With the unrestricted free agent period officially kicking off at noon today, here’s a list of things to watch for.
For a listing of the Hurricanes' free agents, click here.
Barring a very-last-minute change of heart, it appears that Erik Cole will at least test the market, as he and the Hurricanes were unable to come to an agreement on a new contract. The team’s stated preference is to re-sign him, but it sounds as though they’ll continue to explore other options in the meantime.
“We don’t want Erik to leave, but the fact that he’s testing free agency and potentially could be leaving means there’s going to be a spot to fill there,” said Canes General Manager Jim Rutherford. “We’ll have to do what he’s doing – we’ll have to be testing the market. We’ll see if our paths cross or if they take a further turn away.”
Cole, a 32-year-old coming off one of the better seasons of his career, is thought to be one of the premier players in a shallow free agent market that has become more so each day as teams lock up their own players (as the Hurricanes have done with Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose and Joni Pitkanen) or trade for the rights of others.
At the conclusion of Cole’s previous contract in the summer of 2009, the two sides announced an agreement just four hours after the start of free agency. It’s not clear how long the two sides are prepared to wait for each other this time, but talks are likely to continue past the noon deadline.
Should Cole leave, the Hurricanes will consider moving Tuomo Ruutu to his spot on Eric Staal’s right wing. That would leave a hole at center that could be filled via free agency.
”With the way things are going now, we may have to add a top-nine forward to the mix, keeping in mind that we want to put a couple of young players in our lineup,” said Rutherford. “That’s kind of what we’re working with now.”
The Hurricanes plan to move quickly to secure the services of a center that can play on the fourth line, win faceoffs and kill penalties.
”We went through basically the whole year last year without a natural center on our fourth line,” said Rutherford. “I give Patty Dwyer a whole lot of credit because he never complained and did the best he could, but his natural position is right wing.”
With the exception of Ryan Carter, who arrived via trade in November and departed via trade in February, the Hurricanes never had a player in that role that fit the bill exactly how Rutherford outlined above. While an incoming player wouldn’t be taking the bulk of the team’s draws in relatively limited ice time, he would help improve overall numbers of a group that finished 29th in the league with a 44.6 percent success rate last season.
He would also help ease the burden on offensive players like Eric Staal, who saw their ice time skyrocket towards the end of last season as they were used as the team’s primary penalty killers.
It should be noted that Carter, who returned to action for Florida towards the end of last season following a prolonged back injury, will be an unrestricted free agent at noon.
The Hurricanes plan to add a more experienced goalie to the roster to help ease the workload of Cam Ward, who led the league with 74 starts and 2,375 shots faced last season.
The team plans to have last season’s backup, 24-year-old Justin Peters, play with the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers. By having a more experienced goalie on the NHL roster who understands his role, the Canes will not have to worry about stunting Peters’ development or hurting their backup’s confidence as he potentially goes long stretches without playing.
There are a glut of goalies in this year’s free agent pool, some who have spent most of their careers as backups and others who have a wealth of starting experience but have settled into No. 2 roles as their careers wind down.
Rutherford wouldn’t elaborate on which type he prefers, but he’s nonetheless confident that he’ll be able to sign a player he’s targeting.
”Tom Barrasso gave me a list that I won’t get into now, but I think we’ll have a chance to get someone that’s in the top five of his list,” he said. “That being said, there’s a lot more than five good goalies that can fit into this situation for us.”
Rutherford has always maintained that Cory Stillman’s return would likely depend on whether or not the team was able to re-sign Jussi Jokinen. With Jokinen inking a new three-year deal on Thursday, Stillman’s future with the team is now in doubt.
It’s unclear as to whether Stillman, 37, would consider joining another team or if his playing career is over. Either way, the unrestricted free agent can begin talking with teams at noon.
“At one point in time we had laid out kind of a plan or a criteria for Cory going forward, and he didn’t accept that,” said Rutherford. “Now we’ll have to revisit that as we move forward, probably in the next couple of weeks.
“As of noon tomorrow he becomes a free agent, and he has the right to go look around and see what’s there.”
Other than Cole, Stillman is the Hurricanes’ only remaining unrestricted free agent who spent the bulk of last season in the NHL.
Other than the areas listed above, Rutherford has not stated any other area in which he wishes to improve his team through free agency. Young players who spent the bulk of last season in Charlotte can provide depth at any position, while the team is expected to have seven defensemen under one-way, NHL contracts once restricted free agent Derek Joslin re-signs.
That being said, Rutherford himself would never rule out a surprise. In the absence of an unexpected splash, one should at least be on the lookout for the possible re-signing of minor-league free agents such as Casey Borer, Nick Dodge and Bryan Rodney. Troy Bodie and Jiri Tlusty, originally restricted free agents who will now be unrestricted in the absence of qualifying offers, are also players to watch.
While they won’t have the same sense of urgency as with their unrestricted free agents, the Hurricanes could at any time sign players from their restricted crop, a group headlined by Brandon Sutter, who is expected to sign a two- or three-year deal in early July. Defensemen Derek Joslin and Bobby Sanguinetti are also restricted.