RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -The Carolina Hurricanes traded forward Erik Cole to the Edmonton Oilers for defenseman Joni Pitkanen on Tuesday.
The deal was one of a series of moves Carolina made on the first day of the NHL's free agency period. The Hurricanes picked up a young, offensive-minded defenseman they've long coveted in exchange for their top-line right wing, the third-leading goal-scorer in franchise history.
"We've wrestled with this one for a while now, but in order to get what your needs are, you have to give something up," Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford said during a news conference. "Unfortunately, in this case, it was Erik Cole."
The 29-year-old Cole had 22 goals and 29 assists in his seventh season with the Hurricanes and helped lead them to the Stanley Cup title against the Oilers two years ago, becoming one of the team's most popular players after he returned from a broken neck to skate in Game 6 of the finals.
But he was deemed expendable as he enters the final year of a contract that will pay him $4 million next season.
"I don't believe that there (were) any welcoming committees there for me during the Cup finals, but I'm excited," Cole said. "Obviously, it's always tough to leave friends and be traded from friends and see friends go, but that's the nature of the business, and I'm ready for a fresh start."
The 24-year-old Pitkanen had eight goals and 18 assists in his only season with Edmonton, ranking second among the team's defensemen in scoring after he was picked up in a trade last summer with the Flyers - who selected him with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2002 draft. He is a restricted free agent who made $2.4 million in 2007-08, and Rutherford said preliminary negotiations are under way.
"Over the last year, we've watched him a lot closer, knowing that there may be the possibility of a trade," Rutherford said. "People have different opinions of him, maybe that he's underachieved at times, but when you're picked in the top four or five in the NHL draft, you (face) very high expectations. And aside from the high expectations, I'm not sure that he's underachieved a lot."
Carolina hopes forward Tuomo Ruutu - one of Pitkanen's closest friends and a fellow native of Finland - will slide into Cole's spot on the No. 1 line alongside face of the franchise Eric Staal and veteran left wing Ray Whitney.
"Our right side is pretty good with (Justin) Williams, (Scott) Walker and Ruutu - even without Erik in the lineup," Rutherford said.
The Hurricanes - who entered the day with 10 of their top 12 forwards signed for 2008-09 - made upgrading their defense a priority this offseason after they learned two veterans would not return. Glen Wesley retired after 20 NHL seasons and Bret Hedican told the team he would not be back for a seventh season.
There may be yet another move ahead for Carolina. Rutherford said he expects to add a physical defenseman to further bolster the blue line.
"Then we're going to have an abundance of defensemen, which means we're going to have to make some moves after that to move one or two guys out," Rutherford said. "But we wanted to make our defense bigger and younger and more mobile."
The trade was part of a busy Tuesday for both teams. The Oilers also acquired center Gilbert Brule from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Raffi Torres.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes agreed to a deal that will bring back defenseman Anton Babchuk for one year at $1 million. They also reached deals with three of their own free agents: forwards Ryan Bayda and Wade Brookbank, and defenseman Tim Conboy.
Carolina had acquired Babchuk during the 2005-06 season and he split time the following year with the Hurricanes and Albany, the club's American Hockey League affiliate. Last season, the 24-year-old had nine goals and 17 assists in 57 games with Avangard Omsk of the Russian Superliga.
Bayda and Brookbank, both unrestricted free agents, agreed to one-year deals worth $475,000 in 2008-09. Conboy, a restricted free agent, signed a two-year contract that this season will pay him $475,000 at the NHL level or $100,000 if he is sent to the minors, and $500,000 at the NHL level in 2009-10.