With most of their free-agent negotiations stalling, the Hurricanes appear to be closing in on at least one trade to help fill the void.
Just two weeks remain until July 1, when a group of players including Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose, Joni Pitkanen and Cory Stillman will be allowed to test the open market if not re-signed by the Hurricanes. While management is not close to a deal with any of those players, it is thought to be furthest apart with Jokinen and Pitkanen, who will almost certainly begin talks with other teams next month.
While cautioning that he won’t close the door on any player, that has General Manager Jim Rutherford exploring options to replace the two Finns, with a trade for a power-play quarterback who can play among the top four defensemen – an immediate Pitkanen substitute - potentially quite close to completion.
“We’re talking about a couple of trades, as that may be the way we have to go where we know what contracts are going to be for next season,” he said. “We’re exchanging ideas, and something could happen any time.
“We’ve had enough time now where we have to start looking at how to replace guys that aren’t coming back. My preference would be that they all come back, but at the rate we’re going I just don’t know.”
Rutherford has never been optimistic about re-signing Jokinen and Pitkanen, as the two sides have been far apart since negotiations began. However, he’s had more trouble than expected with Cole and LaRose – two players who hit the open market two years ago before eventually re-signing with the team.
That could again be the case, although Rutherford isn’t making that assumption.
“Things change and I don’t think you can really compare the two situations,” he said. “You can never predict it, but we’ve put our offers and our position out there. I don’t want to bypass other opportunities while I wait for things to progress.”
Making valuations with Cole and LaRose difficult is the fact that each player clearly fared better in one of his last two seasons. LaRose’s point production has been consistent, but his team-worst minus-21 plus/minus rating last season was a cause for concern. Meanwhile, Cole, who posted his highest point total (52) since 2006-07 last season, played just 40 games the season before, scoring a career-low 16 points.
“You can’t look at it as a one-year snap shot,” said Rutherford. “Chad had a better year in his first year, and for a guy that we want to kill penalties and use in a shutdown role, his plus/minus from last year certainly stands out. Erik is coming off the best year of his career I would think, but you also have to look at the year before that.”
Rutherford said that the hold up with Stillman is a different case, with the veteran forward still deciding whether he wants to return for his 17th NHL season.
If trades do occur, Rutherford said that the team could use some of its younger prospects waiting in the system as well as draft picks. While this year’s first-round pick will not be involved in deals, other picks might, including the team’s extra second-round pick in 2012 that came over in a trade for Ian White.
“We’re in a strong position now,” said Rutherford.
If faced with a free-agent exodus of veterans without trades to replace them, another option would be to simply promote from that group of young players, although Rutherford is wary of having so little experience on his roster. Even if Cole and LaRose were to return, two or three forwards from a group of Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe will likely make the jump.
Rounding out the group of pending unrestricted free agents, Rutherford said he hoped to complete a new contract with Jay Harrison in the coming days but was less certain about Patrick Dwyer. He added that he hopes to bring back all of his restricted free agents, a group that includes Brandon Sutter, Derek Joslin, Jiri Tlusty and Troy Bodie. Those negotiations will not intensify until July.