As is the case every year, General Manager Jim Rutherford had plenty of interesting things to say at his end-of-season press conference. Since there’s a lot to get to, we’ll break it down by topic.Rod Brind'Amour and Ray Whitney
Rutherford said that he will hold meetings with each player in the coming weeks to begin the process of determining their futures, but does not expect anything conclusive for some time.
”It’s really the start of the process of where they think they are, where they would like to be and where we would like them to be,” he said. “Once we get that first meeting out of the way, we can start to get a plan as to how this will work in the future for both of those players.”
Rutherford said that it would be up to Brind’Amour, who has one year remaining on his contract, whether he wanted to try to keep playing or retire and possibly accept an off-ice job with the Hurricanes.
”A job will be offered to Rod whenever he decides he’s not going to play,” said Rutherford. “Whether that’s this year or next year, I can tell you that he will be a part of this organization if he wants. By his own choice, if he decides he wants to go do something else, that’s up to him. This is a guy that’s been great to our organization, and I think he’s got a lot of things to offer for a number of years here.”
A similar offer will be available for Whitney, although Rutherford anticipates the unrestricted free agent will play on next season. The GM said that the decision-making process regarding both players will not affect the rest of his offseason planning, as he feels comfortable enough with some of the other pieces that are in place.
“If you look at our team and look at those top six forwards, they’re pretty darn good,” said Rutherford. “Then you look at our group of young players and where they fit. Somebody may jump up there, have a great camp like Sutter did and jump into the top six. I feel pretty comfortable about that with our forwards. We’re going to have to really look close at our defense, but that’s non-related to Whitney or Brind’Amour. With the decisions I make, I will not have to wait for an answer on them.”The Defense
As noted above, Rutherford named reshaping the defense as one of his main summer priorities. Besides a top two of Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen, only 22-year-old Jamie McBain is under contract for next season. Brett Carson and Alexandre Picard will likely return as restricted free agents, while Jay Harrison, Brian Pothier and Bryan Rodney are all unrestricted.
There is a wild card in that equation, as the Hurricanes still hold Anton Babchuk’s rights as a restricted free agent. The big blueliner spent all of last season in Russia after the two sides were not able to agree on a contract over the summer.
“I have had a couple of initial conversations with Babchuk’s agent,” said Rutherford. “I do believe he wants to come back to North America. He was a good player for us a few years ago, but he got caught up in the contract thing and he got impatient. He’s still a pretty young guy at 26 years old who had 16 goals for us two years ago and can help any power play in the league. In the near future I will continue to pursue trying to get him on a contract and bring him back.”
Rutherford suggested the outcome of that process may determine whether the team decides to offer a contract to Pothier. He also hinted that Harrison could be back in the fold next season to add more grit in support of Tim Gleason on the blue line.
”I do think a guy that can bring that, and he played hurt all year and didn’t play here all year, and help Tim a little bit in that area is Harrison. He’s big, he’s strong and he can fight a little bit. If we just leave the grit to Tim Gleason on our defense, I think that would be a little bit unfair.”
A trade or two should also not be ruled out, as the team’s glut of forwards could be used to fill out any perceived scarcity of defenseman. However, Rutherford indicated he would rather not do so if possible.
“We have a group of core players (at forward) that we really like and I would prefer not to trade,” he said. “I’m not saying I won’t make a trade because there may be some trades on the fringes of the team, but I would prefer not to trade any of our top players.”
The backup spot behind Cam Ward
is open to Manny Legace, an unrestricted free agent, and Justin Peters
, who is restricted. Rutherford said he would not address the situation until later in the summer, but would like to give Legace some advance notice so that he could begin to make other arrangements if needed.
”I know there’s a lot of interest for him to go to Russia,” said Rutherford of Legace. “His agent told me that if I could give him an answer sooner rather than later, that makes it easier for them to look at his future if it’s not here.”
The general manager noted that he was pleased with the play of both goaltenders, and also praised Legace’s influence on the team in the locker room and during practices. Although the team is comfortable with the status of Cam Ward’s back and believes that special offseason workouts will prevent similar problems in the future, Rutherford believes that having a quality backup will be important.
”When a team loses a number one goalie, and Edmonton (this season) is a good example, the team usually falls off dramatically,” Rutherford said. “Both of these guys did a superb job for our team, kept us in games, were stars in some games and gave us a chance right down until the end to try and make it.”
“Just because these guys make it for the start of next season doesn’t mean they have to play here all year,” said Rutherford. “We can flip them out all the time because they don’t need waivers and we’re trying to develop these guys properly.
“If they end up not playing here all year, nobody should be disappointed about that,” he continued. “We’re trying to give them the confidence to develop into top-line players in the National Hockey League, not just to be here.”
The Hurricanes have a good amount of flexibility heading into this year’s draft, as they hold 11 total picks, including four in the top 60. While he may try to parlay some of his second rounders into obtaining another pick in the first, Rutherford said it was unlikely that he would try to move up from the team’s current position at seventh overall.
”I don’t expect to do that, because based on the information I have, the player we’re getting at seven is going to be a very, very good player, and maybe even a player that will be able to make this team next year,” he said.
Part of that confidence is fueled by perceptions that this year’s crop of talent is especially deep, as it reminds Rutherford of the 2003 draft that produced Eric Staal at number two.
“If you look at the Eric Staal draft and go through that, there are a lot of star players playing in this league that were selected in the first round and at the end of the first round, not just in the first 10 players,” he said. “I feel that this is one of those drafts.”
Rutherford said that he was pleased with the job done by the entire coaching staff this season, but that there could be some minor changes based on the team’s bevy of young talent and the benefits of having its top affiliate much closer in Charlotte.
All current coaches are expected to remain on board, but Ron Francis and Tom Barrasso could occasionally miss games to watch the AHL team in person.
”Both of them are so good, and when you look at our group of young players now and compare it to a few years ago, I really believe a lot of that credit goes to these guys and how they prepared them to come here,” said Rutherford. “I don’t want to leave out (head coach) Jeff Daniels, because Jeff has done a remarkable job with the Albany team.”
Speaking of Charlotte, Rutherford said that holding a preseason game or training camp there in the future was a possibility depending on the availability of proper facilities.