Behind the Hurricanes’ splashy deadline and rare rental trade: One on one with GM Don Waddell

Don Waddell tried to hide his excitement Thursday night as he watched the Carolina Hurricanes play from his suite at PNC Arena.

The Canes general manager was sitting on the biggest scoop in the NHL.

Waddell had taken some criticism from fans due to a so-far quiet week leading up to Friday’s trade deadline, with teams like the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche adding big names. The Hurricanes failed in a trade attempt for Vancouver Canucks franchise center Elias Pettersson, who ended up re-signing.

“The fans were ready to kick me out of the building,” Waddell joked in a conversation with The Athletic on Friday.

The tenor would soon change dramatically, he knew.

Waddell had an agreement in place to acquire the biggest fish at the deadline, Pittsburgh Penguins’ star winger Jake Guentzel. But with both the Hurricanes and Penguins playing Thursday, he had to wait to finalize details and make it all official. The news began to leak, but he told nobody outside his small inner circle.

Jake Guentzel has 52 points in 50 games this season and 58 in 58 career playoff games. (Emilee Chinn / Getty Images)

“It was an interesting feeling,” Waddell said. “I’m a person that tries to keep my emotions inside. I did. But once we had that trade call and we knew everything was secure, I was a pretty happy person.”

The Golden Knights might have stolen the show Friday out West, adding Tomáš Hertl to their haul of Noah Hanifin and Anthony Mantha. But for Vegas, that kind of boldness is expected. The Hurricanes being major players in the rental market? You’d have to go back to 2006 in the Doug Weight sweepstakes to find a comparable to what Waddell pulled off.

This was a home run swing. This was diving into deep waters.

And, for Carolina, it was a no-brainer.

“We went in with a purpose and came out, I think, in pretty good shape,” Waddell said. “You know, it gets the juices going.”

The Hurricanes have been one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams the past several seasons, frustrating opponents with their ferocious forecheck, embodying the DNA of coach Rod Brind’Amour. But each year, they’ve been vanquished in the playoffs by other team’s top stars, whether it’s the Florida Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk or the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov.

Last season, Carolina lost star forward Andrei Svechnikov shortly after the trade deadline and scored just six goals in a four-game loss to the Panthers.

You think that pain, that memory, was in Waddell’s mind as he planned for this year’s deadline in the war room with owner Tom Dundon?

“That definitely played a part,” Waddell said.

To bring in Guentzel — a point-per-game winger and playoff hero — and defenseman Ty Smith, the Hurricanes sent back Michael Bunting plus forward prospects Vasily Ponomarev, Ville Koivunen, the rights to forward Cruz Lucius, a conditional fifth-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft. They did give up a 2024 first-round pick, but it’s conditional, with the Penguins receiving it only if the Hurricanes reached the Stanley Cup Final (it will be a second otherwise).

An NHL GM would take that anyday.

Then, on Friday morning, Waddell took a flier, acquiring Evgeny Kuznetsov, the long-time Capitals star center who recently passed through waivers after a stint in the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program.

“There are times that you have to make a move to reward what you’ve been doing, and we felt this year was good timing for us to do that,” Waddell said. “We’re not typically a rental-type team, but this just fits us so well. When you can make something fit and you can get it without giving up the pieces, where you feel good about where your depth is, I think you put that all together and it makes sense for us to move forward.”

Waddell felt the Hurricanes prospect pool, recently ranked No. 13 in the NHL by The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler, had about 10 prospects who could play in the league. There won’t be as many spots in the lineup in the next year or so, which gave them some depth to deal from.

Waddell had kept in touch with Penguins president Kyle Dubas, but things didn’t really start to heat up until the past few days. Dubas told Waddell he wanted to see how his team did before fully making the decision to sell. And if Dubas did deal Guentzel, he emphasized that getting players and prospects would be just as if not more important than picks.

“We all know picks,” Waddell said. “You hit on some and miss out on a lot.”

They talked Wednesday, and Dubas told him he was going to move Guentzel. Waddell made his offer. He didn’t receive permission to discuss an extension with Guentzel and said that it wasn’t a problem — that these next few months will give both sides a chance to see if they’re a long-term fit.

“Kyle had to do his due diligence and to get as many teams he could get involved to get as much as he can,” Waddell said. “And I don’t blame him for that. When you’re trading a star player, you want to get the best package.

“We’re just happy we were the winner at the end of the day.”

While the Guentzel sweepstakes were going on, Waddell had his sights on another former playoff hero: Kuznetsov. When the Capitals unceremoniously placed the Russian on waivers Saturday, believing a fresh start could be helpful, Waddell’s radar went up. He phoned Capitals president and GM Brian MacLellan on Monday morning about Kuznetsov.

“What are your plans?” he asked.

“Well, we’re talking about reassigning him to (AHL) Hershey,” MacLellan replied.

“You open to moving him?” Waddell said.

Said MacLellan: “Let me get back to you.”

The teams started conversations later that day, with Waddell and his team doing their due diligence. It helped to have Kuznetsov’s former Capitals teammate, Justin Williams, now on the Hurricanes staff, in Waddell’s ear. Williams pushed for Kuznetsov, giving a strong opinion that they should give him a look.

The Hurricanes don’t need Kuznetsov to be the player who racked up 32 points during the Capitals’ 2018 Cup run, but they believe there’s more there than the player this season who had a 1.07 points per 60 minutes that was a career low by a wide margin.

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Evgeny Kuznetsov has 17 points in 43 games this season, a career-worst pace. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

“(Williams) said he was one of the most talented guys he ever played with,” Waddell said. “(Williams) said, ‘It’s in him. We’ve got to get it back, and we can get it back.”

Waddell said the Hurricanes talked to other former Kuznetsov teammates, a former coach and even got permission to chat with the doctor he worked with in the player assistance program. Waddell was struck by how humbled and honest Kuznetsov was in their phone call earlier this week.

“What I like about it is he admitted it,” Waddell said. “Sometimes players try to blame other reasons why things happen and he took full accountability. He was so appreciative of us even talking to him and giving him an opportunity.

“We just felt the risk-reward here was too good to pass up.”

Waddell said Kuznetsov acknowledged this could be his last chance. He thinks the Hurricanes’ culture and leadership group should help him, too.

The deal got done quickly Friday, with the Capitals receiving a third-round pick and retaining 50 percent ($3.9 million) of his salary for the rest of this season and for next season, the final of his contract.

“Coming here is only going to help him,” Waddell said. “I’m very positive that this is going to work out for both of us.”

Waddell gave credit to Dundon for buying in, as well, and ponying up for Kuznetsov’s salary. Dundon believes in the process. Whether the big swings turn into a Stanley Cup remains to be seen.

Before it gets to that, Waddell was planning a celebration Friday night of a deadline win.

“I’m more of a Pinot Noir guy,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m a lightweight. I can’t drink the real heavy stuff. I’m going to go home, grill some burgers with my wife and have a glass of wine.”

(Top photos of Jake Guentzel and Don Waddell: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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