The Hurricanes received some terrible, but unsurprising, news yesterday that defenseman Joni Pitkanen could miss the start of the year, as he has not fully recovered from a heel injury he sustained late last season. This isn't a shocker considering how gruesome the injury looked, but not having him in the lineup is a huge blow to the Hurricanes. Pitkanen typically plays more minutes per game than any other defender, but that alone isn't why he will be missed.
A month ago, I talked about how Pitkanen was the only true "puck-mover" on the Hurricanes blue-line and how superior he was at driving the play forward compared to the rest of the defense corps. He adds another dimension to the Hurricanes breakout game and forecheck, which is going to be tough to replace because no other defenseman on the team really has that ability. Long-term, Ryan Murphy should be the guy that slides into Pitkanen's role but right now, the Canes don't really have a puck-mover who is as skilled as him.
Justin Faulk has offensive skill and can move the puck, but he has developed more as a shutdown defenseman, Andrej Sekera also has a decent skillset, but it obviously isn't as high as Pitkanen's while players like Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison, Mike Komisarek and Brett Bellemore are all more of stay-at-home players. So, unless Murphy is ready to make hte leap to the NHL next year, then the Hurricanes are going to need to add another blue-liner between now and October to help make up for what they're losing in Pitkanen.
There are a few things getting in the way of that, though. The first of which relates to cap space and whether or not the Canes have enough room to add another player. Right now, they have a little under $5 mil. in cap space remaining and that number will go up if Pitkanen were to go on Long Term Injured Reserve. Jim Rutherford has mentioned that he wants to add a defenseman but has to move one first, and I think this is why. Pitkanen going on LTIR would give him a little more wiggle room under the salary cap to make a move.
The question is whether or not there is anyone out there who can adequately take over Pitkanen's minutes. It is September after all. The only players left are those who other teams didn't want and there's probably a reason why they haven't been getting many offers. There isn't going to be a perfect replacement for him, but if you glance at the free agent market, there are two potential top-four defensemen who stand out. Those players being Tom Gilbert and Ron Hainsey.
Both are relatively young (i.e. under 35), are capable of playing a top-four role and fill an immediate need on the Hurricanes defense corps. Who is the better fit for the team, though? Most Carolina fans seem to want Hainsey because he has a reputation as a shot-blocking, crease-clearing defenseman that the team has always "needed," but I am more partial to Gilbert. With Pitkanen out, the team needs someone who can quarterback the power play and provide some offense from the blue-line. Gilbert can do that and at 30 years old, he isn't too far removed from his prime years.
I've watched and read about Gilbert a lot over the last few years, probably because I read Copper & Blue on a daily basis, and I honestly think he would be a perfect fit for Carolina. This is a guy who can lead breakouts on his own, get the puck moving in the right direction and elevate the performance of his teammates. He can also play on both special teams units and was a solid contributor to the Oilers power play in recent seasons. Basically, Gilbert can do almost everything Pitkanen did and would be a good replacement for him while he is out, especially if he is available at a low price.
What about Hainsey, though? Admittedly, I don't know a ton about him other than he is more of a defensive-defenseman and I think the team has enough of those. That doesn't mean he wouldn't be a good addition, though. Much like it's wrong to assume that Gilbert is "bad defensively" because he is a puck mover, it's unfair for me to assume that Hainsey is an anchor because he is an older defensive defenseman. So, after the jump, we will look at what Hainsey brings to the table and how he compares to Gilbert.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may remember that I posted this TOI competition graph yesterday and asked which player should the Hurricanes sign to replace Pitkanen based on what you saw. The majority said Player B with Player A as the close-runner up and Player C receiving only one vote. What this graph showed was the ice time of each of these player's opponents over the last six seasons. Player A was Ron Hainsey, Player B was Tom Gilbert and Player C was Filip Kuba. So with all biases removed, most seem to believe that Gilbert or Hainsey would make a decent replacement for Pitkanen.
I already gave my two cents on both players in the intro, but how do they compare statistically? Despite both players being completely different by the eye test, they are similar than you think.
2010-13 Statistical Comparison
Over the last three years, both Gilbert & Hainsey have produced at similar rates at even strength, are in roughly the same territory in terms of driving the play and usually log about 20+ minutes of ice time per game. Gilbert's usage on the power play makes him a little more of an attractive option here because he is more versatile, but Hainsey also have some offensive upside. He actually outscored Gilbert at even strength relative to his ice time over the last three years and has a few 30+ point seasons under his belt too.
Once upon a time, Hainsey was a great two-way defenseman and decent point-producer but injuries and him getting virtually no power play time in the last few seasons have led to him posting some underwhelming offensive numbers. Still, the foundation is there and if Hainsey is still at least decent with the puck on his stick then he can be a solid top-four guy for the Canes, especially if he can play against the tough assignments. Although, there is one category that makes Hainsey slightly inferior here and that's the drive the play on his own & improve the players around him.
Going by Relative Fenwick, which is each team's Fenwick percentage with the player on the ice compared to when they were not, you'll notice that Gilbert ranks much higher than Hainsey. What this means that over the last three seasons, Gilbert had a more positive effect on his teammates than Hainsey did on his. Part of this is because Gilbert has spent most of his career on some awful Oilers teams, but that shouldn't take anything away from what he has done. If anything, this makes his performance even more impressive because he was one of the Oilers best players during his time there.
With Gilbert on the ice, the Oilers (and the Wild to a lesser extent in 2011-12) territorial performance was not terrible and they were actually a positive possession team for a couple of seasons. Without him, however, they were a disaster at even strength. If he can help a bad team this much, then imagine what Gilbert can do on a decent possession team like Carolina. The only time when Gilbert didn't have a positive impact on his teammates was last season, which he spent with the Minnesota Wild.
Like the Oilers, the Wild were a bad possession team at even strength and Gilbert didn't do much to improve that. He was also held to a third pairing role for most of the year playing soft minutes, so his overall performance fell off dramatically from where it once was. That being said, 43 bad games doesn't undo what was an impressive body of work prior to that and Gilbert could have a nice rebound campaign in the right situation.
As for Hainsey, he has also played on some bad teams in recent years but his performance isn't as impressive.
Hainsey's numbers aren't bad, and he has shown the ability to control possession in some years but he hasn't been able to make players around him better. Aside from the 2010-11 season, Hainsey's territorial performance was equal or slightly worse to the talent that was around him, which is a little concerning if the Hurricanes do pick him up. The Canes have enough horses up front to be a solid possession team at even strength and bringing Hainsey along isn't going to anything to negate that. However, if the absence of Pitkanen leads to Carolina's underlying numbers falling off a cliff, Hainsey won't do much to improve them. That's generally what's expected from a solid stay-at-home defenseman, though.
Having reviewed the track record of both players, it can be said that both players would be a good fit on the Hurricanes blue-line but Gilbert offers a lot more than Hainsey. He is more likely to replace Pitkanen's offense and make the team substantially better. Hainsey, on the other hand, is someone who will not make the team worse but he doesn't offer a whole lot in terms of being able to drive the play or be a game-changer. His recent performance is better than Gilbert's, though so he is the safer option and should play a big role on the PK if he is signed. I just think Gilbert offers more upside and will give the Canes more value for next year.
The fact that both are still unsigned that either one might be willing to accept a cheap, low-risk deal and it wouldn't surprise me if the Canes add one of them within the next few weeks. They took a chance on Mike Komisarek, why not one of Gilbert or Hainsey?
Stats courtesy of Hockey Analysis