RALEIGH — During their more than two decades in Raleigh, the Carolina Hurricanes have been guilty of doing plenty of bargain shopping.
Filling out the forward ranks with training camp invitees or rounding out the defense with depth players of questionable talent was a standard practice of the thrifty Peter Karmanos Jr.-owned Hurricanes.
This offseason — the second under new owner Tom Dundon — has been rather different when it comes to value, and the latest addition solidifies Carolina’s spot among the best defense corps in the NHL.
The Hurricanes signed veteran blueliner Jake Gardiner to a four-year, $16.2 million deal Friday, bringing another left-handed defender into the fold and adding some top-end talent to their power play.
“I saw a team on the rise, a Cup contender for sure. … It just seemed like a great fit,” Gardiner said via conference call Friday afternoon.
The 29-year-old defenseman had 30 points (three goals, 27 assists) in 62 games in his eighth season in Toronto since being taken 17th overall by the Maple Leafs in 2008. He set career-highs in assists (47) and points (52) in 2017-18 and ranks 24th in points by defensemen (156) over the past four NHL seasons.
“Jake is a solid veteran blueliner with a proven history of contributing offensively, including on the power play,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said in the press release announcing the signing. “He’s had options this summer, but ultimately decided that Carolina is his best fit, and we’re thrilled to have him here.”
Gardiner was expected to be a hot commodity this offseason, but it took more than two months after free agency opened for the 6-foot-2, 203-pound to find his second NHL home.
“It was an interesting summer,” Gardiner said. “I wasn’t too stressed out just because I knew I believed in myself and know that something was going to work out. It was a lot harder on my wife than anyone. She was saying stuff like, ‘Are we going to the KHL?’ and all that kind of stuff. It was good to finally get done.”
The addition of the Minnetonka, Minnesota, native fills a hole left when Calvin de Haan was traded to Chicago this offseason. Gardiner’s four-year deal is $500,000 less annually than de Haan is set to make over the next three seasons.
“The blue line, it’s gotta be one of the best in the league I already, and I think I can help a little bit and hopefully help the power play out, if that’s where they see me,” said Gardiner, who has seven goals and 66 assists on the power play in his 551-game career.
While de Haan was in a third-pairing role with Carolina, Gardiner has averaged more than 21 minutes a game in his career and figures to play in the top four — opening the door for speculation that another trade could be in the works. Both Justin Faulk ($4.83 million AAV) and Trevor van Riemsdyk ($2.3 million AAV) will be unrestricted free agents after this season, and Haydn Fleury is on a one-way deal ($850,000) while Jake Bean, Chase Priskie, Jesper Sellgren and others are waiting in the wings.
Faulk would seem like the most likely candidate to be moved, seeing that he makes the most money and offseason talks between his representation and the Hurricanes have gone nowhere.
The addition of Gardiner also pushes Carolina right up against the salary cap. According to CapFriendly.com, the Hurricanes are one of five teams (along with Toronto, Washington, Buffalo and Pittsburgh) currently over the $81.5 million upper limit, though there is maneuvering that can be done ahead of the season. CapFriendly.com lists 14 forwards, eight defenseman and two goalies as currently being on Carolina’s roster, surely more than the team would carry on opening night.
Gardiner spent three years at the University of Wisconsin before turning pro, and he has played all but 18 of his professional games in the NHL. His addition comes after Carolina made two other cash-smart moves this offseason.
First, the Hurricanes added depth down the middle by trading for center Eric Haula, a 29-goal scorer two seasons ago who will count only $2.75 million against the cap this year before becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The team then signed free agent Ryan Dzingel to a two-year, $6.75 million deal — seemingly a bargain for a 27-year-old winger who has totaled 49 goals and 97 points over the past two seasons with the Senators and Blue Jackets.
The one question mark is the leadership void left when Justin Williams announced Monday he was “stepping away” from hockey rather than making a concrete decision on if he will return to the ice or retire. The team also lost the 53 points Williams contributed in 2018-19 — production they hope can be replaced by the additions of Haula and Dzingel, and growth from former first round picks Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas. The Hurricanes could also add another forward in any defenseman trade they might execute before the season.