Some might call it a decision, but Rod Brind’Amour would have had to consider something first.
The Hurricanes’ captain was quick to say that he would return for a 20th NHL season following his exit interview with Jim Rutherford on Thursday. In fact, it appears he never even gave retirement any thought.
“I made a commitment when I got a contract to play it out, and that’s definitely what the plan is,” he said.
The contract he referred to was signed shortly after the Hurricanes’ won the Stanley Cup and runs for the next two seasons. Unless something changes, we may as well not bother even asking him his plans next summer.
After running into some injuries – first a knee problem that kept him out of the end of the 2007-08 season and then another just prior to training camp – Brind’Amour was burdened by a slow start to the season, which included his by-now well-documented plus/minus rating, which got as low as the -30 range and was long among the lowest in the league.
However, following a strongly-suggested week off to rest in early February, Brind’Amour came back rejuvenated and finished the season with 20 points – over half his total for the entire season – and a plus-7 rating in his last 17 games.
“No one would have said anything (about a potential retirement) at the end of the regular season,” he said.
However, things took another turn for the worse later in the playoffs, when Brind’Amour followed an encouraging but low-scoring first round with an admittedly poor performance in the following two match-ups with Boston and Pittsburgh.
“It really fizzled out in the end,” he said. “The playoffs were terrible for me personally.”
Although critical of his own performance, it’s important to note that at no point in his meeting with the media did he seem especially down on himself. Instead, it was an honest, straightforward assessment of his performance which should be commended for its frankness.
Still to be determined is Brind’Amour’s role on the team for next season. After playing on just about every line at some point during the regular season, he finished this year on the fourth unit after Jussi Jokinen’s breakout performance in the playoffs moved him down the depth chart.
At a press conference held Thursday, GM Jim Rutherford said that Brind’Amour, despite his continued role as the team’s captain, would have to battle for a job like everyone else now that the team has an abundance of players who play center.
“There's no reason for Rod to come back as a fourth-line center,” said Rutherford. “If we get all the players signed that we want, we have Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Staal, Jokinen and (Matt) Cullen down the middle with (Brandon) Sutter coming. That's why we have training camp, to see where guys fit in.”
"Up until this point in his career, he's always been slotted into a spot,” Rutherford continues. “There will be a battle in training camp and throughout the season to see who gets those extra minutes.”
Although that has the potential for some awkwardness, Coach Paul Maurice said that he didn’t expect it to be a problem once the team gathers for training camp in September.
“Ron Francis was in a similar situation,” said Maurice of his previous stint with the team and of Francis’ final season in 2003-04. “I have had some experience with players, and they understand everything as long as they've been given an opportunity. I think as long as the communication is there - certainly the respect is there. Roddy Brind'Amour has changed this franchise. He'll get what he earns, and I think that happened this year."
Of the aforementioned group at the center ice position, it should be noted that Jokinen can also play wing, and that Sutter is on a two-way contract and may still be reassigned to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate without having to clear waivers.
Still, it’s a very deep group, and one that Brind’Amour is confident he can break into after an offseason where he hopefully won’t be faced with the injury and subsequent rehabilitation that he endured in the summer of 2008.
“Personally, you have to believe in yourself, and I wouldn’t play the game if I didn’t believe I can still do it,” he said. “And not just as a fourth-line player. My goal is to get back and help contribute to this team and the level that I feel like I can."