Luke DeCock

Hurricanes sign defenseman Jake Gardiner to a four-year contract

The Canes’ Jeff Skinner (53) battles the Leafs’ Jake Gardiner (51) and Josh Leivo (32) as they go for the puck during the first period. Toronto was called for a penalty on the play.
The Canes’ Jeff Skinner (53) battles the Leafs’ Jake Gardiner (51) and Josh Leivo (32) as they go for the puck during the first period. Toronto was called for a penalty on the play.

With an unexpected late-summer free agent signing that put them over the salary cap, for the moment, the Carolina Hurricanes’ blue line got a lot better Friday.

And a lot more crowded.

The Hurricanes added Jake Gardiner, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, on a four-year contract worth an average of $4.05 million per season, a relative bargain for a top-two-pairing defenseman who can quarterback the power play.

“He’s a top-four defenseman who gives us some flexibility,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said Friday in a telephone interview.

Gardiner, 29, had 30 points in 62 games for the Maple Leafs last season and as a left shot fills a void on a powerful defense that happens to be overloaded with right shots (Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Justin Faulk). Gardiner could be especially useful on the power play, where Hamilton, Faulk and Slavin never really clicked last season, about the Hurricanes’ only weakness on the blue line.

“It’s got to be one of the best (defenses) in the league already,” Gardiner said on a teleconference Friday. “I can help a little bit, help on the power play if that’s the way they see me. They’re really good on the right side. Maybe I can help on the left.”

The “flexibility” Waddell mentioned is critical because Faulk is entering the final year of his contract, and with five defensemen capable of playing on the top two pairings, the Hurricanes now have the security to trade Faulk at will if they can’t re-sign him.

Of course, last summer’s free-agent signing of Calvin de Haan was supposed to do the same thing, and Faulk ended up staying with the Hurricanes and having a terrific season. He’s still here, for now, while de Haan is not.

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The Hurricanes had been talking with Gardiner all summer as the Maple Leafs continued to struggle with salary cap issues, especially with restricted free agent Mitch Marner unsigned, and couldn’t bring Gardiner back. With training camp a week away, Gardiner’s asking price dropped to the point where it became a no-brainer for the Hurricanes, who were willing to give him the longer-term deal other teams were not. While his wife worried that they might have to go to Russia as the season approached, Gardiner said he remained relaxed throughout the long summer.

“A lot of teams wanted to do a one-year or two-year deal,” Gardiner said. “I didn’t really feel like going through this again. It’s a really good opportunity with a really good team.”

The Hurricanes are now almost $2 million over the salary cap, with restricted free agent Saku Maenalanen still unsigned, but have options. They could carry fewer than 23 players to start the season, shuttle backup goalie James Reimer and his $3.13 million salary to and from the AHL, or make a trade — dispatching Faulk or an extra forward — before opening night to get under the cap.

But they also have Hamilton under contract for two more seasons, Gardiner for four, Pesce for five and Jaccob Slavin for six, all for less than $6 million per season each. They also added highly sought college free agent Chase Priskie this summer and traded de Haan for depth defenseman Gustav Forsling, to go with returnees Haydn Fleury and Trevor van Riemsdyk. With Faulk, that’s essentially nine NHL defensemen, assuming Priskie is ready for the NHL by midseason or so.

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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.