Now that the offseason has begun for the Carolina Hurricanes, the focus will shift from the team’s near miss at the postseason to the long list of pending free agents.
Of the 22 players on the team’s roster for the fateful final game of the regular season, just half of those are under contract for next season. The list of those already in the fold includes several key players, including Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Tuomo Ruutu, Tim Gleason and Jeff Skinner, but there will be plenty to address as management continues to shape the squad around them.
While Jim Rutherford has yet to publicly comment on his priorities for getting players signed, all of those with expiring contracts who met with the media following their exit interviews on Monday expressed some desire to stay.
“It’s a real good group here, and it’s a fun group to be a part of,” said Erik Cole, who enjoyed a healthy bounce back season with 26 goals, his highest total since 2006-07. “With the core of young players that are here, I think it’s exciting to think about what lies ahead for some of these guys and for the organization as a whole.”
“I’ve been here 2.5 years and really felt like I’ve been playing my best hockey in my career here,” said Jussi Jokinen, who scored 49 goals over the course of his expiring two-year contract. “I hope we can get something done and (I can) be a part of this organization for a long time.”
Aside from Cole and Jokinen, Patrick Dwyer, Chad LaRose, Jay Harrison, Joni Pitkanen, Cory Stillman round out the group of unrestricted free agents that will be allowed to negotiate with other teams if not re-signed by July 1. In each case, Hurricanes management must decide how best to balance veteran experience with young prospects that could be ready to make the full-time jump to the NHL next season.
With the youth movement expected to continue to some extent with players such as Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe knocking on the door, the Canes must decide whether to bring back a player such as 37-year-old Cory Stillman, who was brought in just prior to the trade deadline to help the team’s playoff push. In being reunited with old linemates Staal and Cole, Stillman showed he could still play in a featured scoring role.
“We came in and I was told, ‘Don’t think that you’ve got to get everything going first game, first shift,’ but after our first game it was like we had still played for the last three or four years together and it was fun,” said Stillman. “Hopefully I can do it again.”
Pitkanen likely presents the toughest situation of all. As the team’s highest-paid player behind Staal and Ward last season to the tune of $4.5 million, it would likely require a significant commitment to bring him back into the fold. Conversely, it would also be difficult to replace the 25 or more minutes per game that he averaged over the last three seasons.
Of all the pending free agents who met with the media on Monday, Pitkanen seemed the most cautious, although part of that could be chalked up to the language barrier or any of the other factors in place.
“It’s been a good three years, but there’s a lot of things to think (about),” he said. “We’ll see later.”
Moving down the list, LaRose, who tied his career high with 31 points while posting a team and career low minus-21 plus/minus rating, said that the scars of the season’s final game were still too fresh for him to worry about his future.
“It’s tough to let go of a season like this so far,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of guys here, we’ve got a good team and we’re only going to get better. I’m not worried about that or thinking about that right now.”
Harrison, who made the step to become a full-time fixture on the blue line for the first time in his career until suffering an injury that kept him out down the stretch, was more emphatic.
“I love it here, I love the organization that’s given me a chance to play and there’s nothing I’d like more than to continue that and build something,” he said. “Obviously something special is going to happen here. I think the foreshadowing has started to happen.”
After the group of unrestricted players, the Canes can then turn to a restricted group that includes Troy Bodie, Derek Joslin, Brandon Sutter and Jiri Tlusty. Sutter, an alternate captain who will get a raise from his expiring entry-level contract, should be among the easiest deals to get done.
“Obviously this is where I want to be. There’s no questions about that,” said Sutter. “From my perspective it will be an easy process and I hope it gets done as soon as it can.”