RALEIGH — When the trade deadline came and went, the Carolina Hurricanes made a single move: They traded Haydn Fleury for Jani Hakanpaa — a left-for-right upgrade on defense, to be sure, but a lateral move from a depth perspective.
Every other contender in what would normally be the Eastern Conference added something at the deadline. For depth. For insurance. For just-in-case.
Some of the prices were outrageous, some were not but still well above fair market value, and many of the players who moved were not what you would call, and this is being generous in many cases, darlings of the analytics community.
The Hurricanes saw none of the players available as better than the players they had, especially given the cost it would take to acquire them. That’s fine on paper, but there’s an equivalent opportunity cost for failing to act. The reason teams do mortgage their futures to some degree — sometimes to great degrees — for players they wouldn’t normally pursue is that the present is fleeting.
Cap space left unspent
The Hurricanes had $2.1 million in cap space at the April 12 deadline that went unused the rest of the season, and with teams able to retain salary — as the Buffalo Sabres did with Taylor Hall in the trade that sent the winger to the Boston Bruins — that was enough to work with.
Meanwhile, the Bruins added Hall. The Pittsburgh Penguins added Jeff Carter. The New York Islanders added Kyle Palmieri. The Montreal Canadiens added Eric Staal. The Tampa Bay Lightning added David Savard. The Florida Panthers added Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour.
And so on: Jordie Benn, Riley Nash, Patrik Nemeth, Michael Raffl.
The Hurricanes did nothing. Their unused cap space sat there, an asset unrealized, money unspent. Meanwhile, the Lightning not only gamed the system with Nikita Kucherov’s season-long injury, they made a three-way deal to get Savard and stay under the cap, giving up a first-round pick to do it, a year after they gave up two first-round picks at the deadline to add Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and won the Stanley Cup. That’s commitment.
The Hurricanes’ inaction at the deadline would come back to haunt the Central Division champions.
Depth issues in postseason
The Hurricanes could easily have lost to the far-inferior Nashville Predators, going 2-2 in four straight overtime games to close out the series, 0-2 without Jaccob Slavin in the lineup. Rod Brind’Amour didn’t trust Jake Gardiner, which left the Hurricanes pulling Maxime Lajoie out of the AHL to make his debut for the team and relying too heavily on Jake Bean. It cost them in Nashville when Bean got caught on the ice in overtime and misplayed the winning goal in Game 3.
Savard or Montour or Benn may not have made the Hurricanes better when fully healthy, but they could have helped the Hurricanes both while and after Slavin was injured. That may not have been worth the first-round pick the Lightning gave up for Savard, but the Lightning saw a chance to repeat and took it. The Hurricanes looked at a chance to contend and passed.
And while with the benefit of hindsight the Lightning was clearly superior, the better team doesn’t always win and there were more than enough openings for the Hurricanes to win the series. That list starts with one-goal home losses in games 1 and 2 and a two-goal lead on the road in Game 4 that turned into a summary collapse in a game the Hurricanes played without Nino Niederreiter and Vincent Trocheck, and with a half-speed Warren Foegele.
Would a veteran forward (or two) have turned the tide in Game 1 without Niederreiter? Or in Game 4 with a full line essentially missing? As good as Andrei Vasilevskiy was, that series was still out there for the taking. The Hurricanes played two games with Jordan Martinook centering the third line while the most familiar name out there at the deadline, Staal — the Canadiens got him for third- and fifth-round picks — has helped push Montreal over the top with seven points in 10 games.
That didn’t look like a great deal at the time, but only one Staal brother is still playing.
Window to contend is fleeting
For all the talk about how this team’s window to contend is just opening, one phase of that opening just closed. The group that has essentially been together for three seasons will undergo some inevitable retooling, almost certainly starting with free agent Dougie Hamilton.
Hamilton’s going to get paid beaucoup bucks by somebody on the open market, but the Hurricanes will have to fit Andrei Svechnikov’s new contract under the cap, among other financial concerns. If they were going to be able to re-sign Hamilton at a so-called hometown discount, it would already have happened. There’s going to be more money out there for him elsewhere. It’s not inconceivable he returns, but it’s a tricky situation without an obvious solution.
It’s all too clear now that Hamilton isn’t a great postseason player, but for all his very visible mistakes, he’s a tremendous regular-season weapon, quarterbacking the power play and creating chances at even strength. Whatever Dougie giveth away, he taketh as well. That won’t be easy to replace on the right side of the defense if he leaves.
Meanwhile, as good as Alex Nedeljkovic was in his first NHL season, there are still goaltending questions. He wouldn’t be the first rookie to regress. Petr Mrazek and James Reimer are both free agents, so there’s the opportunity for a new face there. And the Lightning series demonstrated that as much skill as the Hurricanes have amid their top-six forwards, they not only need more, but more players willing to go to the net and stay there. Jordan Staal at 32 isn’t getting any younger.
There are three seasons left in the Hurricanes’ window-at-large, before Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei become free agents. (Slavin has another year after that.) It may not seem like it, but the clock is already ticking on this core group.
For this particular conception of that core group, the one that won its division under extraordinary circumstances, time expired not only Tuesday but in April, when the Hurricanes decided their best still lay ahead.
They lost to a team that decided, for the second year in a row, the future is now.