The last time a slumping Hurricanes team hit December 1 with a long break between games, a major change soon occurred. That may not happen immediately in the present day’s similar situation, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
Following a home loss to the Anaheim Ducks on November 30, 2008, General Manager Jim Rutherford used three days off to institute a coaching change. It’s clear that another regime transformation won’t take place exactly one year later for various reasons, but the playing roster could be a different story.
“We’re looking to transition this team,” said Rutherford. “The good part is that we’re sitting here with a lot of good young players looking to come in, and we’re looking to acquire other young players. If we can do that, we can start to feel good about where we’re going.”
However, with a roster pushing the limits of the salary cap, it’s easier said than done to find room for upcoming players such as Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman and other talented prospects currently playing in Albany of the AHL.
“It’s hard to accelerate [change] because you really can’t move contracts out,” said Rutherford. “If we could, we would probably move a handful of guys out today and move the younger guys in, even if they weren’t ready, and start that process.
At the present moment, Rutherford’s hands are tied. There will surely be a handful of teams eager to acquire some of Carolina’s affordable expiring contracts near the trade deadline, but that won’t be until after the Hurricanes have absorbed most of the financial burden.
In December, finding teams willing to take on those contracts for the bulk of the season is much more difficult. Even if the Canes could work out a deal with one particular team right now, it may be actually more fruitful to wait until a bigger market emerges in the days leading up to March 3.
“It’s just the way the system is,” said Rutherford. “You put your team together in the off-season and you hope you’re right. I think if you wind the clock back, everybody was pretty excited [before the season]. For whatever reason, some things didn’t work out and some guys have underperformed. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way sports works.”
While acknowledging his not-so-secret desire to make trades sooner or later, Rutherford made it clear that he’ll keep an eye on a future that he still believes to be optimistic.
”We have the core here of a lot of good young players,” he said. “It’s not like we have a horrible team that’s been torn apart, and that’s the one thing I’ll be very cautious about. I’m not saying I wouldn’t move one of our core guys, but it would have to be a real special deal for us. It would have to be for a special reason.”
So, what can the Hurricanes do right now? They could place veterans on waivers in the hope that they would be claimed and create space for incoming prospects. While that’s a possibility, a more ideal answer would be simple if it weren’t so complicated – keep trying to win games.
“We’re not going to give up on this season,” said Rutherford. “We’re just not going to do it. We have to be positive, go out and put on a good show for our fans. We owe it to our fans.”
In saying that, Rutherford acknowledged a dilemma that many have had in the back of their minds. Although he believes this team is capable of a strong second half and a playoff spot, falling just short of that goal would be the worst-case scenario.
“If we can’t get back to that playoff spot, in some ways we don’t want to perform too well, because then you get in those years where you pick 15th or 20th in the draft instead of picking in the top five,” he said. “I remember the last time we had a bad year [a 30th-place finish in 2002-03], it was hard for the fans, it was frustrating for us and it was ugly, but there’s a big prize waiting if that happens. The prize we got last time was Eric Staal and a big reason why we won a Stanley Cup.”
If it comes to that, which it would if the season ended today, the Canes would be guaranteed a top-two draft pick, even if they lost the lottery. With a core of good young players already in place and more on the way, the Canes could essentially skip the rebuilding process typical of most last-place teams while adding a top-level talent.
“If you take our core guys and added a star player immediately out of the draft, that team could take a huge step forward,” said Rutherford. “If it ended today, that’s where we’d be, but we owe it to our fans to win games.”