Hurricanes defensemen Sami Vatanen and Trevor van Riemsdyk are expected to test free agency when the market opens up on Friday, GM Don Waddell told reporters, including NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. Waddell did indicate that Carolina is interested in retaining them and the players could still potentially circle back once they’ve seen what other offers are out there:
We’ve made it real clear that we’d like both guys, but we also understand that we’re under a little bit more of a scrutiny with our salary cap. So if they go out to the market, whatever the market will bear, it might be something that if they do come back to us that we can talk about.
As things stand, the team has less than $8MM in cap space with only 17 players signed and while winger Warren Foegele and blueliner Haydn Fleury aren’t going to break the bank as restricted free agents, by the time they’re signed, there won’t be enough room to keep both UFAs by the time you factor in spending to fill out the rest of their roster.
Vatanen is the more intriguing of the two situations. The 29-year-old was brought in by Carolina at the trade deadline despite being injured at the time with the hopes that he’d help them down the stretch and in the playoffs. Of course, the pandemic shut things down and he was only able to play in seven playoff games.
While Vatanen’s offensive production has dipped in recent years compared to the 37 and 38-point seasons he put up in 2014-15 and 2015-16 respectively, he’s still an intriguing top-four option that can help run a power play. He does, however, carry considerable injury risk as he has yet to play more than 72 games in a single season. With a thin UFA market though, there still should be a large number of teams interested in him and a deal around the $4.875MM AAV that he had the past four seasons could still happen even with the salary cap flattened out.
As for van Riemsdyk, the 29-year-old was in a limited role for most of this season, playing in just 49 games during the regular season and only two of their postseason contests. It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to command the $2.3MM AAV he played under the last two years but if he’s willing to sign for less, it’s plausible that he could be brought back at a rate that’s more commensurate with a sixth or seventh role.
Waddell also has to be mindful of two big-ticket deals on the horizon for 2021-22 in winger Andrei Svechnikov and defenseman Dougie Hamilton. Svechnikov is a restricted free agent next offseason and Waddell indicated that extension talks are ongoing while allowing for the possibility of the 20-year-old’s next contract being a short-term bridge. As for Hamilton, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency after next season, no talks have been held yet but he’ll be in line for a significant raise on his current $5.75MM AAV. Knowing that those contracts will be coming sooner than later will certainly affect Waddell’s willingness to spend big on multi-year deals in the weeks ahead which could very well take Vatanen off the table for them.
Fortunately for Carolina, even if both of their UFA blueliners don’t return, they’ll still be well-positioned for next season with Hamilton anchoring a top-four that also features Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei. Veteran Jake Gardiner is also in the mix as well as Fleury so the Hurricanes will still have a strong back end without Vatanen and van Riemsdyk in the mix.