Hurricanes’ busy week includes draft, retirement, free agency

Justin Williams hung up his skates and Carolina added speedy Jesper Fast

Carolina moved quickly to fill the hole left by the retirement of Justin Williams, signing free agent Jesper Fast to a three-year deal worth a total of $6 million. (Frank Franklin II / AP Photo)

The NHL will have to play a condensed schedule to stuff 82 games into a 2020-21 season that will start, at the earliest, nearly three months late on Jan. 1, 2021. The whole league — including the Carolina Hurricanes — got a crash course in multitasking in the last week with the opening of free agency coming less than two days after the conclusion of the NHL Draft.

It was particularly hectic for the Hurricanes, who selected eight players at the draft, saw a franchise icon retire, and — after being quiet on Day 1 of free agency — added a speedy winger to its forward corps.

Here’s the week that was at the start of the NHL’s surreal offseason.

Jarvis leads draft class driven by hockey sense

The front office for every team in any team sport will tell after an amateur draft that they’re thrilled with the players they were able to select. In the case of the Hurricanes, many pundits seemed to agree that Carolina got a talented player in first-round pick Seth Jarvis — a forward from the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks — and followed that up with several value picks on the draft’s second day.

“When I say, ‘What’s the best thing about Seth?’ it’s as hockey sense,” Darren Yorke, Hurricanes director of player personnel, said following the draft. “It is hard to do anything better in the last two years than what Seth’s accomplished. And it’s because of how smart he is. … He makes other people better. He can score. There are so many layers to his game, that it really is special.”

On the draft’s second day, Carolina capitalized on some players who slid down in the draft. Forwards Noel Gunler and Vasily Ponomarev — ranked 27th and 44th, respectively, in North State Journal’s pre-draft rankings — were picked in the second round at 41st and 53rd. Zion Nybeck, an undersized but stout Swedish forward ranked 53rd by NSJ, was available in the fourth round at 115th overall, while Russian Alexander Pashin (NSJ No. 64) fell to Carolina all the way at 199th overall in the seventh and final round.

The Hurricanes rounded out their draft class with defenseman Alexander Nikishin in the third round (69th overall), forward Lucas Mercuri at No. 159 in the sixth round, and closed out the draft with defenseman Ronan Seeley at No. 208 in the seventh.

Yorke said the prevailing theme was smarts on the ice.

“We’re going to have a common thread, and it’s going to be hockey sense,” he said of the class.

Williams announces his retirement

Three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and one the game’s best nicknames — Justin Williams will forever be viewed as one of the key players who brought a championship to Raleigh and, more than a decade later, returned to make the Hurricanes relevant again.

We could wax poetic about Williams’ career — his statistics, while impressive, never defined his worth — and the value he brought to locker rooms in Philadelphia, Carolina, Los Angeles and Washington, but his moniker of Mr. Game 7 tells one all they need to know about competitive and clutch during his 19-season career.

Fast signs in free agency

The Hurricanes were quiet on the opening of free agency on Friday, but Saturday they added more speed and character to their forward group.

Jesper Fast, who played seven seasons with the Rangers after they drafted him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, signed a three-year, $6 million contract to join Carolina.

Some may best know Fast for his exit from Game 1 of the play-in round between the Rangers and Hurricanes when Carolina defenseman Brady Skjei — a longtime teammate of Fast’s in New York until he was dealt to the Hurricanes at the trade deadline — delivered a punishing hit that knocked the Swedish winger out for the rest of the series.

In Fast — who confirmed he was concussed on the hit but said there was no “bad blood” with Skjei —Carolina adds more speed to its lineup and another capable penalty killer who has 15‑goal potential.

And while no one is going to replace Williams in terms of intangibles, Fast is about as close as a team is going to get to adding an instant character boost to the locker room. Fast was given the Rangers’ “Players’ Player” Award five straight years, an honor given to the player who best examples being a team player and voted on by the New York players.

“You know what he means to his teammates, and obviously we all talked to Brady, and Brady couldn’t say enough good things about Jesper,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said. “So it was it was a perfect fit for us.”

The Hurricanes also added depth signings in the past few days, bringing in defenseman Joakim Ryan and re-signing restricted free agents Clark Bishop and Spencer Smallman all to one-year, two-way deals.