, and could leave some turtle-like teams in the dust if they keep going:

To take advantage of the expansion draft, you might need to be creative. Leaning on analytics could be key to eking out extra value.

***

Ultimately, we only know so much about Francis.

While George McPhee took decades of experience into Vegas, Francis was only Hurricanes GM for a touch under four years. Such a thought softens the “no playoffs” criticism, and while some of his work was hit-or-miss, it’s crucial to realize that Francis left the Hurricanes in a generally better place than when he took over.

Will his approach work for an expansion franchise in Seattle? To some extent, it will boil down to “taking what the defense gives him,” as Francis might be able to find savvy deals like Vegas did with Marchessault and Reilly Smith, and what Francis managed himself in exploiting Chicago’s cap issues to land a star in Teravainen. It’s also worth realizing that Seattle offers different variables than Carolina did, including possibly giving Francis a bigger budget to work with.

Overall, this seems like a reasonable hire, but much like Seattle’s roster or even its team name, Francis can be filed under “to be determined.”

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.

It’s Carolina Hurricanes day at PHT

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Carolina Hurricanes.

2017-18

36-35-11, 83 pts. (6th in Metropolitan Division, 10th in Eastern Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Dougie Hamilton
Micheal Ferland
Adam Fox
Jordan Martinook
Calvin de Haan
Petr Mrazek

OUT:

Noah Hanifin
Elias Lindholm
Marcus Kruger
Jeff Skinner
Derek Ryan
Klas Dahlbeck
Cam Ward
Joakim Nordstrom
Lee Stempniak

RE-SIGNED:

Trevor van Riemsdyk
Phillip Di Giuseppe

The Carolina Hurricanes now sit in the aftermath of one heck of an offseason storm.

A full-blown shake up from top to bottom has the Hurricanes now heading into the 2018-19 with a new head coach, a new general manager and under the direction of a new owner (who took over midway through the season) who appears determined not to let what’s happened for nearly the past decade to continue — missing the playoffs.

Indeed, Bill Peters (who left for Calgary) has been replaced with franchise legend Rod Brind’Amour behind the bench. Don Waddell has taken over Ron Francis’ post (after the latter was relieved of his duties). Tom Dundon, the architect behind the winds of change, became the owner midway through the 2017-18 season. And some of the team’s most well-known names — Cam Ward, Jeff Skinner, Noah Hanifin — won’t be wearing Carolina red this coming season.

[Building off breakthrough | Under PressureThree Questions]

The Hurricanes haven’t graced the playoffs since 2009, and while they put up a bit of a fight down the stretch last season, they never really found the extra gear they needed, eventually finishing sixth in the Metropolitan Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference.

Dundon has employed a hands-on approach to the team he now runs, which perhaps scared away prospective coaches and general managers during searches for both. Brind’Amour is a household name in the franchise, but unproven behind the bench and Waddell… well his track record with other teams isn’t exactly glowing.

That said, Carolina was handed a gift and then some when they moved up from 11th to 2nd in the NHL Draft Lottery and got their hands on Andrei Svechnikov, who scored 40 goals in 44 games in the Ontario Hockey League last season.

Waddell then went out and traded for defenseman Dougie Hamilton to bolster their backend, gaining gritty forward Micheal Ferland and top prospect Adam Fox in exchange for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm. He also signed defenseman Calvin de Haan in free agency and traded away Jeff Skinner just last week for a few picks and a prospect.

While the Skinner trade seemed like a major loss given the return, the Hurricanes do have a bevy of young talent ready to try and make their mark this season. Svechnikov should inject the offense and Martin Necas looks slated to become a top center within the club. Hamilton and de Haan are fine additions on the backend. Ferland adds a little bit of everything. And there’s the wave of youth that’s exciting for any team.

“I don’t want to say it’s a new team, but it will be,” Brind’Amour told NHL.com. “We’ll potentially have 12 new players, so I think everyone’s just excited. There’s been a lot of change, but we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping the pieces we wanted to keep and build around, and then we have a couple young players we’re excited to see, new rookie players that I think will be exciting to watch.”

Prospect Pool

Andrei Svechnikov, RW, 18, Barrie Colts (OHL) – 2018 first-round pick

Svechnikov is the type of elite talent any team would be lucky to have. He has size (6-foot-3), an elite selection of shots, and is crafty both inside and on the perimeter. It’s likely that he steps in right away and begins to contribute offensively this season. Svechnikov had 40 goals and 72 points in 44 games with Barrie this season — name the OHL’s rookie of the year — had four goals and eight points and the world under-18 championships and five assists during the world juniors.

Martin Necas, C, 19, Brno Kometa (Czech) – 2017 first-round pick

Necas has spent the last two seasons playing pro hockey in his native Czech Republic with Brno Kometa, which also features former NHLer Martin Erat. Necas is expected to move into the Hurricanes lineup next season, possibly as the team’s second-line center. Necas had 11 points in seven games at the World Juniors this past year and then five more in the same number of games during the world championships this past spring.

“His game has gotten better, he’s gotten a little bigger, and he’s a lot more confident than he was last year,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour told NHL.com. “I think he’s a night-and-day player already from a year ago.”

Adam Fox, D, 20, Harvard University (NCAA) – 2016 third-round pick (Calgary Flames)

There are several players who fit the mold here: D Jake Bean, F Valentin Zykov and F Warren Foegele — but its Fox, who the Hurricanes inherited in the Hamilton trade, that’s intriguing. Fox is widely regarded as one of the top defensive prospects in the NHL, so it’s a good get for a team that gave up quite a bit going the other way. Carolina has amassed quite the stable of defenseman this summer, and Fox fits right into that. He’s spent the last two seasons playing in the NCAA with Harvard where he’s been a point-per-game player on the backend and had five points in seven games for Team USA in a bronze-medal showing at the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championships.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck