Don Waddell

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Hurricanes announce Justin Williams is taking break from hockey

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It seemed likely that there were only two real possibilities for free agent forward Justin Williams at the start of the offseason: Either a return to the Carolina Hurricanes for another season, or retirement.

For now, he seems to have met in the middle.

The Hurricanes announced on Monday that Williams is “taking a break” from hockey and that he will not play at the start of the 2019-20 NHL season.

This is not a retirement announcement and does leave the door open for a potential return at some point, either with the Hurricanes or someone else.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt unsure of my aspirations with regards to hockey,” said Williams in a statement released by the Hurricanes. “For as long as I can remember, my whole off-season until this point has been hockey and doing what was necessary to prepare for the upcoming season. Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game.

“It’s important to me that the focus of attention is on the current, very talented group the Carolina Hurricanes have assembled, as they prepare to build on the momentum and growth we established last season.”

Added general manager Don Waddell: “We appreciate Justin’s honesty and openness throughout this process, and respect his decision. He’s been an important part of our team, but we did prepare our roster with the understanding that he might step away. We are confident in the group we’ve assembled.”

Williams, 37, was still an excellent player this past season with 20 goals and 53 total points in 82 games for a Hurricanes that went all the way to the Eastern Conference Final. Even as his career went deeper into his 30s he remained as reliable and durable (missing just three games over the past eight seasons) as any player in the league.

In 1,244 games over 18 seasons Williams has 312 goals and 786 total points for the Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, and Los Angeles Kings.

He also owns three Stanley Cup rings, including one with the Hurricanes during the 2005-06 season, and has developed a reputation for being one of the best big-game players in the league.

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Hurricanes sign GM Waddell to long-term contract extension

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Carolina Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell had been working much of the summer without a contract after his most recent deal had expired at the end of June. That created some speculation that he could be a contender for the now-vacant Minnesota Wild job.

That possibility is now gone.

The Hurricanes announced on Monday afternoon that the team has signed Waddell to a long-term contract extension to remain as the team’s general manager.

“Don’s leadership and experience are invaluable to our organization and I’m happy we were able reach an extension,” said team owner Thomas Dundon in a statement released by the team. “Don and I have a great relationship and he is someone I trust. I’m excited to continue to build a championship team with Don.”

Added Waddell: “I’m thrilled to sign an extension with the Hurricanes and I look forward to continuing the success we experienced last season. We have a first-class organization, a great fanbase and a team we feel is built to contend for the Stanley Cup. My family and I are excited to stay in Raleigh for years to come.”

The 2018-19 season was Waddell’s first full year as the general manager of the Hurricanes and it was a tremendous success. The team qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season and reached the Eastern Conference Final. The emergence of Sebastian Aho as an all-star scorer and Waddell’s mid-season trade for Nino Niederreiter were two of the biggest driving forces behind the Hurricanes’ success.

Waddell was a finalist for the NHL’s general manager of the year award.

There is a great foundation of young talent in place for the Hurricanes to build on and as long as they can get competent goaltending should continue to be a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference.

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Plenty of Hurricanes are under pressure in 2019-20

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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.

Last season, the Hurricanes became a “bunch of jerks.” In 2019-20, they’re now a bunch of people under heightened pressure.

Rather than going with one single person, here are a few of the Hurricanes who must wrestle with heightened expectations next season.

Sebastian Aho: For those who follow how much players get paid, particularly ones who are potential faces of franchises entering the mere beginning of their primes, Aho is a ludicrous steal at $8.454 million per year.

But then, there are those sharks who circle any sports situation that might loosely be termed a “disappointment.” When those sharks smell blood, they usually also seek out the richest targets, even if those players aren’t really at fault for a team’s letdowns. (See: basically Phil Kessel‘s entire stay in Toronto.)

If the Hurricanes falter, don’t be surprised if their newly minted most expensive player ends up being the scapegoat, whether that ends up being fair or not.

… On the other hand, hey, at least Aho’s already got paid.

Justin Faulk: Faulk, on the other hand, enters a contract year with a lot of money that could be earned or lost.

At least, potentially he does. The Hurricanes could also decide to sign the 27-year-old to a contract extension, something that was at least hinted at somewhat recently.

If Faulk enters 2018-19 with his situation unsettled, he’ll enter a year with a lot on the line, though. The free agent market rarely sees quality right-handed defensemen become available before they’re 30, and sometimes teams go the extra 26.2 miles and overpay guys like Tyler Myers. At the same time, injuries can cool the market for a UFA blueliner, as we’ve seemingly seen with the perplexing Jake Gardiner situation.

You don’t even need to look at defensemen to see how much a season can swing how teams view a UFA. Faulk merely needs to look at his former Hurricanes teammate Jeff Skinner, a forward who was traded for precious little in the summer of 2018, only to have such a strong season that he was handed a lengthy contract with a $9M AAV one summer later.

[MORE: Three Questions | 2018-19 in review | X-factor: Hurricanes owner]

Petr Mrazek: Honestly, Mrazek’s under less personal pressure this season than he was in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, years where he was merely trying to prove that he was worthy of maintaining an NHL career, at least one beyond a backup or even third goalie role. Getting two years at a $3.125M AAV represents more stability than Mrazek’s experienced in quite some time.

Still, if the Hurricanes fail this season, don’t be shocked if it’s because the goaltending that finally worked out in 2018-19 reverts back to the problem that kept Carolina out of the playoffs for a decade. A lot of Carolina’s hopes still hinge on Mrazek, and James Reimer, who comes in with a higher cap hit but lower expectations.

Rod Brind’Amour: During his first season behind the bench, the Hurricanes made the playoffs. That’s great, but it also sets a new bar in the eyes of fans and owner Tom Dundon, so a big drop-off might inspire critics to be a bunch of jerks to Brind’Amour.

Whoever is the GM: If too many of the above situations don’t work out, a GM might be tasked with finding fixes — and if Dundon isn’t interested in spending much money to make those fixes, it could require some serious creativity.

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.

Bunch of questions for Hurricanes during offseason

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The Carolina Hurricanes continued their strange pattern during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: during the rare times when they reach the postseason, the Hurricanes have made a big run of it.

It surely was bittersweet to get swept by the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, much like it had been the last time the Hurricanes made the playoffs, when they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who eventually won the 2008-09 Stanley Cup.

Once the agony and ecstasy wears off from that run and the gutting sweep, the Hurricanes face a difficult task. They must build on this season, and ideally avoid spending another decade between playoff appearances. Most ideally, the Hurricanes would see this as a stepping stone to even bigger things in the future, rather than a peak that they can’t repeat.

Don Waddell is a finalist for GM of the Year, yet some of his toughest work could very well be ahead. It’s one thing to enjoy a Cinderella run, but what about becoming a consistent contender? Let’s consider some of the make-or-break factors and questions.

  • The goalie question(s)

For almost as long as they’d been out of the playoffs, the Hurricanes have grappled with problems in net.

To some surprise, the Petr MrazekCurtis McElhinney tandem eventually worked out for the Hurricanes this season, only crumbling after Round 2.

It could be a short-lived duo, however, as both Mrazek (27) and Curtis McElhinney (35) are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Should the Hurricanes bring one or both back? Where does 23-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic (37th overall in 2014) fit in? Would the Hurricanes be better off throwing their names in the Sergei Bobrovsky sweepstakes, or generally going after a bigger name?

There are some definite positives when looking at the Hurricanes’ salary structure at Cap Friendly.

Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter are very affordable. Andrei Svechnikov has two more years on his entry-level deal. More or less dead money in Scott Darling and Alexander Semin’s buyout will expire after 2020-21.

Overall, Cap Friendly estimates that the Hurricanes only have about $54.24 million locked up in 14 players, and potential young additions such as Martin Necas should be cost-efficient.

But there are some contracts to hand out beyond whatever Carolina does in net, and Aho is the guy who could break the bank. Evolving Wild’s contract projections place Aho’s next cap hit at a hair above $10M per season, and even if Waddell can waddle that number down a bit, things could get challenging during a summer where other prominent RFAs (Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point) could serve as the rising tides that lift all boats.

  • Other free agent calls

The Hurricanes also see two veterans eligible for the free agent market, as Justin Williams and Micheal Ferland need new deals. At 37, Williams still brings value, although you could argue that maybe the Hurricanes deployed him in excessively prominent spots at times. Ideally, you probably don’t want Williams on your top PP unit at this phase of his remarkable career. Ferland’s future with Carolina seemed to ebb and flow, with his season ending on such a low note that it might be surprising to see him back.

Then again, maybe that would make his asking price more modest? Teams often covet guys who can score a bit and also deliver hits like these.

  • Ship out some of that defensive surplus?

For some time, people have wondered if the Hurricanes might deal from their position of strength on defense to improve in other areas. That only intensified when they added Dougie Hamilton, who creates a mild logjam with Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce commanding big minutes as a right-handed defensemen.

That really didn’t feel like too much of a good thing during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though, as Jaccob Slavin and Calvin de Haan rounded out a great group.

Still, it’s fair to continue to ask that question. Faulk’s contract expires after next season, and Hamilton is only locked up through 2020-21. So who knows?

  • Go bold?

Let’s say the Hurricanes still have a decent chunk of change left over after figuring out their goalie situation, signing Aho, and tending to other business.

There’s a difference between bumping against the cap ceiling and dealing with an internal budget, and the question is: did this run inspire owner Tom Dundon to maybe spend a little bit more? The Hurricanes haven’t been named as suitors for the likes of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, but maybe Carolina would hit an even higher level with a gamebreaker added to the mix? They certainly could’ve used just a little more oomph beyond Aho, Teravainen, Svechnikov, and Jordan Staal when the Hurricanes were struggling to score against the Bruins, both on the power play and overall.

Going the trade route could be especially lucrative because the Hurricanes didn’t sell out their 2019 NHL Draft at the deadline. They have three second-round picks thanks to previous moves, so those could be used to sweeten certain deals. After building patiently through the draft for years, the Hurricanes are in a spot where they can be aggressive in seeking more immediate returns.

***

For the most part, the Hurricanes are a young team, and while you never know when everything’s going to click for deep playoff runs, it’s easy to imagine Carolina getting even better.

Then again, the 2008-09 Hurricanes probably thought there would be great days ahead, so it’s all about making the right moves — and getting some good luck.

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.