The Carolina Hurricanes’ final move on a busy 2020 NHL trade deadline day was perhaps the most surprising. Shortly after it was announced that the team had added a defenseman as many including myself expected, word came that the Hurricanes had also landed New York Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei in return for the lower of the Hurricanes’ two 2020 first-round draft picks. I was skeptical, but the initial report proved to be true.
The key terms
For the trade itself, the Hurricanes will give up the lower of its two first-round picks. Brady Skjei arrives with a contract that lasts four years after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5.25 million per year. As such, Skjei is not signed solely as short-term help for the Hurricanes injury woes but rather as a longer-term addition to the core of the blue line.
Skjei is an interesting case. The positive on him is that he brings great size and skating ability and a skill set that is every bit top 4-capable. He played his way up to that level by the completion of his entry-level contract which earned his current contract. And as a 25-year old, he is theoretically just entering his prime. So if one considers him to be a legitimate top 4 defenseman with a good physical skill set , $5.25 million per year is a fair rate and maybe even a slight discount.
But Skjei more recently has had some ups and downs with the rebuilding Rangers. His advanced stats are a mixed bag with some red flags. His general level of play has been up and down. And part of the reason he is available is because of these struggles. Another part is because the Rangers are stocked with rising young defenseman. But there is an element of risk taking on four years of Skjei’s contract at a fully-loaded price given his recent ups and downs.
But this is familiar territory…
On the topic of defensemen with the skill set to be a top 4 but some question marks, the Hurricanes are quickly becoming the NHL’s resident experts. Two summers ago the new management opted to trade Noah Hanifin who had as good of a physical skill set as you can find but had yet to put it together to obtain another physically gifted defenseman who had had some ups and downs defensively in Dougie Hamilton. That dual set of decisions has worked out incredibly well. Hanifin mostly is still figuring it out and still seems more like a #5 defenseman than a top 4. Meanwhile Hamilton settled in nicely after a slow start in 2018-19 and was a Norris Trophy candidate when his season was derailed by injury. This past summer, the team tried to execute a two-step swap. Not willing commit to forever and a bunch of money, the team opted to trade Justin Faulk. Seemingly in the same swoop, the Canes bought low on Jake Gardiner. That trade is a mixed bag. Not even into his new contract yet, Faulk is bottom of his the team for +/- (which I do think carries some weight as a relative measure) and has seen his scoring plummet to a 20ish-point pace. It is too early to make a final call, but early returns suggest that dodging the risk on a usually good offensive defenseman who had ups and downs defensively might have been smart. But the swap in of Jake Gardiner has not worked out on the ‘in’ side of the swap. Gardiner has been somewhat better of late but at best is a work in progress for providing steady play in a top 4 role. Finally, there is Haydn Fleury who is another big, mobile defenseman seemingly with at top 4 skill set and draft pedigree. Fleury has taken a slow step-wise approach to get to where he is as a regular in the Canes lineup due to injuries but no clear path to being more than a depth defenseman.
So interestingly, the Hurricanes have pretty much made a market in defensemen who easily have the physical skill set of a top 4 defenseman but either arrived or left with some question marks about their ability to do the job defensively.
Is the team smartly playing that market? Is it gambling and/or playing with fire likely to get burned?
I am on record as thinking that the Hurricanes were unlikely to trade a first-round pick. The broader NHL media was right on this one. I question giving up a first-round pick to get a player who comes with a full-priced contract but also with some risk.
How this plays out sort of as a decision tree
The bigger thing might playing this through for one year considering different possible outcomes which is a basic game theory/decision tree type of problem.
If the Canes management and scouting staff were correct that Skjei will be a solid top 4 defenseman, the team likely set itself up to lose either him or Hamilton to the expansion draft. (The possible out is not re-signing Hamilton until after the expansion draft, but that basically requires letting him become an unrestricted free agent first which is risky.) The Canes will have four defensemen to protect but only be able to protect three. So if Skjei does work out, the Canes really only gain one year of top 4 defenseman before losing one because of the deal. So in that scenario, the Canes spent a first-round pick to add a defenseman for just over a year.
If the management and scouting staff are wrong on Skjei, the expansion draft problem goes away because the Hurricanes could leave him unprotected and lose either a forward or Haydn Fleury instead. But of course in that scenario, the preference would be to lose him to Seattle.
So when you net it out, if things go well, the Canes really only gain for one year. But if things go poorly, only then do things extend past the first year with the Canes benefiting by having four solid defensemen.
Netting it out
Short-term Brady Skjei is a significant positive in that he gives the team another option on a blue line that needs help.
But in total I do not like this deal:
1) The cost is high in my opinion as a first-round pick that has a good chance to be between 15 and 20 overall.
2) The deal comes with significant risk in my opinion adding a fully-priced (or at least close) $5.25 million commitment on a player who has had some ups and downs recently.
3) Since it stretches four years, that financial commitment could be a difficulty in trying to re-sign Svechnikov, Hamilton and Necas and still have depth to the roster.
4) Even if the team is right, the expansion draft seems to put a limit on the length of any benefit from adding a solid fourth defenseman.
Though I do think it is possible that deal works out wonderfully just like the Dougie Hamilton trade, I just do not like the cost/risk/reward ratio on this deal.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Who wants to take the positive side on this deal? Even though I voted no, I readily admit that there is one?
2) What are your thoughts on giving up a first-round pick in this deal?
3) Does anyone else have reservations with this trade?