Of all the possible players on the Carolina Hurricanes’ trade block, Julien Gauthier is a name few were expecting to be dealt. But, roughly one week before the Feb. 24 trade deadline, the Hurricanes parted ways with the 22-year-old power forward and received defenseman Joey Keane from the New York Rangers.

Keane is two years younger at 20, and his right-handedness on the blueline adds flavor to the Hurricanes’ current prospect pen. He has collected 30 points in 49 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack in his first season in the AHL. He joins a Charlotte Checkers team that already boasts a pristine defense core that includes the likes of Chase Priskie, Roland McKeown, and AHL All-Star Jake Bean.

Related: 20 Biggest NHL Trades in the Past Year

The Rangers were on the hunt for forward prospects, as Keane would have had a difficult path into the NHL with Jacob Trouba, Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox manning the right side of the Rangers’ back end. Gauthier was one of the Checkers’ top offensive players, and was a lock to make the Hurricanes next season, if not later this year.

Hurricanes GM Waddell Taking the Patient Approach

This is the second trade made by Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell in the past six months that prioritized the future, rather than the now. The Justin Faulk trade back in September signified he was in no rush to bolster the current team and sacrifice their long-term plans to force their way back into the playoffs.

The return for Faulk probably should have been an NHL forward, yet Waddell opted for the 20-year-old prospect Dominik Bokk. And again with the Gauthier trade, Waddell is setting up for the future by adding Keane, a promising defensive prospect who could make the NHL as early as next season.

Joey Keane New York Rangers
Joey Keane, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Waddell’s plans have largely left the Hurricanes’ NHL roster untouched, even though it has glaring needs that need addressing. The ‘Canes are currently one point outside of a playoff spot as they have struggled to remain above water in the juggernaut Metropolitan Division. With Dougie Hamilton out for the rest of the regular season, the Hurricanes were rumored to be in the market for a defenseman who could eat up those top-four minutes. And it seems like they’ve been searching for a top-nine forward all season, even after the recent re-signing of Justin Williams.

Hurricanes Are Shying Away From Rentals

Defensemen Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo came off the market Tuesday, when they were traded to contending teams for the price of draft picks. Dillon commanded a return of a second- and third-round pick, while DeMelo was acquired for just a third-round pick.

The Hurricanes have nine draft picks in the upcoming 2020 draft, including six in the first three rounds. If they wanted to make that trade, they probably could have. They still have the assets to target players like the Anaheim Ducks’ Josh Manson and the Buffalo Sabres’ Brandon Montour, but Waddell has been firm in what he believes is the right direction for this team.

Defensemen have been a hot commodity this season, which seems to have driven up the deadline price by a small margin. Take Marco Scandella for example – he was acquired by the Montreal Canadiens for a fourth-round pick back on Jan. 2, but was just flipped to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday for a second-round pick and a conditional fourth.

The Hurricanes could still pull the trigger on a defenseman with more term – like Matt Dumba or Jeff Petry – but Waddell is probably not willing to move one of his top prospects or anything higher than a third-round pick for a player with an expiring contract who may not be willing to re-sign with the Hurricanes.

Hurricanes Sell High on Gauthier

Headlined by 22-year-old star Sebastian Aho and 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov, the Hurricanes have a bright future – it’s still easy to forget how young their core is. The Athletic recently ranked the Hurricanes’ prospect pool third-best in the NHL – and they improve that with the acquisition of Keane.

Parting ways with Gauthier also means the Hurricanes don’t have to worry about losing him in the upcoming Seattle expansion draft, as the 20-year-old Keane will be ineligible and won’t require protection.

Julien Gauthier
Julien Gauthier (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Gauthier, a first-round pick by former Hurricanes GM Ron Francis in 2016, has scored 26 goals with the Checkers this season, eight more than second-place Morgan Geekie. He’s a strong driver of offense who uses his 6-foot-4 body exceptionally well, helping him separate from defenders and drive himself toward the net.

His excellent preseason had many thinking he could crack the Hurricanes’ lineup this year, especially considering their need for offense. However, he only played five games with the Hurricanes, in which he collected one assist. It was always the plan to have Gauthier play one more year in the AHL where he could continue developing his foot speed and his play away from the puck.

Julien Gauthier Carolina Hurricanes
Carolina Hurricanes right wing Julien Gauthier (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Gauthier wasn’t the Hurricanes’ No. 1 forward prospect, but he was the closest to being NHL-ready. He has put in years of hard work to get to that next level, which is perhaps why it’s hard for Hurricanes fans to accept this loss. It’s also been frustrating watching Waddell constantly re-tool Carolina’s blue line. It’s been one of the most talked-about aspects of the Hurricanes’ season, between the juggling of defensemen in the offseason, Hamilton’s injury, and the inconsistencies of everyone not named Jaccob Slavin or Brett Pesce.

Blue Line Depth Needed Untangling

Carolina’s pool of defensemen features plenty of guys with third-pairing potential, but that’s the problem. The Hurricanes need a guy who can comfortably slot into second-pairing minutes. Keane is still a year or two from being that guy, but he’s a valuable piece that brings every element you could want in a defenseman – strong skating, offensive ability, and grit.

A former third-round pick by the Rangers in 2018, Keane brings stability and assurance to the Hurricanes’ back end. He could slot into the lineup behind Hamilton and Pesce next season as the third right-handed defenseman, while Slavin, Jake Gardiner and Joel Edmundson – should he be re-signed – can man the left. It allows the Hurricanes to comfortably part ways with pending unrestricted free agent Trevor van Riemsdyk, who has struggled this season after five months recovering from shoulder surgery.

The addition of Keane brings another All-Star defenseman to the Checkers’ blue line. Keane was also recalled by the Rangers four days ago, indicating the Rangers’ brass took notice of his strong play, though he never actually dressed for an NHL game.

He’s had tremendous success for a 20-year-old in his first professional season, and the Hurricanes took advantage of a Rangers system that needed to trim its group of right-handed defensemen. With Keane and the 21-year-old Bean now heading the Checkers’ blue line, the Hurricanes are set for the future with an exciting duo with top-four potential.

The Hurricanes will see plenty of Gauthier for years to come as he joins the divisional rival Rangers. With Chris Kreider possibly on his way out of New York, Gauthier could be the new fan-favorite power forward in town.

Hurricanes-Rangers games will have an added element of excitement when Keane and Gauthier face off for the first time against their former clubs, which we’ll likely see a lot of for years to come.

In the meantime, Waddell and the Hurricanes will keep testing the market as the trade deadline approaches next Monday. The Hurricanes may not be finished – they could use some of their lower-end prospects to target a player with some term to help inch them closer to a playoff berth. They also have three key pending UFAs – Erik Haula, Edmundson and van Riemsdyk that Waddell will have to make decisions with before the end of the season.