The 2018-19 NHL season was a breakthrough campaign for the Carolina Hurricanes. After a decade of playoff misses, the team found an extended hot streak in the second half of the regular season and climbed up into the playoffs and made a run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals to put a cherry on top. General Manager Don Waddell garnered and deserved significant credit for building a team capable of making the playoffs.
2018-19 success and results
The first move was a small one that proved to be incredibly good. Waddell was able to convert Marcus Kruger who finished the prior season in the AHL into Jordan Martinook who has since become part of the team’s leadership and heart and soul.
The bigger moves kicked off early with a big deal just as the 2018 NHL Draft was wrapping up. In a deal that clearly put a line in the sand between the past and present Hurricanes, Waddell swapped high pedigree young players Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and prospect Adam Fox. It is too early to put a final grade on that trade, but once he settled in, Hamilton was clearly an upgrade to Hanifin and played a key role in solidifying the blue line and was also a key contributor offensively during the stretch run.
Waddell also added Calvin de Haan as a free agent. De Haan paired nicely with Justin Faulk during the front part of the season and helped Faulk find a significantly higher gear than the previous season.
Maybe most significant was Waddell’s moves to revamp the crease. He let long-time Canes goalie Cam Ward leave via free agency, and the team added Petr Mrazek via free agency.
Also significant was the decision to part ways with Jeff Skinner. With only one year remaining on his contract and a no-trade clause, the return was not ideal, but the decision to move on still had to be made. Many thought the Hurricanes would miss Skinner’s scoring, but the playoff berth arguably suggested otherwise.
Waddell also made key moves during the season. At a time when the team’s goaltending was still trying to get its footing, adding Curtis McElhinney off the waiver wire helped stabilize things.
And Waddell’s Houdini move to unload Victor Rask for Nino Niederreiter at the midway point of the season also provided a spark. Niederreiter has had issues trying to maintain a high level of play, but he was incredibly good as a power forward finisher down the stretch of the 2018-19 playoff run.
All of Petr Mrazek, Dougie Hamilton, Nino Niederreiter, Calvin de Haan, Curtis McElhinney and Micheal Ferland played key roles for stretches of the 2018-19 season.
2019-20 mixed bag but still with playoff results
The 2019-20 season saw the Hurricanes return to the playoffs, win a qualifying round series and arguably come a bit closer to matching or beating the Bruins. In that regard, the season validated the 2018-19 playoff return and was in my opinion a modest positive in taking a step to become a playoff regular.
But the success of the 2019-20 team was more a result of the existing players matching 2018-19 levels or improving and less about Waddell pulling levers to make it happen.
Just as with Jeff Skinner, Waddell made a decision to part ways with Justin Faulk rather than taking on a big next contract. I think that trade was a good one simply for avoiding a high-risk contract. Getting Joel Edmundson who helped back fill the hole left by Faulk was a positive in the deal as was getting a a medium or better caliber prospect in Dominik Bokk.
Waddell also performed another Houdini-like escape act in unloading Scott Darling’s contract for a roughly equal one in James Reimer but at least with the potential to help the team in 2019-20.
Waddell also swapped emerging prospect Nicolas Roy for Erik Haula aiming to add a third line center who could boost the offense.
He signed free agent Jake Gardiner to help fill the hole left by Faulk.
And he signed Ryan Dzingel to add proven scoring from the wing.
In general, I liked the set of moves when they occurred, but none of the latter three moves aiming to improve the roster from 2018-19 really panned out.
Erik Haula started hot mostly scoring on the power play but stagnated as the season wore on. Jake Gardiner struggled mightily and was arguably the team’s biggest negative through the first half of the season. And Ryan Dzingel did not seem to bring his goal scoring touch with him to Raleigh. The result was that the team sputtered some in the first half of the season trying to figure things out before finding a higher gear at the midway point and pushing up into the playoffs just like in 2018-19.
Waddell also made a series of moves near the trade deadline aiming for a boost. The team acquired defenseman Brady Skjei for a first-round draft pick and prospect Julien Gauthier, depth defenseman Sami Vatanen for what ultimately became a third-round pick and Janne Kuokkanen and center Vincent Trocheck for Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark and prospect Eetu Luostarinen.
In total, the 2019-20 season was a mixed bag for Waddell. The Reimer/Darling swap was an incredibly good one with Reimer having a strong season and the trade really being about getting out of Darling’s contract. The Faulk trade was not a massive return, but I think Waddell did well getting both help replacing Faulk and a good prospect to boot. But after the contract maneuvering trades, the results took a decided step down. None of the three intended roster upgrades (Haula, Gardiner, Dzingel) really helped. And the early returns on the three trade deadline deals were not great. Skjei had his moments and could be considered positive, but Trocheck never really got going offensively in the regular season or playoffs. And though he maybe fulfilled his role, I am not sure the return on a few games of Vatanen was worth the cost.
For the Trocheck and Skjei deals, where they slot and how they perform in the 2020-21 season will say a lot about how good those deals were.
A couple trends to note
Now through two seasons with Tom Dundon as the owner and Don Waddell as the General Manager a few trends have emerged.
First and foremost, the Canes are no longer shy about being active in the trade and free agent markets. After the slow pace of change under Francis, Waddell’s off-seasons were the polar opposite.
Thus far, the team has shown a willingness (or desire?) to be at least one player deeper than four for possible top 4 defenseman and has been willing to spend to do so.
The new Hurricanes have shown a propensity to quickly part ways with players whose next contract demands do not match their perceived value. In only two off-seasons, the team has parted ways with Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk who were or were expected to quickly become top half of the roster players.
Per yesterday’s article about the culling of the prospect pool from draft years 2014 to 2017, the team has shown a willingness to part with prospects on the cusp of the NHL in letting go Nicolas Roy, Eetu Luostarinen, Janne Kuokkanen and Julien Gauthier.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How would you grade Don Waddell for the 2019-20 season in total with some hits and some misses?
2) What do you make of the Hurricanes carrying five top 4-ish defensemen each of the past two years? Do you think that was intentional strategy or possibly more just happenstance based on how things shook out?
3) Do you think Waddell will be able to pull off a Houdini hat trick and unload either Nino Niederreiter or Jake Gardiner this next off-season?