Trust this: One of the worst teams in the league right now won’t be that way for long.
The Carolina Hurricanes have been euchred by injuries and hampered by the remnants of an old guard about to move on this season, but there’s a slew of reasons to believe this team will be back in the playoffs next season and capable of going a round or two.
Of course, this trend has been the recent history of the schizophrenic Canes – deep Cup runs followed by two years of missing the playoffs – but this time around they’ll only miss the post-season once.
First off, no way star goalie Cam Ward is felled by two serious injuries in one season, as has happened this year. Right there Carolina gets its security blanket back.
Secondly, GM Jim Rutherford is breaking down the disappointing 2009-10 edition of his squad the right way. His most recent move was shipping stalwart defenseman Niclas Wallin to the San Jose Sharks (along with a fifth round pick) for a second round draft pick this summer previously acquired from Buffalo.
Wallin’s contract is up in July and though the veteran Swede is far from finished as an NHL pro, he does turn 35 in two weeks. Aaron Ward, another key blueliner on Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup team, just turned 37 and is also in the final year of his contract. I can’t imagine him wearing a Canes jersey too much longer, either.
That opens up two full-time jobs on the Carolina defense corps for next season. And with Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Andrew Alberts already locked in (Joe Corvo is a free agent this summer), the defense can get a lot younger a lot quicker than most teams. Jamie McBain most definitely will get a shot, while Michal Jordan will attempt to turn pro as an NHLer rather than through a stint with American League Albany, where Bryan Rodney is currently developing his game.
Up front, Rutherford will have to decide what to do with old guard free agent forwards such as Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, Scott Walker and Stephane Yelle. If he can move some combination of them by the trade deadline, all the better for the Canes’ future – they would certainly be valuable ‘rentals’ for any Cup contender this year and, fortunately for Carolina fans, trading the present for draft picks should not be frowned upon.
Over the past decade, Rutherford’s draft acumen has been excellent. In fact, the veteran GM hasn’t whiffed on a first round pick since 2001, when defenseman Igor Knyazev was taken 15th overall (he played two seasons in the AHL before returning to Russia).
Rutherford has picked up Eric Staal, Andrew Ladd, Brandon Sutter and Zach Boychuk in the first round while two other picks – Jack Johnson and 2009’s Philippe Paradis – were traded for NHL assets before becoming Canes.
And even though the Buffalo pick will be a mid-to-late second-rounder, some of Carolina’s best future players were taken outside the first round. Jordan, McBain, Drayson Bowman and Chris Terry all went outside the top 60 of their respective drafts.
If there’s one tough decision to be made, it regards the fate of ex-captain Rod Brind’Amour, whose contract runs until the end of next season. Since Brind’Amour signed his contract after turning 35, his $3.6 million cap hit can’t be erased by retirement and moving him is an impossibility. But space must be made up front for players such as Boychuk and Bowman, with Sutter increasing his role on the team.
Given Rutherford’s track record, I’m sure he’ll figure something out. In the meantime, look for a much more youthful Canes squad to bounce back next year.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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