ATLANTA -- Few athletes get to go out on top, and Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour, one of the premier two-way forwards of his generation, is bumping into that hard reality in this, his 21st NHL season.
Brind'Amour, who will turn 40 in August, is minus-29 -- a mark that ranks him 855th in the League, second from the bottom -- and he admits the season has been a struggle.
Complicating whether Brind'Amour chooses to make this season his last is that, according to the team's media guide, the five-year contract he signed June 23, 2006, still would have one year remaining on it after this one.
Of course, the Hurricanes could make that decision for him if they choose to buy him out. Perhaps Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford was planning for that eventuality when he announced Jan. 20 that Eric Staal was replacing Brind'Amour as captain, a title Brind'Amour had held since 2005.
With only six games remaining in the season and the Hurricanes standing seven points out of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot, Brind'Amour said after his team's 4-1 victory against the Thrashers Monday that he had "not really" thought about that life-altering decision.
Perhaps the best faceoff man of his era, Brind'Amour still excels in that area this season, winning at 59.0 percent, which ranks him fifth among players with at least 600 attempts. But declining ice time has meant fewer opportunities. His 796 draws rank fourth on the team, although the three players who have more all are winning faceoffs at less than a 50-percent rate.
Among the very best conditioned athletes in the game and a 20-plus-minute-per-night player until last season, the two-time Selke Award winner who captained the Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup has seen his ice time fall to 12:41 per game, 22nd on the Hurricanes.
His fate is somewhat similar to that of Atlanta's Slava Kozlov, a world-class offensive player in his prime who owns 42 career playoff goals in 118 games, but has been relegated to the street clothes down the stretch. Kozlov, who will turn 38 in May and sat out Monday's game, has been a healthy scratch in 18 of the last 22 games.
In the same way Kozlov has lost ice time to a younger player like Clarke MacArthur, so has Brind'Amour yielded time at center to Brandon Sutter, the rookie whose goal and assist Monday gave him 37 points in 65 games.
After getting off to the worst start in the NHL, Carolina coach Paul Maurice and Rutherford chose to go with a youth movement. After Monday's win, Maurice called Sutter, 21, "the defining player in our lineup."
"I know that's a lot to put on him," Maurice said. "He came in and we called him back (from the AHL) and we started playing in December when we became a real good team. He lost half a tooth on one play today and had a goal and an assist.
"... This guy is -- he's something special if you love the game of hockey. If you love the small movements and the details and the sticks and all those other things. His stats are fantastic for a man that age, but his play away from the puck is just fantastic at that age. And he's just in a four- or five-month period of time proving that he is one of the best young players in our game. He may not hit the 40-goal plateau, but that won't have any (impact) -- he's one of those guys that his best stat will be our wins and losses."
Much in the way Brind'Amour's best stats often were his team's wins and losses.
Nonetheless, Brind'Amour said he carefully will consider what to do at the season's conclusion.
"Oh, yeah," he said, "I'm not going to make any rash decisions."