The Hurricanes added another top-nine forward to their lineup with the signing of right wing Anthony Stewart on Saturday.
Stewart, an unrestricted free agent most recently with the Atlanta Thrashers, is coming off a personal breakout year that saw him score 39 points (14g, 25a) last season – a 32-point improvement over his previous best. A first-round pick (25th overall) of the Florida Panthers in 2003, Stewart may just now be reaching his potential after a slow start.
“He’s a late bloomer, no question,” said Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford. “What we like about Anthony is that last year was his first big step forward to be an NHL player. He is big, can skate and we feel there’s some upside there. We feel he’s a guy that can take another big step with us.”
Should the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Stewart be able to do so, Rutherford feels he’s added a 20-goal scorer to his lineup for the second consecutive day, having signed Alexei Ponikarovsky one day earlier. Those signings, which will cost the team a combined $2.3 million next season, should help offset the loss of Erik Cole to Montreal.
“When you put these to guys together, those are goals and minutes that we’re looking for to replace Erik,” said Rutherford, who added that he stepped up his pursuit of Stewart once he realized he would not be able to re-sign Cole.
Stewart’s signing, while at a relatively inexpensive $1.8 million over the next two seasons, does cut into the budget Rutherford had set aside to possibly acquire a proven top-six forward via trade as a direct replacement for Cole. While Stewart’s signing removes some of the team’s urgency to do so, the Canes’ general manager still did not rule out that possibility.
“We’re always looking to make our team better,” he said. “If the right player comes along, we’ve got the assets and the flexibility to make that trade.”
As for additional free agent signings, Rutherford suggested that the Hurricanes’ external shopping list may be complete for the time being, as the team turns its focus to re-signing some of its own players, both unrestricted and restricted.
“We’ll listen when people come to us, but we’re not searching as hard as we have been in the last couple of days,” said Rutherford. “There’s no urgency now.”
The signings of Stewart and Ponikarovsky would seem to limit the number of guaranteed starting spots for young players along the lines of Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe, but Rutherford said that the extra room in the budget will allow the team to carry extra players on its roster – something it’s been hesitant to do in recent seasons for financial reasons.
“If we have extra players on our roster, guys can play on merit,” said Rutherford. “We have the flexibility to allow more players to make our team.”
Stewart was Rutherford’s second signing of the day on Saturday, having also locked up forward Justin Soryal to a two-way contract. Soryal, who racked up 220 penalty minutes in the American Hockey League last season, will provide toughness for the Charlotte Checkers next season.
”This was a guy Jeff Daniels had at the top of his list,” said Rutherford. “At our end-of-year meetings, he was really pushing for him as a guy who could help his team.”
Rutherford said that, although the two players fill similar roles, Soryal’s signing did not rule out the possibility of a return for unrestricted free agent Troy Bodie.