Luke DeCock

Hurricanes’ draft deal may merely be beginning of busy summer

A year after an eventful draft weekend for the Carolina Hurricanes, this one passed quietly, but not without setting the stage for a dramatic summer. Their willingness to leverage their salary-cap space got them a future first-round pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs, and with the draft concluded, they can move on to their own contract hassles as free agency approaches on July 1.

That pick, acquired by their willingness to take on Patrick Marleau’s contract and bail the Leafs out of cap jail, doesn’t figure to be a great first-round pick, with the Leafs poised to be one of the conference’s top contenders for years to come – and if it somehow is in the top 10 in 2020, it bounces to 2021 anyway – but it’s still a free first-round pick, minus what the Hurricanes will have to pay Marleau.

Whether he actually plays here is up to Marleau, a condition of his waiving his no-trade clause, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said Sunday. Either way, he gets a $3 million signing bonus and either $1.25 million for playing or $833,333 in a buyout, much less than the $6.25 million cap hit he carries.

That unused cap space – and the Hurricanes still have more than $21 million even after Marleau – wasn’t doing the Hurricanes any good, even if they’ll need a big chunk of it soon for Sebastian Aho and others.

Carolina Hurricanes’ Sebastian Aho (20) celebrates after scoring on Boston Bruins’ goalie Tuukka Rask (40) to tie the score 1-1 during the first period in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, May 9, 2019 at TD Garden in Boston, Mass. Robert Willett

In the past, the Hurricanes got Teuvo Teravainen for their willingness to take on Bryan Bickell’s contract under the previous regime, but for the most part it has been an underutilized asset, until Saturday.

Just how valuable an asset it can be was underlined this weekend, with the Hurricanes squeezing a first-round pick out of the cap-squeezed Leafs and the New Jersey Devils plucking P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators for a lot less than Shea Weber. The Marleau deal may not be the last the Hurricanes make along those lines.

“When the cap came out yesterday at $81.5 (million), there’s five teams for sure that are panicking right now,” Waddell said. “Everyone thought the cap was going to be $82 or $83 (million). That’s good news for us.”

For now, the primary contract issues that concern the Hurricanes are internal. Negotiations with Aho could drag on to one of two trigger points: the start of training camp and December 1, when he would have to sit out the rest of the year. That’s just the way these things work, with the team holding nearly all the leverage and Aho lacking arbitration rights.

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Waddell noted at the draft that these deals “don’t happen in June and July,” but also noted Sunday that he didn’t think the gap was insurmountable, especially as other players in Aho’s class sign. William Nylander waited until December to sign with Toronto last fall, but it’s hard to argue that it was worth it for him or the Leafs. There’s always the possibility of an offer sheet to Aho, but those are so rare it’s only worth worrying about if and when it happens.

There’s a similar deadlock with the goalies with a week to go until the free-agent period opens, with Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney both taking their chances on the open market. There does not appear to be a huge disparity with Mrazek, but enough of one where both team and player want to see what happens in July. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are assessing the free-agent market for goalies, where Semyon Varlamov is the top option potentially available to them, if he’s interested in the Hurricanes.

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A year after the Hurricanes signed Mrazek as a free agent to shore up the position, Waddell said he spent most of Sunday talking to agents for available goalies. The Hurricanes could end up with some combination of Varlamov, Mrazek, someone else or neither – with Alex Nedeljkovic still an internal option at No. 2 if needed.

Then there’s the Justin Faulk situation: With one year to go on his contract, they either have to sign him or move him. If the Hurricanes were in the mood they were in last year, with the desperate need to shake up the dressing room, Faulk probably would already have been moved after failing to agree on an extension at the draft. Without that imperative, and with four other core defensemen safely under contract for the next two seasons, they have time to let things simmer.

Meanwhile, they wait on Justin Williams, with matters entirely in his hands. Waddell said the Hurricanes haven’t put any timetable on the captain’s decision to retire or return, but that could change if the Hurricanes start adding forwards – and they have both valuable cap space and valuable defensemen to offer for them.

The Marleau deal may not have been as earthshaking as last year’s draft trade, but it has the potential to usher in an even busier summer.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.