Today’s Daily Cup of Joe turns to the blue line for Canes big off-season decision #2.
After a couple years with the blue line projected to become a top strength but not quite getting there, a fairly significant shake up last summer finally yielded the desired results. Out was Noah Hanifin, and in were Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan. The result was a blue line that was strong at the top but also balanced. Justin Faulk played at a higher level out of the gate paired with Calvin de Haan. Jaccob Slavin paired with the other newcomer Dougie Hamilton. And Brett Pesce and Trevor van Riemsdyk stocked arguably the most talented third pairing (if you wanted to call it that) in the entire NHL. The slotting and volume of ice time varied a bit as the season wore on, but the Hurricanes blue line was a strength throughout the regular season and also the playoffs.
Simplest would be to leave it alone
With all of the Hurricanes defensemen under contract for the 2019-20 season, the simplest thing to do this summer would be to just leave things alone and to count on the same blue line leading the way again next season.
That could happen, but a couple factors could push the team to make changes from this position of strength.
Contract and salary situations
With the addition of de Haan and Hamilton last summer, the Hurricanes had five defensemen on the 2018-19 roster who were earning top 4 type salaries of $4 million or more. That worked fine for the 2018-19 season with the Hurricanes scraping against the salary cap minimum, but it is not clear that will work going forward once Sebastian Aho re-signs and a couple other contracts push the team closer to the salary cap.
Contract-wise, most notable is the fact that Justin Faulk is signed only through the 2019-20 season. As such, at some point the Hurricanes would seemingly want to either re-sign Faulk if he is part of the long-term plan or otherwise trade him to collect something in return before he departs. If the team wants to cut salary on the blue line going forward and/or if the team does not deem Justin Faulk to be part of the long-term plan, he could be dealt into the off-season trade market that opens in June.
The expansion draft
Another consideration is the impending expansion draft scheduled for the summer of 2021. If the protection rules are the same as the Las Vegas draft as expected, then the Hurricanes will likely only be able to protect three defensemen. That would figure to be Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and then only one of Dougie Hamilton, Calvin de Haan, Justin Faulk or Trevor van Riemsdyk. (Note that van Riemsdyk is also scheduled to become a free agent next summer.) One could go either way with this one. First, one could argue that the team should shed a defensemen or two via trade rather than risking losing a good one for nothing. But alternatively, I actually think the better argument is that the team should keep its overabundance of depth on the blue line realizing that it will inevitably lose a defenseman in the expansion draft.
The potential need to add at forward
Possibly hidden a bit beneath the team’s success was the the fact that the lineup could still benefit from adding one more higher-end offensive player and scoring catalyst. A late-season push did boost the team’s scoring to 16th in the NHL, but there is room for growth here, and the easiest way to add scoring punch that is not from a bad free agent contract could be by trading a defenseman.
Reasons for pause
There are also a couple mitigating reasons for standing pat on defense. First, this week it was announced that Calvin de Haan would be out for four to six months with shoulder surgery. Four months stretches to mid-September, so his readiness for the start of the 2019-20 would be in question. In addition, the team is not incredibly deep in terms of NHL-ready depth below the core group. Haydn Fleury represents an experienced #7, but Brind’Amour’s really light usage of him in the playoffs suggests he is not the same caliber as the players above him. Jake Bean had a strong 2018-19 campaign in the AHL and figures to get some NHL ice time if and when injuries create an opening, but he is not yet proven. Past that, the Hurricanes have not chosen to stock their AHL blue line with players with NHL experience. So trading a defenseman combined with de Haan’s uncertain schedule could quickly see the blue line go from a position of depth to a position of need. Finally, there is the issue of chemistry. If the Hurricanes do decide to deal from a position of strength, Faulk would seem to be the most likely to go because of his contract situation. With Brind’Amour’s heavy emphasis on the team bonding, the issue of upsetting team chemistry could come up for this and other trade scenarios.
Where I land
As someone who had Faulk on the trading block for some time, I am admittedly a bit biased, but if a deal is there to be had, I would consider trading Faulk to add forward help. To be clear, Faulk had a much better season such that the reason to trade Faulk this off-season would not be to eliminate a weakness. Rather, I just think he is the best option to trade from a position of strength. As noted above, I think the Hurricanes could use one more scoring forward, ideally a center. And if Faulk’s next contract is for say five years, that would take him to age 32. For a player who seemed to be on the wrong side of the line mobility-wise only a year ago, I think that term has much risk. Finally, I think the Hurricanes have the depth to cover the loss. Van Riemsdyk is capable of filling in in the top 4 if necessary, and the move opens room for Bean to get an NHL audition in 2019-20.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Who thinks it is crazy to consider tinkering with something that was arguably the blue line that was arguably the team’s greatest strength in 2018-19 and believes standing pat is the way to go?
2) To what degree does the impending 2020 expansion draft affect your opinion on the best course of action?
3) Do you view Justin Faulk as part of the core going forward? Or would you instead consider trading him before he becomes a free agent? If not Faulk, is there another defenseman, whom you would consider trading?