Most of the Hurricanes moves this offseason have centered around acquiring a winger for the top line and trading for a star player. While there is no doubt that this should be a top priority, another area that needs to be addressed is the defense. No team gave up more shots per 60 minutes at even strength than the Hurricanes did this year and they were also one of the worst teams on the penalty kill in terms of shots allowed. If this team wants to contend, they are going to need to improve their defensive play. Adding some more offense will take some pressure off Cam Ward but the team can't continue to make him face 30+ shots on a nightly basis and force him to steal games for them. Improving the defense will likely lead to a more stable success in the future.
The Hurricanes have already taken the steps to rebuilding the defense through the draft as we have seen both Jamie McBain and Jusitn Faulk blossom into full-time NHL-ers in the last couple of years and they also have other players like Brian Dumoulin and Ryan Murphy waiting in the wings. The team also has two key pieces in Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason locked up for a few more years so there is a solid foundation there. The problem is that they have a lack of a true #1 defenseman and the ones with the highest potential are too young and still developing in the NHL. Carolina is going through a transition phase with their defense and they are going to take their lumps in the process, which is probably why their defensive numbers look so bad over the last couple of years. As players like Faulk mature and the other prospects enter the mix, the defense should improve but that's a few years down the road.
To make the defense better next season, the Hurricanes are going to need to improve the supporting cast around what they have now. Gleason and Pitkanen can handle the bulk of the tough minutes and I would expect Faulk to step into an even bigger role next year. What the Hurricanes need for next year is someoen who can play top-four minutes, be matched up against tough competition and contribute on the penalty kill. Basically a replacement for Bryan Allen, who is likely going to depart on July 1st. I've talked about the hole that the Canes are going to have to fill when Allen leaves, but how are the Hurricanes going to go about fixing it?
An ideal situation would be for the Hurricanes to sign a top-four defenseman to a one or two year deal, which would allow them to not rush their younger prospects and have someone to hold the fort down until they are ready. They also have the option of trading whoever they sign if one of the prospects manages to win a roster spot over him, too. The problem is wondering if there is a defenseman out there willing to accept only a one or two year deal. Free agency is always a bidding war and you usually see a lot of four year deals handed out, especially with the cap being raised. There are some intriguing players out there who the Hurricanes might look at if Allen decides to walk, though. We will look at those after the jump.
Before we discuss who the Hurricanes should target, let's take a look at what their monetary situation looks like courtesy of Capgeek.
The Hurricanes only have $12.6 mil invested in their defense next season and have plenty of money to spend for improvements. After Pitkanen & Gleason, they aren't spending much money at all on their defense corps so it would definitely help if they spent a few more dollars on their blue line. How exactly should they go about this, though? They need to bring in at least one more defenseman, preferably one who can play top-four minutes. How much they are going to need to spend to get one is a tough question but the Hurricanes are probably more concerned about contract length than the actual money. Murphy, Dumoulin and Sanguinetti will all be looking for roster spots in the next couple of years, so the Canes will probably have to avoid a long-term deal. Justin Faulk is also due a new contract after next season. Although, a deal longer than two years might be possible depending on what happens with Jay Harrison after this year.
There might be nine different players fighting for six spots but how many of them would be top-four defensemen on a contending team? That is my concern with the defense going into this off-season why I think it would be smart to bring in another blue liner for at least another year. Who is out there, though? The general public might see the free agent pool as "Ryan Suter and everyone else" but there's actually a lot more out there than that. Some of which fit Carolina's needs.
|Player||EVTOI/60||PPTOI/60||SHTOI/60||Corsi Rel.||OZ Start||RQOC||Cap Hit||SA/60||P/60||Age|
EVTOI = even strength time on ice per 60 minutes, PPTOI/60 = powerplay time on ice per 60 minutes, SHTOI/60 = shorthanded time on ice per 60 minutes, Corsi Rel. = Corsi relative, OZ Start% = offensive zone start percentage, RQOC = corsi relative to quality of competition, SA/60 = amount of shots allowed at even strength per 60 minutes, P/60 = even strength points per 60 minutes. Stats from Behind The Net.
Like I did with the forwards, I'm going to break this down into different groups sorted by the quality of players. I'll discuss how high on Carolina's radar they should be and what the chances are that they sign them. I'll start off with the players who are considered to be at the top of this free agent class. They aren't necessarily the best defensemen available but they are probably valued the most by other teams and will get the biggest payday this July.
Top Free Agents
I mentioned this earlier but Ryan Suter is the best defenseman available this summer and he is probably going to get a retirement contract from whichever team signs him. Suter was one of the main reasons why the Predators made the playoffs this season and has been one of the top defensemen in the league for the past couple of years. He plays a very sound defensive game but is also a very underrated puck-mover and can handle tough minutes better than anyone else who is out there. Unfortunately, I think Suter is out of the Hurricanes reach because of the type of deal he is looking for. The Canes have the cap space but I don't know if they have the funds to sign him. Plus with a group of talented defensemen waiting in the wings, it's hard to justify taking up a lot of cap space and salary right now. Ultimately, I see at least four or five teams trying to outbid each other for Suter while the Hurricanes take their business elsewhere. Would signing Suter be a good move? Absolutely, but I don't know if the Hurricanes can give him what he wants, so it's probably better to look at other option. Plus, signing Suter isn't going to magically get this team over the hump.
Those who strike out on Suter and are in need of an all-around defensemen will probably be interested in Philadelphia's Matt Carle, who is much more valuable than some people give him credit for. He played tough minutes this year, surrendered a pretty low volume of shots compared to the rest of the group, was used in all situations and was a very solid point-producer. The Flyers have said that want to re-sign Carle but they have over $23 mil. invested in their defense corps right now and have a couple other holes to fill. Chris Pronger going on LTIR might give the Flyers enough breathing room to keep Carle but he is due for a big raise nonetheless. Another player who is due for a significant raise is Jason Garrison of the Florida Panthers. Garrison scored a career high 16 goals this season after being switched to a more offensive role alongside Brian Campbell. He was previously used strictly in a shutdown role in past years but it appears that Kevin Dineen saw some offensive potential in him and used that to the team's advantage. Garrison is a very good player who can handle tough minutes and be used in all situations so I have to think that he is on a lot of team's radars. How much will he get paid is the question. One year of offensive production in a more territorially protected role isn't enough for me to give him a long-term deal but I certainly wouldn't mind seeing him with the Canes next season.
Two other guys who I'd expect to be on some team's radars are Dennis Wideman and Filip Kuba, mostly because of how shallow the market is. Wideman was bad in the playoffs but he had a solid regular season with the Caps and was one of their key players on the powerplay with Mike Green on the shelf for most of the year. Despite being an offensive defenseman, he was not protected and seems good enough to play a top-four role on a lot of teams. I don't think he is exactly what the Hurricanes are looking for, though because they have enough puck movers at their disposal. Maybe they would favor Filip Kuba of the Ottawa Senators? He had a very good season in the eyes of most and was used heavily on the PK. However, he is getting old and had the luxury of playing with Norris winner Erik Karlsson this season. There is no doubt that boosted his numbers a little bit. Also, let's not ignore that he started almost 60% of his even strength shifts in the offensive zone, had a negative corsi relative rating and was on ice for almost 30 shots against per 60 minutes. I think it's best if they avoided Kuba.
Carolina may not be able to acquire the top players, but there are other players out there who fill the role they are looking for, which is someone who can play top-four minutes. Basically anyone who can play at least 15-20 minutes at even strength per nights and contribute in some areas on special teams. Everyone who I mentioned in the previous section fits in this category, but they may cost more than what the Hurricanes are willing to spend. The players in this section may not be as good but they do fit what the Hurricanes are looking for and might be slightly undervalued. One guy who I see in this category is Carlo Colaicovo of the St. Louis Blues. He was fantastic in a top-four role with the Blues and was very good at preventing shots against. Ken Hitchcock also trusted him against tough competition and his price tag shouldn't be too much considering he made less than $2.5 mil. this year. Most of the issues surrounding Colaiacovo all concern his durability as he has a history of concussion problems but a bigger problem to me is that he a lot of his good underlying numbers were mostly due to him playing with Alex Pietrangelo. His possession metrics took a sharp turn downward whenever he wasn't with Pietrangelo and whoever signs him should keep an eye out for that. He also wasn't used regularly on the PK in St. Louis so that could be a problem with him signing in Carolina. He isn't a bad option if you're looking for a 2nd pairing defenseman, so I think he might be on their radar but they might want someone who is stronger in his own end.
There is certainly no shortage of experienced players this off-season as veterans like Sheldon Souray, Adrian Aucoin, Scott Hannan and Michal Rozsival are all available. All four of them were used regularly on the penalty kill for their respective teams and the two Phoenix rear guards (Aucoin & Rozsival) were actually very solid while playing somewhat tough minutes this season. Aucoin may not be a bad option for the Hurricanes if they are looking for a somewhat cheap defenseman who can play in the top-four and kill penalties. He already had his big payday (thanks Tallon!) and was actually very solid for the Coyotes last season. The same goes for Rozsival, who was also a solid point getter at even strength in addition to that. Age and durability are the issues for both of these players. Rozsival suffered a brutal knee injury after taking a hit from Dustin Brown in the Western Conference Finals while Aucoin is almost 40 and missed 18 games last year. Still, if the Canes are looking for someone to take over Allen's role for next season, these two aren't bad options. Hannan is also going to be available at a low cost but he was shelled at even strength last season as a member of the Calgary Flames blue line. That's a major red flag. Souray did some major heavy lifting for the Stars last year and still maintained a positive corsi relative rating, which is very surprising when you look at the amount of shots he was on ice for. Carolina could be interested in him but he has obvious red flags that might keep teams away. Sami Salo could probably fit into a lot of team's top four's as well but he is made of glass and not very good, so I don't think the Hurricanes have him in their plans.
Third Pairing/Penalty Kill Specialists
Should Allen leave, someone is going to have to take over his minutes on the PK. If you look at the defensemen that Carolina has under contract next year, you can point to probably 3-4 guys who kill penalties regularly. Gleason is obviously the main penalty killer but bth Faulk and Harrison did well on the PK last season, as well. Pitkanen is a bit of a wild card because he can kill penalties but wasn't used much on the PK last season. Same goes for Jamie McBain. There are quite a few players out there who can't be trusted with big minutes at even strength but log a lot of time on the PK. This is mostly because they can block shots and prevent chances against but struggle when it comes to actually pushing the play forward.
When you think of PK specialists, one of the first players who should come to mind is the mountain of a man that is Hal Gill. He specializes in one thing and that is getting in the away of opposing forwards and making it difficult for them to get to the prime scoring areas. His skillset is very limited otherwise and he doesn't play enough minutes to be considered a top shutdown defenseman, so the only teams that are going to be interested in him are those who need penalty killers. Carolina is one of those teams but they might need someone who can play a bigger role. The Hurricanes might also value the penalty killing strengths of Greg Zanon, who was very good defensively but protected in a third-pairing role with the Wild and Bruins. Zanon is getting old and injury-prone but he could work in a shutdown role for Carolina.
Another defenseman who performed well in a third-pairing role this year was Cory Sarich of the Calgary Flames. There is no doubt that Sarich played well but he was also largely protected in terms of who he was matched up against. The Hurricanes already have a couple defensemen who might need protection next year and don't need to add another. Sarich wasn't used much on the PK either. I would also steer clear of Sheldon Brookbank, Brett Clark, Colin White and Steve Staios as neither were good at even strength last year. White could be useful on the penalty kill, though.
This section is for players who are largely unproven or were once useful in the past but are coming off a season that was derailed by injuries. Radek Martinek is someone that will be undervalued for this exact reason. He has been a very solid tough-minute player in past years but has never been able to stay healthy and played only 7 games last season. He recently suffered a concussion so that is going to make people very wary of signing him but he is a pretty useful player when healthy. If anything he will be a cheap option to fall back on if the Canes strike out in other places. Mike Lundin is also going to be available for a low cost this off-season and he could be able to give whoever signs him a lot for their money. Like Martinek, he has experience playing tough minutes, is a very good penalty killer but has only played a full season once in his NHL career. Lundin is pretty thin for a guy who plays tough minutes so that has probably contributed to his injury problems.
Sometimes a team can benefit from small risks and I'd be willing to bet that at least one team is interested in signing Dylan Reese of the Islanders to a one-year deal. Reese is in his upper-20's, so his ceiling doesn't appear to be that high but he could prove to be a useful defenseman in the NHL. He posted some very strong underlying numbers while playing in somewhat tough situations and that's a very good sign for him going forward. However, he has only played in 74 games over 3 seasons in the NHL so the book is still open on him. His play with the Islanders last year could be his true talent or that could be a good stretch of 20-some games and he's actually a lot worse. We'll just have to wait and see.
The Hurricanes can sign one or two of these players or they can be satisfied with their current defense corps and prospect pool and sign no one. It really depends on how much money they are willing to spend and how Dumoulin, Murphy and Sanguinetti develop. It's possible that the Hurricanes wait until rookie or training camp before acquiring a defenseman because they want to see what they have with their current crop of talent first, but the new cap floor could force them to spend earlier than they want to.