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Droschak: A Tough Day at the RBC Center

by David Droschak / Carolina Hurricanes
The NHL is a cold business – the ice notwithstanding.

Players come and go more than ever in the fastest sport on earth, but watching a forward with the talent, skating ability and character of a Matt Cullen pack his bags and head out of town is a bit sobering, especially on the heels of seeing another one of the franchise’s “good guys” in Niclas Wallin get traded to the Left Coast at the start of the week.

Nos. 7 and 8 are now gone, could unlucky 13 be next up?

We all collectively (players, fans and media) knew the fire sale of soon-to-be unrestricted free agents was coming, considering a Christmas break record that left the Canes eyeing the bottom of the standings rather than a repeat trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, and maybe beyond. Still, deal day hits all involved like a splash of ice cold water, including neighbor and good friend – captain Eric Staal

“I walked in today and his bag was packed so I figured there was something going on,” Staal said. “This whole situation is kind of hard because we’re playing the type of hockey we should have been playing at the beginning of the year and we didn’t. It’s tough to lose a guy like Matt because he meant so much to this team and this organization over the years. He fits anywhere on the team.

“For us, this is no fun,” added Staal. “We wanted to be in a position to be adding players this time of year and looking forward to the push at the end and now it seems it’s the other way around.”   

The departures of Cullen and Wallin also signal a shrinking number of players who wear the 2006 Stanley Cup ring in the Canes locker room -- never a good thing. That exclusive list includes just Staal, Cam Ward, Rod Brind’Amour, Aaron Ward, Chad LaRose and Ray Whitney – who now has the “desired” target on his back and a ticking clock toward the March 3 trade deadline.

Whether Whitney, also an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, gets dealt will depend on whether general manager Jim Rutherford can get a first-round draft pick, and maybe more, for the offensive wizard. As the deadline approaches, the stakes get higher for teams battling for playoff spots, as does the asking price. Rutherford made that point crystal clear today, saying the market has been established high by deals like Cullen, and that he’s in a supreme selling position.

“The market always gets crazy at this time of the year,” Rutherford said. “There is a premium to be paid for players. I would expect the price to be pretty high for the buyers March 2 and March 3.”

Coach Paul Maurice tried to soften the blow of Cullen’s exit by saying injured players Cole, LaRose and Scott Walker could be back sooner than later. Fair enough, but Cullen’s play this season would justify many MVP votes in the Carolina room and with the media. His willingness to move around in the lineup when key injuries hit and perform at a high level, log key power play minutes and kill penalties made the 33-year-old a supreme commodity and one the Ottawa Senators paid dearly for with a second-round draft pick and young defenseman Alexandre Picard.

The four most productive years of Cullen’s 12 seasons in the NHL took place at the RBC Center, where he registered 40 or more points each season with a high of 49. Sitting at 40 points when traded, Cullen would have likely surpassed his career high-water mark after the Olympics. That in itself and his likely salary demands (Cullen makes $2.8 million this year) following such a season would have put Rutherford and the Canes on the spot, or would it?

Cullen left once after the Cup season for richer pastures in New York, and went on record as saying he regretted it. At his age, Cullen would have been slotted behind Staal and emerging star Brandon Sutter as the team’s No. 3 center, and a potential “hometown discount” for a player who on the open mark could garner more. Cole took such a deal this season to stay in a place he likes to suit up – Raleigh.   

Cullen’s return may still happen once the playoffs end and the free agent market opens July 1. Let’s hope so, since the Carolina power play never seems to click without him, and his seven shorthanded goals over the last four seasons prove he’s even dangerous killing penalties.  

“Matt really fits into the new style of play here since the work stoppage,” Rutherford said. “He played a big role when we won the Stanley Cup. I never take any comfort in making trades, but I can say that this one is as tough as they come because of what a person Matt is and what he does for us.”

Picard wears No. 45, the same number once worn by former Carolina defenseman David Tanabe. Let’s hope Picard’s stay in Raleigh is more fruitful than Tanabe’s shortened career on defense.

At $800,000 a year and a restricted free agent after the season, the former third round draft pick fits nicely into Carolina’s cost-cutting measures and the certain restructuring yet again of a blue line corps that let the team down in the early going this season.

“I wouldn’t say we had Picard targeted, but he’s a guy we always liked; we liked him in his draft year and we liked how he has played in the pros,” Rutherford said. “He’s not a guy who is going to jump out at you, but when you watch him he’s a pretty consistent player. You know what you’re going to get.”  

What Ottawa got today was a fast skater who will make an immediate impact on the playoff race, and a solid citizen on the streets. Canes fans? Well, we’ll have a ton of Matt Memories to fall back on and a horizon of hope for 2010-11.   

“When you have two young centers like Staal and Sutter, what can you pay another center iceman to fit into your pay structure?” Rutherford asked. “It just becomes part of our business, and it’s not the fun part of our business. Come July 1 we’ll see who is out there and if Matt is out there I’ll always keep the door open. This parting is not a bitter one.”

For all the Caniacs with Matt Cullen jerseys – and that number is large – keep them clean and close by.

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