After the Carolina Hurricanes missed the playoffs for the third straight season in 2011-12, ownership gave GM Jim Rutherford the green light this summer to invest more money in the roster.
The past two seasons the Hurricanes were among the lowest-spending teams in the league, but their payroll surged from just over $50.5 million last season (fourth-lowest in the league) to more than $58.1 million for 2012-13, 18th overall at the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.
Much of that increase was the result of signing former Washington Capitals right winger Alexander Semin to a one-year, $7-million deal.
Critics believe Rutherford overpaid for Semin, whose offensive production has declined since his career-best 40-goal, 84-point performance in 2009-10. If Semin is re-energized by moving from Washington to Carolina, however, the Hurricanes GM will have the last laugh.
Rutherford’s most significant move came during this June’s draft, shipping center Brandon Sutter, a prospect and first round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for center Jordan Staal, younger brother of Hurricanes captain Eric Staal.
Rutherford wasted little time signing Jordan, whose current contract expires next July, to a 10-year, $60 million extension.
That trade surprised the hockey world, providing a Hurricanes fan base, weary of losing, with a much-needed jolt of excitement.
Rutherford also ensured a key piece of his future was locked up long term, inking versatile young center Jeff Skinner to a six-year, $34.4-million extension.
Uniting the Staal brothers and the addition of Semin will provide the Hurricanes offense with a significant boost, especially if Skinner – who missed 16 games to a concussion last season – stays healthy.
Despite the excitement Hurricanes fans feel about their club’s moves this summer, there remain some depth issues that could hamper the club when the NHL returns to action.
Goaltender Cam Ward has been a workhorse for the Hurricanes, playing 68 or more games in four of the past five years. If the Canes hope to keep him fresh down the stretch for a possible playoff run, backup Justin Peters must finally prove himself a worthy backup, especially with Brian Boucher sidelined by shoulder surgery until December at the latest.
Defensive depth also remains a potential problem area.
Joni Pitkanen, Carolina’s most skilled defenseman, hasn’t played more than 72 games since 2006-07 while with the Flyers and in ’11-’12 he missed 52 games to a concussion and lower-body injury.
Young blueliners Jamie McBain (24) and Justin Faulk (20) possess considerable skills, but must improve their defensive play.
The lack of size and grit on the Hurricanes blueline was exacerbated by the departure this summer of Bryan Allen via free agency. As Luke DeCock of the Raleigh News and Observer recently observed, the Hurricanes blueline is heavy on finesse and light on heaviness.
The Canes checking lines face a similar problem, where the biggest player is 6-foot-3, 230-pound right winger Anthony Stewart. The rest of their third and fourth liners are considerably smaller, averaging 6-feet and 193 pounds.
Under Kirk Muller, who took over the coaching reins last November, the Hurricanes play an up-tempo style, but lack the size and strength to maintain that style throughout the grind of a long season, let alone through the aggressive tone of the post-season.
If the Hurricanes are still struggling to remain in playoff contention by mid-season, it could force Rutherford into the trade market for bigger, tougher defensive players.
Such depth is usually affordable and costs little more than a minor league player or a draft pick, especially from teams with pending free agents they can’t or won’t re-sign.
However, if a key player such as Pitkanen is sidelined for a lengthy period, replacing him will be a more difficult, expensive prospect.
The health of their key players (the Staals, Ward, Skinner, Pitkanen) and improvement of younger players (McBain, Faulk), along with having several others step up their play (Stewart, Peters), will be determining factors in the Hurricanes playoff hopes.
Those factors will also determine how Rutherford adjusts his roster over the course of the season.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News, Kukla’s Korner and The Guardian, Charlottetown.