Just as free agency was kicking off last summer, I predicted a series of events that would see the Hurricanes both change out a significant portion of the team’s veteran leaders and simultaneously keep the forwards and defensemen balanced in terms of budget and proven producers. Two-thirds of one of one of the potential series of moves that I proposed materialized when the Hurricanes signed free agent Calvin de Haan and traded Jeff Skinner for prospects. But the final third of the chain that was to trade Justin Faulk for a proven scoring forward to back fill Jeff Skinner’s slot did not occur. With Faulk’s name popping up regularly in the trade rumor mills early in the summer, very likely the team aimed to do exactly as I said, but had to pull back when the trade value just was not there for Faulk.
As such, the team entered the season short a scorer or two. And I entered the regular season fully expecting that ultimately the third part of the chain of moves would in fact occur. I had a couple reasons for that assertion. First, the Hurricanes lineup could definitely have used another scorer. And second, for a team very near the salary cap floor, paying a fifth top 4 defenseman made for an imbalance of player budget. Finally, Justin Faulk is scheduled to be a free agent after the 2019-20 season potentially making hiim a short-timer in terms of having a long-term role with the team after the addition of Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan over the offseason.
But here we sit 52 games into the 2018-19 season, and the team is still carrying all five top 4 defensemen, and significantly, the formula is working fairly well. No doubt, the Hurricanes could use one more scoring forward, but Hamilton has started scoring, and the team has recently found more scoring depth from within. The swap of Victor Rask for Nino Niederreiter also provided an offensive boost. So based on where the team is right now, today’s Daily Cup of Joe considers the long-term viability of keeping five top 4 defensemen as part of the team’s core.
What would it take for it to be viable?
Making a case for keeping the full set of five top 4 defenseman requires two things. First, the blue line must be a sizable strength for such an investment to be worth it. Second, the team must be able to add more scoring fire power some other way.
While that might prove challenging, it could be possible. There were some bumps along the way, but I think the blue line has emerged as a strength. Be it due to a personal rebound or more help from a better partner (mostly Calvin de Haan), Justin Faulk has rebounded from what I considered two consecutive seasons trending negatively in terms of defensive play. Quietly and somehow suddenly, Dougie Hamilton is up to nine goals which puts him on pace for something close to the 17 he notched in 2017-18. And in total, the blue line is deep and has generally been pretty solid more often than not. So there is a legitimate case for the team’s current blue line being a strength.
The second requirement is more challenging. Early returns on the Nino Niederreiter trade put the team in a better place scoring-wise at forward and also suggest that it is possible to add scoring help without trading away top-tier players. But I think the bigger thing is understanding what the team’s budget will be going forward. Teuvo Teravainen already received his raise with his new contract and Sebastian Aho’s will be even bigger. Those deals will push the Canes up off the cap floor, but there will still be some room to spend more. Will Tom Dundon be willing to spend close to the cap before the team proves it has a winning formula? That would allow room to add another scoring forward or possibly two from free agency or via a trade where the team takes on salary. Without that budget though, the team seems overly reliant on youth rising up. I like Martin Necas and the volume of maybes in Charlotte as much as anyone, but Necas’ stumble out of the gate at the NHL level illustrates the difficulty in predicting timelines for young players. So I think the surer path back to the playoffs goes light on assuming youth into key roles and instead adds some help and counts the youth a bonuses and boosters as they arrive.
A few other angles
The salary math
As noted above, a key reason for continuing with plan A of trading a defenseman for scoring help is the need to balance the budget between forwards and defense. But could that be accomplished reasonably well even if not perfectly even with all five defensemen in tow? Justin Faulk is owed $6 million next year (cap hit of $4.83 million) and then scheduled to become a free agent. Could the Hurricanes get him under contract for a modest discount? It is not common for players in their prime to take pay cuts, but with cornerstones Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce signed for $5.3 million and $4 million respectively and regular partner Calvin de Haan signed for $4.55 million per year, the Hurricanes could at least try to make a case for a fair salary relative to the team’s blue line structure being something like $5 million per year on a new deal. If the Hurricanes were able to re-sign Faulk for that price, the total salary of the five top 4-ish defensemen would be a total of $24.6 million. That is a bit high, but because four of the five are a bit below the $6 million threshold, the total is about the same as paying four top 4 defensemen $6 million each or having one or two pricier defensemen to go with two more at about $4 million. If the team traded Trevor van Riemsdyk and used inexpensive youth on sub-$1 million contracts for the #6 and #7 slots, the total salary allocated to defensemen is maybe a bit high but not by a huge amount.
Justin Faulk’s wishes
If the Hurricanes decided that they wanted to go this route or at least consider it, another key input is Faulk’s wishes. If for whatever reason, he wants to test free agency, the plan becomes non-viable past the 2019-20 season at which point the team would want to make sure it received a return for Faulk in trade. If instead Faulk wants to stay in Raleigh but only at a maximum contract, then the team really needs to consider whether keeping a fifth top 4 defenseman at premium price is really the best option. Regardless, Faulk has a say in the viability of such a plan. On the team’s side, this upcoming off-season would be the time to make a call on that by either trading Faulk or re-signing him.
A path for Adam Fox
Another significant angle on this situation is prospect Adam Fox and his contract situation. Fox is a highly-touted offensive blue line prospect whom the Hurricanes received in the Dougie Hamilton/Micheal Ferland trade. He is having a phenomenal season in the NCAA at Harvard and is moving up the prospect rankings because of it. Some think he could be ready to jump straight into the NHL in 2019-20. But the issue is that there are rumblings that Fox’s intent is to play through 2019-20, graduate college and then become a free agent who can go wherever he wants. My gut tells me that Fox will not want to wait another year for certain and possibly two if another lockout occurs in 2020-21 to start accumulating NHL years of service and working toward his second contract. But if he is willing to wait it out, he does have the ability to hand pick a situation that has the best and fastest path to NHL ice time. If the Hurricanes do decide to keep Faulk, that would be a significant negative in that regard for Adam Fox seeing a fast path to the NHL. The Hurricanes would be deep on defense and have three veterans on the right side signed for multiple years. So if Fox is truly weighing his options, this would be a negative in terms of trying to get him under contract this summer.
Could the Canes trade someone else instead?
With de Haan and Hamilton coming in new and Slavin and Pesce being part of the young core for me, Faulk seemed like the odd man out this summer if a deal happened. I still think that is the case.
From the very beginning, I dug my heels in on not just lumping Faulk, Pesce and Hamilton into a group and trading whichever yielded the highest return. I put Pesce in a completely different category as arguably the steadiest defensive defenseman on the roster. And though his transition has been a bumpy one, I have leaned toward patience with Hamilton simply because I think he has the upside (think Joni Pitkanen 2009-10) to be an elite defenseman and a key difference-maker. Popular opinion actually seems to be coming around to the same. Whereas, awhile back many were quick to consider trading Pesce instead just to get something done, the team’s recent success has people less eager to just swap Pesce in for Faulk. And Hamilton’s recent goal scoring burst has people less eager to give up on him quickly.
I still stand right where I did from the beginning. If the Hurricanes are to trade a top 4 defenseman, I think Faulk is the one to go. With a stronger 2018-19 season, he has bounced from possibly being a ‘sell low’ situation last summer to more likely garnering a fair return. I still like Pesce as just a steady even if unspectacular anchor. And I am still not willing to give up on Hamilton’s high ceiling after only 50ish games with a new team.
Where do I land?
If the Hurricanes could re-sign Faulk for a slightly lower price in the $5 million range, the financial part of keeping all five defensemen becomes more viable and at least a possibility.
But at the end of the day, I still think the Hurricanes need at least one more proven scoring forward to start having enough pieces to build a second scoring line. And I think the best/most likely way to accomplish this is to include Justin Faulk in a trade.
With Jake Bean making good progress in his rookie season as a professional in the AHL and Adam Fox also looking promising as noted above, I would rather utilize a #5/#6 slot on one of these two young defensemen who have the potential to be an offensive catalyst.
So though the right deal might not come until the off-season, I still lean toward trading Justin Faulk (and not someone else) to add forward scoring help.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Would you consider re-signing Faulk and keeping all five top 4 defensemen?
2) To what degree would you consider/prioritize the possibility of cluttering the path for Adam Fox in resolving this situation?
3) Which of the other top 4 defensemen would you consider trading instead of Faulk if that deal is easier to do?