Though the National Hockey League’s postseason is in full swing minus the Carolina Hurricanes, President and General Manager Jim Rutherford remains busy. CarolinaHurricanes.com caught up with Rutherford on Tuesday and touched on a number of subjects.
On Jiri Tlusty
Coming off what was a career season for the 24-year-old forward, Jiri Tlusty was the first of the Hurricanes’ crop of free agents to re-sign with the team.
A restricted free agent, Tlusty inked a two-year deal with the Canes on April 24.
“No question he’s a top-six forward now,” Rutherford said. “He’s a smart player who really knows the game, so there’s no reason why he can’t be a consistent player.”
In 2011-12, Tlusty tripled his point total from the season prior, recording 17 goals and 19 assists (36 points), all career-high numbers and ranking fourth on the team in points. Of those who played a majority of the season, Tlusty was just one of two players that finished with a positive plus/minus rating at plus-one. (Tim Gleason, who played all 82 games, finished at plus-12.)
“Real solid,” Rutherford said of Tlusty’s two-way game. “He’s a real smart player who is smart in his own end.”
From Feb. 2 through Feb. 23, Tlusty put together a nine-game point streak in which he recorded 4 goals and and 6 assists (10 points). He was plus-11 in that stretch. Including the nine-game point streak, Tlusty had point streaks of three games or longer four times throughout the season, two of which came in March.
“He’s got to improve on that and take it to another level,” Rutherford said. “He’s only 24 years old. He’s a good enough player – as long as he stays healthy – to be a 25-goal scorer in this league.”
Tlusty missed just three games in March with an upper body injury, resulting in his healthiest season to date. To that point, he was asked to play for the Czech Republic in the World Championship, but he declined due to a minor injury.
“He was just being cautious,” Rutherford said. “He just decided that he wasn’t going to jeopardize anything for next year.”
On the World Championship
The Hurricanes are sending five players and a coach to the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Championship, which begins this week: Justin Faulk and Patrick Dwyer (USA); Cam Ward, Jeff Skinner and Kirk Muller (coach) (CAN); Jussi Jokinen (FIN). Charlotte defenseman Justin Krueger will also play for Germany.
“It’s great experience,” Rutherford said of the tournament. “It’s always great to play for your country, but to keep playing and play at a high level at this point in the season is important.”
For Dwyer, being named to Team USA put a bow on what was a breakout year for the 28-year-old forward, who cemented himself as a shutdown forward alongside Brandon Sutter.
“He finally got some recognition of what he can do, and I think that was great for him,” Rutherford said.
On other free agents and what’s ahead this summer
With Tlusty back in the fold, four players from the Hurricanes’ 2011-12 roster remain unsigned: restricted free agents Jamie McBain and Jeremy Welsh and unrestricted free agents Bryan Allen and Jaroslav Spacek.
Rutherford said that the organization is currently “working on” McBain’s contract. Welsh’s re-signing shouldn’t be overly complicated, and there is no progress on new contracts for either Allen or Spacek.
Looking outside of the organization, Rutherford has made clear his intentions to pursue a top-tier forward. But he also said the team has plans to possibly search for a gritty, fourth- or third-line forward.
“We’re not going to put a guy in the lineup that’s just there to fight,” he said. “If we can find a guy that can play with that edge, protect his teammates but can also play, then we’ll look at it.”
On Jeremy Welsh
Plucked fresh out of Union College, Jeremy Welsh had a brief one-game stint with the Hurricanes in their season finale. Based on that game, his college career and the front office’s projections for the 24-year-old, he figures into the picture next season.
“He’s a player that should be able to play in our top nine,” Rutherford said. “He clearly understood the game. He’s a very smart player. The speed of the game was not a problem for him. He’s a real character guy, and he’s in great shape. I’d be surprised if he was not in our top nine next year.”
With a 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame, Welsh provides a big body down the middle. He skated on the second line with Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu in his only game this season.
“[We’ll use him] more in the scoring role, but he understands the game enough that he could be a shutdown guy,” Rutherford said. “But with Sutter being as good as he is in that role, we’d prefer somebody who’s going to help put points on the board.”
On potential changes in Charlotte
With 11 forwards, three defensemen and two goalies in the system due for new contracts, Rutherford said a roster shake-up isn’t out of the question.
“We have some guys that are going to be [Group 6 UFAs]. Not necessarily that we would make some changes, but there are some guys that have waited for their chance here and they didn’t get it yet, and they may go look around,” Rutherford said. “We’ll have to see how that plays out.”
Goaltender Justin Peters is one of those group six unrestricted free agents. Though he split starting duties with Mike Murphy for most of the season with the Charlotte Checkers, he was tapped as the starter in the team’s pivotal final four games. Peters earned AHL Goaltender of the Month honors in November, going 5-1-1 with a 1.63 goals against average and .949 save percentage. In seven games with the Hurricanes, Peters was 2-3-2 with a 2.48 goals against average and .931 save percentage. He recorded his first NHL shutout on Feb. 20 against Washington, making 17 saves.
“He did what we wanted him to do this year,” Rutherford said. “We wanted him to go [to Charlotte] and play a bunch of games, which he did and he played well. Then he came up here and played real well. So, he gets into the mix of conversation of whether he’s one of the two goalies with the Hurricanes next year.”
That’s a decision that Rutherford said will be made prior to July 1.
On the Draft
The Hurricanes hold the eighth pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. According to Rutherford, the early thinking is that the Canes will select a forward. But that could change, depending on how the picks in front of them fall; the organization’s overall strategy is to pick the best player available.
“Not many players are ready to play right away. So three years from now, we may need a different position; it may not be the same position that we need this year,” he said. “For a while, we had some young forwards, and now it seems like we have more good, young defensemen.”
Asked if he felt the team would snag a quality player with the eighth pick, Rutherford smiled.
“Very confident,” he said. And is he looking to trade up or down? “No, no. We sit in a good spot there.”