RALEIGH — The combination of cap space and a soon-to-be-rising salary cap turned into the perfect storm for the Hurricanes at the start of the NHL’s free agency period on Saturday.
“Cap space,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said, “is like gold.”
That Carolina had it — and many other teams didn’t — allowed the team to sign two of the bigger names on the market.
The Hurricanes first added former Capitals and Bruins defenseman Dmitry Orlov on a two-year contract worth an average of $7.75 million annually, further bolstering an already stacked blue line.
“I think he was ranked as the top defenseman on everybody’s list as far as free agents,” Waddell said.
Orlov, who played 42 games against Carolina during his 10-plus seasons with the Metropolitan Division rival Capitals, mentioned having three times been on a Presidents’ Trophy winner and coming up short in the playoffs. In his first opportunity to be a free agent, he said he was looking to go to a team with a chance to win it all.
“So I think I made a good decision,” Orlov, a Stanley Cup winner with the Capitals in 2018, said during a video press conference, “and I’m happy to be with Carolina right now. … I want to be on a good team who have a big goal to get to the end.”
The 5-foot-11, 214-pound Orlov has been a workhorse for Washington — and briefly Boston this season — throughout his career, averaging more than 20 minutes a game while posting 64 goals and 273 assists in 709 regular season games.
He had eight assists for the record-setting Bruins, who acquired him at the trade deadline, in their stunning seven-game exit against the Panthers in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
Waddell and the Hurricanes’ front office weren’t done. Michael Bunting, who was ranked ninth on The Athletic’s list of the top free agents (Orlov was second), also agreed to a contract with the Hurricanes that will pay him an average of $4.5 million for three years.
Bunting, a 27-year-old left wing, scored 23 goals in each of the last two seasons with Toronto, finishing in third place in Calder Trophy voting for the league’s top rookie in 2022. He also brings another element the Hurricanes have often lacked: The 6-foot, 192-pound winger is one the league’s top agitators.
“Whenever you go out and, especially in a case like this where you spend $13.5 million on a player, you want to make sure you get a player that can contribute offensively,” Waddell said of Bunting. “He just had that extra knack, the way he plays, that’s something that we definitely wanted and (coach) Rod (Brind’Amour) wanted. So that was a bonus to be able to get that type of player.”
Bunting ranked second in the NHL last season in drawn penalties with 43, behind only Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, who had 45. Over the past two seasons, Bunting ranked third (behind McDavid’s 95 and Pierre-Luc Dubois’ 92) in drawn penalties with 88.
Bunting also takes penalties, totaling 197 in 187 career regular season games, but his combination of grit and scoring touch was something Carolina couldn’t pass up.
“We wanted to add to our forward group,” Waddell said. “(He’s) a player that brings lots of intangibles. He can score, hits. He’s a feisty guy.”
On top of landing two of the bigger fish in the free agency pond, the Hurricanes were able to re-sign three of their own pending UFAs.
First was Jesper Fast, who agreed to a two-year extension worth $2.4 million annually to return to the Hurricanes.
“He’s a true pro,” Waddell said of Fast, who got a 20% annual raise on the three-year, $6 million contract that just expired. “He comes to the rink every day (and) you get the same effort in practice as you do in a game.”
Carolina also reunited its three-head goalie rotation, re-signing both Frederik Andersen (two years, $3.4 million annually) and Antti Raanta (one year, $1.5 million). Both goalies took less money to return to Raleigh, and when grouped with the up-and-coming Pyotr Kochetkov, the Hurricanes have three goalies signed to a combined $6.9 million for the 2023-24 season.
“There’s a lot of goalies in the league, starters, that make more than all three of those guys (combined),” Waddell said. “So if we were going to bring them back, I felt that we needed the insurance to have all three of them back.”
The Hurricanes also plan to follow through on their trade for defenseman Tony DeAngelo — Waddell even spoke at Saturday’s press conference as if DeAngelo was already on the books, mentioning the team’s remaining cap space ($2.5-3 million) as if it already included the $2.5 million Carolina will pay DeAngelo after Philadelphia retains half of his $5 million contract.
That leaves the Hurricanes with a wealth of talent on the blue line — and the likelihood that one of Brett Pesce or Brady Skjei will be traded to make way for Orlov in the top four. Pesce and Skjei are both entering the final year of their contracts, and Carolina will want to get something for at least one member of last year’s second pairing.
“We’re at a point we’re in a good spot where we don’t feel compelled that we have to do anything else right now with the guys we signed today,” Waddell said. “But there’s a lot of moving pieces.”