MONTREAL – Injuries at this time of year make it difficult for any general manager to make a proper evaluation of his team as it approaches the trade deadline.
Just ask Jim Rutherford.
The Carolina Hurricanes general manager is expecting the return of top defenseman Justin Faulk perhaps as early as this weekend, and defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti is skating with the team while Tuomo Ruutu is day-to-day with a groin injury after missing the first 29 games recovering from hip surgery.
"We're open to doing something," Rutherford told NHL.com Monday prior to his Hurricanes facing the Montreal Canadiens. "The big thing for us is just to get healthy. That would be as good as any trade we can make right now, but we can only get the players back when they're ready to come back."
But the player Rutherford most wants to see back is nowhere near returning.
"The big one is Cam," Rutherford said.
That would be goaltender Cam Ward, who sprained the medial collateral ligament in his knee in a game March 3.
Rutherford said the best case scenario for Ward's return would be the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and if that were to happen he feels his team could do some damage in the post-season without any additions.
"We've gone through a bad period, but fortunately we're still in it," he said. "If we can end up getting in and getting healthy, we feel we can do pretty well."
The problem is Ward won't be around to help the Hurricanes make the playoffs.
And that's the rub.
"When you lose your number one goalie and your top defenseman," coach Kirk Muller said, "it's a bit of a challenge."
The Hurricanes have been leaning on Justin Peters and Dan Ellis in Ward's absence, and even Ellis missed three games with a leg laceration before being taken off injured reserve Monday and backing up Peters against Montreal.
When Ward went down the Hurricanes held a comfortable four-point lead atop the Southeast Division. The Hurricanes won three of their next four games after Ward's injury, but then lost seven straight – including six in regulation time – to plummet down the Eastern Conference standings.
While Rutherford wouldn't mind adding a goaltender before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. Wednesday, he said he will not be sacrificing his team's future to do it.
"We're not even working on a goalie trade, but if one came along it would be a hockey deal," Rutherford said. "It would be somebody for now and in the future."
The problem is, finding those goalies that can help you "now and in the future" is very difficult, and they come at a price. Plus, Ward will be back and he has three seasons after this one remaining on his contract, so devoting assets to acquire a goaltender that may end up playing as little as 40 games over the next three years is another calculation that needs to be made.
"They're tough to find. Teams that have been developing somebody, they're developing him for themselves," Rutherford said. "We have the obvious goalie situation everybody's talked about all year [the Vancouver Canucks' Roberto Luongo], but that doesn't make sense for us. If there was a good young goalie – and there a few teams that have developed a lot of good young goalies – if one of those became available you'd have to consider a hockey trade."
His aversion to acquiring a rental player to help with the final push toward the playoffs is not limited to the goaltending position. In fact, Rutherford basically guaranteed the Hurricanes will not be involved in any rental-type deals between now and Wednesday.
"For teams like us, on the bubble that can go either way, paying a high price for a rental is pretty risky," he said. "I would suspect by the time Wednesday night comes, we won't be one of those teams."
The thing is, practically half the League is on the playoff bubble as Wednesday's deadline approaches. Prior to Monday night's games, there were 16 teams in the League that were within four points – north or south – of eighth place in each conference.
That has made the overall marketplace a difficult one to navigate, Rutherford said.
"I think you have a better understanding of how many players and who are available leading up the trade deadline in other years," he said. "Right now it's hard to get a feel for who's available. We all know a couple of names, but for the most part we don't really have a general picture of who is available, and there may not be as many players available with so many teams still in the race."
For managers attempting to make a so-called "hockey deal" this season represents another unique challenge, in Rutherford's eyes.
"I think it's a more difficult year for evaluating players because some players love playing in a compressed schedule, they prefer playing to practicing, so playing every other day, they love it," he said. "But there are some players that aren't built for it. So trying to evaluate your players in a year like this is more difficult."
With all these obstacles littering the NHL trade market right now, Rutherford is of the mind that the wheeling and dealing on Wednesday may be of the mild variety.
"It'll be a busy day for the managers, but how much will get accomplished is really a tough call," he said. "This is probably the toughest trade deadline day of all."