As most of hockey world knows by now, the Hurricanes will be without defenseman Joni Pitkanen for the entire 2013-14 season. Pitkanen shattered his heel bone in a game against Washington in early-April and the word is that while the surgery was a success, he still has not been able to put weight on it and that's bad news for him making any sort of return in the next calendar year. The news isn't a surprise given the severity of the injury but it doesn't make it any less devastating.
Pitkanen doesn't have the reputation of being a great defenseman around the league, but he is someone who typically logs 20+ minutes a night on the Canes blue line and that alone will be very tough to replace. He is also the Hurricanes best puck-moving defenseman and pretty much the only one on the blue-line capable of pushing the play forward on his own. People talk about how the Canes had "too many" puck-movers last year, but the truth is that Pitkanen was the only one who was effective at it. Pitkanen does make a lot of mistakes in his own zone, but that should not overshadow all the contributions he makes (making good plays out of his own zone, leading breakouts, giving another dimension to the Canes forecheck by jumping into the rush) so making up for this loss will be no easy feat.
Considering how bad the injury looked, one would hope that the Hurricanes front office prepared for this news and have a contingency plan ready. Expecting Pitkanen to come back any sooner than January was probably wishful thinking and let's be honest, the Hurricanes defense was in rough shape even with him healthy, so there should have been plans to add someone else to the mix even if Pitkanen was going to return mid-season. Jim Rutherford did say earlier in the summer that they wanted to add another defenseman, but needed to move someone before doing so, which probably relates to cap space and clearing roster room.
As of right now, the Canes have a little under $5 mil. in cap room and 16 defensemen in camp battling for roughly 6-7 spots. Pitkanen coming off the books opens up a spot in camp and about $4.5 mil. in cap space. That should give Rutherford enough breathing room to add another defenseman through free agency or a trade before the season starts. With the season being less than a month away, one would think that the Hurricanes options are limited but there are actually more doors open than some may believe.
I already talked about the idea of adding Ron Hainsey or Tom Gilbert through agency last week, but what else is open to them?
Option 1: Free Agency/Professional Tryout Deal
This is what I suggested last week because there are two potential top-four guys available in free agency (Gilbert & Hainsey) and both can be added for a pretty low cost. I don't know if they would accept a tryout deal, but that might be the only thing open to them at this point of the off-season and the Hurricanes might be able to get decent value for either of them by the end of the season. Both are coming off big contracts and might be seeking more, but if they want to stay in the NHL, they'll have to accept something like a tryout deal or a one-year contract for about $1.5 or $2 mil. because neither has much leverage.
Yes, the Hurricanes are in desperate need for a defenseman, but both of these players have been passed over in free agency and the Canes aren't bidding with anyone to add them so why should they pay market value? When it comes down to it, both players are looking for NHL jobs and the Hurricanes can give that to them if they earn a spot in training camp. Someone like Hainsey, Gilbert or even Carlo Colaiacovo should be able to do this if they receive a camp invite. None of them are going to fix the defense, but they'll add depth and are capable of playing top-four roles at the NHL so they should be on the team's radar.
Option 2: Trades
With $4.5 mil. coming off the books, this could open the door for a trade that doesn't involve the Hurricanes sending one of their forwards the other way. The cap going down has put a lot of teams in a bind right now, so it would be wise for the Hurricanes to take advantage of this situation by looking for a defenseman that might be the odd-man out on their club for cap purposes. Players like Matt Niskanen, Kyle Quincey, Mark Fayne or Braydon Coburn could be in the Hurricanes sights if they choose to go this route. Whether or not any trade like this happens remains to be seen, though. As much as the cap relief helps, I find it hard to believe that any of these teams will trade a top-four defenseman away for nothing unless they're desperate to clear a roster space or one of them falls out of favor with the coaching staff. This might be the case with Fayne in New Jersey, but I suspect that they'll look to move someone else before him. Same goes for Niskanen & Coburn in Pittsburgh & Philadelphia respectively.
Option 3: Offer Sheet Cody Franson
This is what everyone on the Internet wants to happen but chances of it occurring seem low. Rutherford does not strike me as someone who would offer sheet another player and it's tough to figure out just how much Franson is worth. He is a very good offensive defenseman and is only 26 years old, but it's hard for me to say that he is a proven top-four guy. He has ranked near the bottom of 5v5 time on ice per 60 minutes in his two years with the Leafs and hasn't been trusted much on the penalty kill either. Some of this probably has more to do with Randy Carlyle than Franson himself, but I would still be leery about giving up picks for a player who isn't a proven top-four player.
That said, Franson does fit Carolina's needs in other areas. He is a defenseman that is capable of making his teammates better and pushing the play forward, as he has posted some great underlying numbers throughout his entire career. He has also been one of the best point-producing defensemen in the NHL since his rookie year and that alone could make him worth quite a bit. Is it enough for Carolina to give up draft picks by offer sheeting him, though?
TSN's Darren Dreger said that he believes the Leafs will match anything lower than $3.3 mil. per season and that would require the Canes to give up a second round pick or a first and a third rounder as compensation (depending on what they offer Franson). Has Franson done enough for the Canes to give up two draft picks to get him? They would also probably have to take on long-term money to get him and that could become an issue with Justin Faulk & Jiri Tlusty due for extensions next season.
Offer-sheeting Franson isn't a bad idea, but there are some risks attached to it that I'm sure Rutherford isn't willing to take right now.
Option 4: The Waiver Wire
This is sometimes referred to as "dumpster diving" by fans, but it's really not a bad thing to do. There are a lot of times when good, young players end up on waivers because their NHL club's roster is too crowded for them to earn a spot. The Islanders added two solid defensemen through waivers last year in Thomas Hickey & Brian Strait and I wouldn't hate it if the Hurricanes followed a similar method. I can't predict who ends up on waivers, but there are always a few interesting names out there and with the Canes being 5th in the pecking order, they have a decent chance to land one. This also has less risk attached to claiming a player off waivers rather than giving up assets for a player who you may not be completely sold on. Depending on who is available, this could be an attractive option to the Canes.
If I were running the Hurricanes, I would go the free agency route for now and invite Hainsey, Gilbert or Colaiacovo to camp on tryout deals to see how they fit in. If neither of them work out, then I would start thinking about trades or offer sheeting Franson. When you're a team like the Canes, you want to get as much value as possible out of every player, and getting a top-four guy on a tryout deal or through waivers is the best way to do that at his point of the off-season.