As they look to reshape their defense this offseason, Jim Rutherford and the Hurricanes will have no shortage of options.
In what may seem like a dire situation at first glance, the team only has three blue liners with NHL experience under contract through next season. However, those three - Tim Gleason, Jamie McBain and Joni Pitkanen – are arguably the three they would want.
Also, the team still owns the rights to eight additional defensemen who have played with the Hurricanes in the past that will become restricted or unrestricted free agents on July 1. Even though there are many spots to fill, the available in-house player pool should provide most, if not all, of the solutions.
”We have some flexibility,” said Rutherford, who hopes the 2010-11 edition of his defense will be more physical and better at moving the puck than last season’s.
While there’s plenty of work to do, the first order of business for Rutherford will be rounding out his top four. The three contracted players listed above will be part of that, as Rutherford indicated that McBain has already earned that distinction and will not necessarily have to do so in training camp.
“Based on how he played in the second half of the season and how he played here with the Hurricanes, he looks like he’s a real good player,” said Rutherford of McBain, who had a team-high four goals and +5 rating in Albany’s recent first-round sweep of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.. “He’s going to be a real good fit for us, not only starting next year but for a long time. We expect him to start the season and play a prominent role.”
The fourth spot will likely be held by either Anton Babchuk or Brian Pothier. Babchuk, a 16-goal scorer two seasons ago, played in Russia last year due to a contract dispute but is still classified as a restricted free agent with the Hurricanes. The two sides have already begun speaking about a return to the NHL next season.
‘There’s interest from both sides,” Rutherford said.
How that interest progresses will probably determine the fate of Pothier, an unrestricted free agent who would be free to find a new team in July.
Favorites to round out spots five through seven include restricted free agents Brett Carson and Alexandre Picard and unrestricted free agent Jay Harrison. Harrison, who checks in at 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds, could be in store for a bigger role with the team due to the need for more of a physical presence to support Tim Gleason.
”We’ll see when Albany’s season ends, but he did a good job early in the year, battled an injury all year and I thought he played well at the end of the season,” Rutherford said of Harrison, who logged 38 games with Carolina. “He’s a big guy, he’s physical and is certainly capable of getting into the top six.”
Also in the mix for now are free agents Casey Borer, Bryan Rodney and Tim Conboy (more often been used as forward at the NHL level), who all have at least some experience with the Hurricanes.
Beyond all that, there’s still the matter of the NHL Entry Draft. Although they’ve been hesitant to take defensemen in the first round in recent years, blue liners Cam Fowler, Erik Gudbranson and Brandon Gormley could still be around when the Hurricanes make their first selection at No. 7.
”If we end up getting one of these top-three guys, one of them could end up making the team,” said Rutherford.
While the general manager said last week that he would consider making a trade to bolster his defense, he would prefer to avoid that if possible and should be able to with enough capable players currently at his disposal. He’s also expecting to steer clear of the initial free-agent frenzy in July.
”Sometimes a very useful player falls into September that ended up not going where they wanted or don’t get the deal that they want,” he said. “We’ll keep our eyes open there, but we’re not going to look at free agents in the early going.”