The Hurricanes made the additions they were hoping to make on the first day of unrestricted free agency, but suffered one key loss along the way.
Longtime winger Erik Cole, who had just concluded a two-year contract with the club, signed a four-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens worth $18 million over four years. Although the Canes knew he would listen to offers when noon rolled around on July 1, they remained in the mix to keep him up until he finally decided to go elsewhere.
That was the only deal that General Manager Jim Rutherford wasn’t able to get done, as he signed goaltender Brian Boucher, center Tim Brent, left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky and forward Jiri Tlusty – all players he had targeted going in. However, Cole’s departure loomed large.
“As the day went along as expected with the list of free agents this year, the numbers really started to skyrocket,” said Rutherford of his negotiations with Cole’s agent. “As the afternoon went on, I thought at one point we were closing in on making this happen, but then I got a call and they just told me they felt the numbers were too hard to turn down to go somewhere else.”
Rutherford said that Cole’s replacement in the lineup would not come immediately. Without a clear option to replace him left in the free agent market, one option to do so could be via trade, but that may not happen for months, possibly not until after the season begins.
“I think the best thing for us to do right now with the budgeted money for Erik Cole is to sit, wait until the dust settles and possibly try to do this through a trade,” he said. “If we can’t and we don’t find a player we like, that just moves some of these young players up quicker.”
Another option could be to use Cole’s money to sign more players to smaller contracts, such as unrestricted free agent Cory Stillman, but it appears the Canes will sit tight.
“Anything is possible when you have that opening, but once you start pecking away at adding one or two players, then you tie your hands on a potential player as far as eating up that salary,” said Rutherford.
While Ponikarovsky, a three-time 20 goal scorer coming off an injury-plagued season with the Los Angeles Kings, could at some point feature on the first line alongside Eric Staal, he is not considered a replacement for Cole. In fact, Rutherford said that he envisioned both Cole and Ponikarovsky making up an effective first line with speed and size, as Ponikarovsky moves well for his 6-foot-4, 226-pound frame.
”There will be a lot of shuffling around with Erik Cole not in that one spot,” said Rutherford of next season’s line combinations. “I don’t know if (Jeff) Skinner and (Tuomo) Ruutu are going to go with Staal, but if not I would suspect Ponikarovsky would go there because he can skate and he had success with (Mats) Sundin when they were in Toronto. He has played with a talented center iceman.”
Rutherford added that he believes Ponikarovsky, who once played for Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice with the Maple Leafs, is fully recovered from groin issues that limited him to 61 games and 15 points (5g, 10a) last season.
Rutherford’s other moves solidified depth positions on his roster. Brent, a 27-year-old most recently of the Maple Leafs, fills the criteria the Hurricanes wanted for their fourth line. A natural center who won 52 percent of his draws last season, the native of Cambridge, Ontario, led Toronto forwards by playing an average of 1:58 per game on the penalty kill last season.
Hurricanes management got a first-hand look at Brent’s penalty killing abilities, namely his willingness to block shots (a sore spot last season), during a prolonged five-on-three opportunity in Toronto on Feb. 3 that stymied Carolina’s hopes of a comeback victory. Video of that kill can be found here.
“We liked him before that, but our whole staff was talking about him after that game,” said Rutherford. “He did have an exceptional game, but aside from that he’s a good fit for that role.”
Although he won’t be counted on for his offense, Brent showed he could also contribute in that area in his first full NHL season in 2010-11, scoring 20 points (8g, 12) in 79 games.
One of his goals was of the highlight-reel variety, as he outlasted Cam Ward during a career-high three-point evening in Raleigh on Jan. 24. Carolina fans may not know it, but they’ve also likely seen another one of his plays many times, as he took the shot that resulted in Ward making one of the best saves of the season in February (Kris Versteeg would end up scoring just seconds later).
Rutherford said that Brent could also be asked to play the point on the power play.
“He’s an ideal fit for us,” said Rutherford.
According to Rutherford, Boucher, a 34-year-old veteran joining his sixth NHL team, was at the top of Assistant Coach Tom Barrasso’s short list of ideal players to back up Ward next season. The 11-year veteran, who spent time as a starter and backup in Philadelphia last season, owns a .901 save percentage and 2.69 goals-against average in 314 career games.
“He’s a guy that we’ve always liked,” said Rutherford. “He’s just one of those guys that fits into a team nicely. He’s a hard-working guy, a great team guy and a guy that can give you a stretch of 8-10 games if necessary if your No. 1 guy gets hurt. He’s a good fit for us.”
Rutherford said that he would like to see Boucher play 25-30 games next season, which would spell significant relief for Ward, who started a league-high 74 contests last campaign.
“I do think it’s important, and I say this every year, that Cam’s partner plays more in the early part of the season,” said Rutherford. “What happens is that these guys work hard all summer and work hard through training camp, and then they sit for almost a month before they play again and they lose their timing a little bit. I think we have to do a better job of what games these goalies play, especially in the early part of the season.”
Tlusty, originally a restricted free agent who became unrestricted after not receiving a qualiying offer from the Hurricanes, signed a new one year deal similar to the one he played under last season. He'll be in competition to start the season in a depth role.