It isn’t a sure thing that Ray Whitney will be moving on to another team via free agency next month, but he and the Hurricanes are far enough apart in salary suggestions that the team has begun to consider life without him.
Speaking further on an earlier report in the News and Observer, Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford said that compensation is the only known point of contention in negotiations thus far, with talks not progressing far enough to the point of even discussing a proposed number of years.
“He feels that he’s going to be able to do better than what we’ve offered him in free agency, so he’s going to test the market and see where that goes,” said Rutherford of Whitney, who turned 38 near the end of a 21-goal, 58-point season in 2009-10. “We didn’t even get to length.”
The Hurricanes have been in this position with their pending unrestricted free agents as recently as last summer, when Erik Cole and Chad LaRose each hit July 1 without new deals and looked unlikely to return. Whitney’s situation is just as bleak now as their was then, but it’s important to note that both aforementioned players eventually signed two-year contracts to stay with Carolina.
Time will tell if that’s the case here, but Rutherford is currently not optimistic.
“You don’t know where these things go,” he said. “I don’t believe anything is going to change from our last meeting from his position or what we can offer him. We don’t have a scheduled meeting prior to July 1.”
If Whitney were to leave, the team would lose a mainstay among its top six forwards. According to Rutherford, there are a number of ways the lineup could materialize if Whitney were to depart. One scenario has Eric Staal, Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose continuing the strong offensive chemistry they found at the end of last season, with Brandon Sutter, Erik Cole and the emerging Jiri Tlusty posing a two-way threat.
One player is noticeably absent from that group, but that’s not to say it’s an oversight. The team has often considered deploying Tuomo Ruutu at the center position more often, and with no clear-cut candidate to anchor the third line at the moment, this could be as good a time as any.
“Then we would have Ruutu, Sutter and Staal down the middle,” said Rutherford. “If it goes that way, Ruutu wouldn’t be in the top six but he would be just as valuable because he’s going to get plenty of ice time.”
Although intriguing, that proposed set-up is just one of many. Ruutu could stay at wing, opening the door for someone like Patrick Dwyer or Zac Dalpe to center the third line and bumping LaRose or Tlusty further down. Also, a young player other than Tlusty could stake a claim in training camp, potentially including whomever the Hurricanes bring into the fold with the seventh overall pick at the upcoming draft.
“There are a whole lot of factors, but I think it’s really important that our top six is really playing well for us,” said Rutherford. “After that there’s not as much pressure put on those guys that haven’t played a full NHL season - those younger guys that we know are going to get better and better. If it works that way, we can have a real competitive team.”
Speaking specifically on the possibility of a drafted player stepping in, Rutherford said that Whitney’s prospective exit would not affect the team’s strategy with the seventh overall pick, although a number of talented forwards will undoubtedly be available in that spot.
“We’ll do what most teams do and take the best player on our list, but we’ll have to see,” he said. “With the top four of our defense set to be pretty young, I do think that if we take a forward at seven, that player will have a better chance of making our team than a defenseman.”
In addition to his scoring prowess, the Hurricanes would also miss Whitney’s veteran leadership on a team that was already expected to be quite inexperienced. If Rutherford does elect to enter free agency, not necessarily to make a splash but to grab a player in the later goings as he did with Tom Kostopoulos and others last season, the idea may be to help fill that gap.
“We’re not going to get into the first wave of free agency,” said Rutherford. “We might get into the second part of it or maybe even the third part of it, so I’m not going to rule anything out right now. We’re trying to follow guidelines here in our own self-imposed cap the same way any business does, and that’s what we’ll follow until such time that it may change.”