NHL contract grades: Hurricanes get reasonable fallback options in Sean Walker, Shayne Gostisbehere

The contracts

Carolina Hurricanes sign defenseman Sean Walker to a five-year deal with a $3.6 million AAV and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere to a three-year deal with a $3.2 million AAV.

To properly evaluate Carolina adding Walker and Gostisbehere, you have to start with what went out the door. Earlier in the day, the Hurricanes officially lost their de facto No. 2 defense pair when both Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce left as UFAs. Skjei signed with Nashville for seven years at a $7 million AAV. Pesce left for New Jersey, lured by a six-year deal with a $5.5 million AAV.

Both were crucial pieces for a long time in Carolina. Both averaged above 20 minutes per night last season and Skjei, especially, provided unexpected offense, totaling 47 points in 80 games, 35 of them at even strength. He’s become a quiet, effective, no-nonsense play driver. His departure, and that of Pesce, left gaping holes on both the left and right side of their defense.

They turn instead to Gostisbehere to play the left side and Walker on the right side. Both are quality, experienced – and, most importantly, cost-effective — adds. Walker got five years for a total of $18 million. Gostisbehere got three years for $9.6 million. Or, to put it another way, Carolina landed the two newcomers for less than what Skjei received from Nashville. So, a good outcome on the business side.

But, make no mistake about it, on the ice, this represents a step backward. Walker is a competitive but undersized defenseman, now with his fourth team in 13 months. Gostisbehere had a cup of coffee with Carolina as a rental two years ago, then moved on to Detroit shortly thereafter.

Having said all that, Walker is an easy player to like, someone who skates well, plays with great anticipation and has a feisty demeanor. One of his former coaches once said of Walker that he brings “a bantam rooster attitude to the game. You hit him, he’ll hit you back twice as hard.” He began his NHL career as an undrafted free agent and signed with the Kings, partly because of a Bowling Green connection. Walker played collegiately there, as did Kings GM Rob Blake and player personnel director Nelson Emerson.

In the sixth game of the 2020-21 season, playing for Los Angeles in a game against the St. Louis Blues, Walker tore his ACL and MCL and missed the rest of that season. Walker played well in his return the next year with the Kings, but L.A.’s surplus on the right side made him expendable, and he went to Philadelphia as part of the complicated trade that got the Kings out from under Cal Petersen’s untenable contract. Colorado gave Philadelphia a first-rounder to rent Walker at the deadline.

As for Gostisbehere, there’s some level of familiarity with him in Carolina, based on the 23 regular-season (and 15 playoff) games he played for them in 2022-23. Last season with Detroit, Gostisbehere had the second-most-productive scoring year of his career – 10 goals, 56 points. Gostisbehere isn’t known for the defensive side of his game. Luckily, that’s taken care of by Jaccob Slavin. That was probably the best news of the day for Carolina, that they extended Slavin, their No. 1 defenseman, on Monday morning for the maximum eight-year term. The contract represents a classic hometown discount. An AAV of $6.46 million? For Slavin? That’s tremendous value for what he brings to the mix. That signing would rank as an A-plus.

In a perfect world, devoid of budgetary and payroll challenges, the Hurricanes probably would have been happy to just roll back Skjei and Pesce on similar team-friendly contracts. But not everyone is willing to do business the Tom Dundon way — an owner who simply won’t overpay, even for players who’ve been in the organization as long as Pesce and Skjei were.

So, as they left for greener pastures, Walker and Gostisbehere represent quality alternatives. Gostisbehere will probably take over No. 1 power-play duties from Brent Burns, while Walker’s compete level will mesh nicely with the type of hockey that coach Rod Brind’Amour wants to play. It’s not perfect. But for the price, it’s a reasonable fallback position.

Contract grades: A
Fit grades: C

(Photo of Sean Walker: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

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