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Droschak: Numbers Add up for LaRose

by David Droschak / Carolina Hurricanes
There are famous hockey players – Gretzky (99), Lemieux (66) and Crosby (87) -- who chose odd numbers, and then there are guys like Chad LaRose, whose No. 59 was given to him during his first Carolina training camp.

The “high” numbers are normally reserved for players who aren’t going to stick with the big club, but when LaRose made the jump to the Canes in 2005-06 he kept 59, in part as a motivating force to remind himself of his humble hockey beginnings after beating NHL odds as an undrafted free agent.

LaRose was faced with a different set of numbers this past offseason when his one-year contract with the Hurricanes expired and he became an unrestricted free agent.

Previously an “energy guy” as either a penalty killer or fourth-line player, LaRose had a breakout year in his fourth NHL season, scoring 19 goals and adding 11 playoff points as he gradually moved up to the team’s second line under new coach Paul Maurice.

The stage was set for LaRose, 27, to possibly triple his $875,000 salary and sign a long-term deal on the open market as his value soared.  

“I was really worried that somebody was going to approach him,” Maurice said.

And while that happened behind the scenes, LaRose didn’t want to hear the other offers that came into the office of agents Pat Morris and Mark Guy. His directive was clear from the start of the negotiations with the Canes.
“I could have waited around, but I told my agents first and foremost that this is where I wanted to be," LaRose said just prior the start of training camp this Sunday in Raleigh.  "Even if the money was drastically different somewhere else, it didn’t matter too much to me.  I wanted to be happy. I like the management, Jimmy (Rutherford) has pulled off a lot of good moves, we’ve got a winning team and I really like Maurice behind the bench. It was just a lot of comfort for me.”

If there is one person in the Carolina organization that understands the loyalty banner that LaRose carried into offseason negotiations it is Maurice, who is back for his second stint with the Canes and his good friends Rutherford and owner Peter Karmanos.

“It’s a really good example of what happens in that win-win philosophy when you get a young player from the East Coast Hockey League and he has made his career here,” Maurice said. “You can look at it on one track and say the organization did a great job bringing this player along, or the player did an awesome job all on his own, but it was a great mix of two groups trying to work with each other, trying to develop a player and the player appreciating what the organization did and for the opportunity he was given.

“So many times you see players not really appreciate the opportunity, where they feel it’s all them and when they have that 30-goal year they go out and sell it to whatever team they can. The opposite was true with Chad LaRose. He had a real good understanding that he’s here because he’s a good player, but he’s also here because the people here care about him and want him to do well.”

For the record, LaRose signed a two-year contract with the Hurricanes that will pay him an average of $1.7 million each of the next two seasons. If LaRose continues to improve or even matches his numbers from last season, he’ll still be a bargain by NHL standards.

The loss of LaRose to another team would have been disappointing on a number of fronts because he’s a great team player, is extremely versatile and is a roaring crowd favorite at the RBC Center, throwing his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame at any opposing object on a nightly basis, even 6-foot-9 Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara during the playoffs.

“When I first got called up it was a do-whatever-it-takes attitude, and it still is for me,” LaRose said. “Coach Maurice has shown me that I’ve got to get in on the hands of the big guys and be physical and not get pushed around easy. It has helped me in my career. Even though I am small I try to play a physical, aggressive style.”

“When you are out of hockey you go to a few games and you want to see somebody look like they are competing,” added Maurice. “I come for three hours of entertainment, so I would like to see somebody out there giving it. And Chad does that on such a consistent basis. If you’re a regular fan you really appreciate the consistency of his work ethic.”

With a crowded group of top-notch forwards the Canes have compiled for 2009-10, LaRose knows more than most in the Carolina locker room that his performance of last season and a nickel – or should I say about $1.65 – will get you a cup of coffee and not much else.   

He’ll likely fight an uphill battle his entire NHL career because of his lack of size and undrafted status, but that’s OK with the feisty dynamo from Fraser, Mich.

“I view this new contract as more of a starting point for me than a finishing point so I’ve tried to take things by the horns and get really aggressive this summer and try to come back in even better shape than I was,” LaRose said.

That meant spending his second straight summer with none other than workout fanatic and captain Rod Brind’Amour.  

“As long as I can ride his coattails I am going to do it from here on out because Roddy is just a great leader,” LaRose said. “He pushes me and always makes sure I’m on the top of my game and he keeps confidence under me. He’s the right guy to be getting information from.

“He pushes me, and you think you’re done with the workout and there is always a couple extra exercises. It’s great. You feel better when you get it done because you know you’re working hard and know you’re putting in the time. It makes you feel you’re on the right track getting ready for the season.”

Rutherford has closed his share of impressive offseason deals, but the organization’s best dollar-for-dollar value signing may have been that of LaRose, who remains dedicated to the hard work ethic with the team that gave him his NHL break.

And while LaRose flashes his trademark saucer eyes when he’s trying to make a point about his love of hockey, he remained laser focused on his ultimate goal during contract talks, not swayed by what some in the game may have perceived as greener pastures.

“When you have a year like Chad had you have options for more money and you have other teams interested,” Maurice said. “It may seem exciting at certain points to leave for another city but he wanted to make the commitment to our team and that’s why he’s back.”

“The other thing about Chad is he signed a two-year deal and he’s still a pretty young guy, and if he builds on what he has already done that contact is even going to go higher, he’s going to get another couple of kicks at this,” added Rutherford.

Whether he’s pestering the opposing team’s best player, working his magic along the boards or jawing on his way to the penalty box, it would have been hard to imagine No. 59 in any other color than red.
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