They don’t call him The Wizard for nothing.
In a magical act that would make Harry Houdini proud, Ray Whitney escaped the grasp of several playoff contenders vying for his services on NHL trade deadline day and remained with the Carolina Hurricanes – and likely into the future.
The most coveted unrestricted free agent left on the board as the witching hour approached was the offensively gifted Whitney. As the clock struck 3 p.m. there was no deal for the skilled winger, who has averaged about a point a game for the Canes in the twilight of his 18-year NHL career and is a top power-play asset.
In the busiest trade day of his career, general manager Jim Rutherford determined when he woke up Wednesday that some team would have to offer the Canes a “deal he couldn’t refuse” in order to move Whitney. No such offer came via cell phone to the fourth floor of the RBC Center as one of the most popular Canes remained in the Triangle and will gladly suit up in his red, white and black sweater against Ottawa on Thursday night, against one of several players we can now call “former Canes” in Matt Cullen.
The list of players heading out of town today would have worn a hole in the grass around the RBC Center, or at least a path in the melting snow.
The day began with Aaron Ward saying goodbye and ended with Andrew Alberts and Stephane Yelle following suit. In between, Joe Corvo and Scott Walker found new places to call home. Add in pre-Olympic trades that included Cullen and Niclas Wallin and the Canes could qualify for a spot on the TV show “Extreme Makeover.”
In the process, Carolina management will save about $2 million over the next six weeks in salary, and will get additional looks at young players like Jay Harrison and Jamie McBain on defense, and Zach Boychuk up front, who has been recalled for the sixth time this season.
Rutherford even brought up Anton Babcuck’s name as he began talking about an offseason rebuilding mode he’ll surely have to undertake.
The GM admitted a recent six-game winning streak, which has pulled the Canes within eight points of a playoff spot with 20 games left, was a factor in not wanting to move Whitney.
“We’ll find out in a month or so if it’s too late, if we dug too big a hole,” Rutherford said. “We might not have. This is still possible. It’s a stretch, but we’re not a team that is going to give up.”
Rutherford won’t go against his steadfast rule and negotiate an extension for Whitney in-season despite The Wizard becoming an unrestricted free agent come July 1.
There will be time for that in a few months. What are the odds the 38-year-old will remain in Raleigh for at least another season or two?
I’m setting the bar at a 90 percent return, considering the mutual feeling of respect between organization and player.
“Our priority is to make this playoff race interesting,” Rutherford said when asked about Whitney’s future here past this season. “I don’t have any reason to sign Ray before the end of the season. If a player wants to stay here bad enough and the team wants him bad enough they’ll wait for the proper time to negotiate. Based on what I know some of these players want to stay here.”
An offer came in for Whitney that was floated by a Western Conference team a month ago, but the deal fell through and here we sit today with No. 13 still in the fold.
“Ray remains a Hurricane, which will make a lot of people happy, including myself,” Rutherford said.
And Rutherford feels his ability to keep Whitney in the fold today will actually help heal a wounded locker room on what he described as a “sad day” for the organization.
“There will be disappointment in the locker room because they lost teammates and friends, but that doesn’t mean you leave them forever, it could be a short period of time,” Rutherford said. “When a team is this position everybody understands how it works.
“If we would have moved one of our core guys, a Ruutu or somebody like that who has a long-term contract, it would have been a bigger shock, or even if we had made the decision to move Ray Whitney it would have had a big affect on our team. But I don’t make light of any player that we traded because in their own way they contributed to us and there really is no reason why this team can’t continue to make this race interesting.”
Interesting, or at least a mad dash up the aisles for updated lineup cards as Carolina fans try to refocus on a team that has make a blurry transformation right in front of their eyes.
As it stands now, the Canes have 11 picks in seven rounds of the upcoming NHL Draft, with plenty of wiggle room to wheel and deal in what may be Rutherford’s most interesting offseason to date.
For now, it’s a day of reflection and solace.
“We did what we set out to do, but I can’t sit here and say I’m happy,” Rutherford said. “I’m happy the day is over.”