Rumors are rumors in sports until they become reality.
Dangled as trade bait for more than a year, the harsh reality of being dealt from the Carolina Hurricanes hit Erik Cole hard just after Tuesday when he picked up the phone and Jim Rutherford was on the other end with the news.
Was it to be expected? Maybe. But is a player like Cole, who had settled down in the Raleigh area with a family, countless friends and a loyal fan following, really ever ready to hit the road for good?
“When you shock somebody, even though that you hear you may be traded, when you get that final word it is hard,” Rutherford said. “He was emotional about it. He’s gone through a lot here. He’s been a good player and he had an almost career-ending injury here. So, this is a tough day for him.”
Cole scored 129 goals and added 151 assists for 280 points in 418 career games, adding speed and flair to the lineup with his length-of-the-ice rushes down the right wing. He played six seasons here, but his popularity made it seem a lot longer.
As part of two Stanley Cup finals runs, Cole was on the famed BBC line of Brind’Amour and Battaglia that helped Carolina face off against the powerful Red Wings in the 2002 Cup Finals. His serious neck injury ended his best season three years later and deprived the forward of a glorious playoff run, but he did return for the final two games of the Cup finals and was on the RBCCenter ice to lift hockey’s ultimate prize over his head.
Cole didn’t reach the 30-goal plateau in his next two seasons, getting 29 two seasons ago and just 22 last year in 73 games. He always seemed to be a step away from stardom, but never really reached elite status.
“We looked for more out of Erik on a consistent basis than maybe we got,” Rutherford said. “There were nights when he was as good as any player in the league, and there were stretches where we were looking for more. But you can say that about a lot of players.”
So just like that, today Cole joined a long list of players that include Wesley, Hedican, Commodore, Stillman, Adams, Hamilton, Ladd and Grahame that started on last year’s roster but won’t suit up to the Canes this coming season.
“The last time somebody asked me about all the changes we made was coming out of the work stoppage and how the fans would react and I think you got the answer in June,” Rutherford said, referring to the 2006 Stanley Cup. “It’s part of sports, there are always lots of changes. We’ve made our team younger and added some good players. We have a chance to be one of the real good teams again.”
Such is the reality of professional sports when you don’t make the playoffs for a second straight season.
With captain Rod Brind’Amour and Justin Williams given a clean bill of health after knee surgeries, Matt Cullen close to 100 percent following a concussion and the rough-and-tumble and younger Tuomo Ruutu recently signed, Cole and his $4 million a season salary became expendable in a crowded group of forwards.
In exchange, the Canes acquired 24-year-old defenseman Joni Pitkanen, the former fourth overall choice in the 2002 NHL Draft by Philadelphia. The deal for Pitkanen was sealed recently when Rutherford was told that he and Ruutu were good friends from Finland.
The 6-foot-3, 202-pound Pitkanen will add more size and offensive power to the point of the power play, joining Joe Corvo along the blue line. He will also add additional youth to a Canes back line, which includes 25-year-old Tim Gleason and 24-year-old Anton Babchuk, who returned to Carolina today after a season in Russia.
Pitkanen, Gleason and Babchuk are all former first-round draft picks of other teams. Rutherford said today another deal for a defensive-minded defenseman could be close.
Pitkanen is a restricted free agent who made $2.4 million last season, while Babchuk was signed for $1 million. With a thumb up from Ruutu about Carolina’s chemistry and commitment to winning, team officials don’t expect any difficulty signing Pitkanen.
The 6-5 Babchuk appeared on his way out of the organization two seasons ago when the defenseman refused to report to the minors after being sent down from the big club – and Rutherford suspended him. All those hard feelings were forgotten today.
“We wanted him to go to the minors to work on his development. He chose not to do that so we did kind of go in different directions,” Rutherford said, reflecting back. “I was disappointed in him and his teammates were. That was something he should have done. We didn’t totally forget about him because he is a young guy. But when you look at what it costs to get young defensemen from other teams, we’re saying, ‘Why not give this guy another chance?’ He is two years older and maybe this guy is going to step up and do what we think he can do at a very young age. So, we’ve made up.”
Rutherford also nailed down three of last year’s call-up success stories in fourth-liner Ryan Bayda, tough guy Wade Brookbank and versatile Tim Conboy.
“They earned their chance to come up here and really made a difference in our team in the second half,” Rutherford said. “Those are the kind of stories that you like to hear, where players that work hard deserve that opportunity and now they will be given that opportunity on a regular basis. I am very happy for those guys.”
In addition, Rutherford said it was one of the team’s top priorities to attempt to sign All-Star MVP Eric Staal to a multi-year extension, hopefully within the next month.