Entering this week the Carolina Hurricanes are nine points out of post-season contention in the Eastern Conference with only 11 games remaining in their schedule. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, the Hurricanes made the playoffs only once (in 2009) and are poised to miss them for the fifth straight year.
The ongoing futility has sparked growing media speculation that GM Jim Rutherford could be replaced in the off-season by current vice president of hockey operations (and Hurricanes minority owner) Ron Francis. CBC's Elliotte Friedman believes that's up to Francis if he's ready and if majority owner Peter Karmanos is comfortable with the transition.
A management shake-up isn't the only change the Hurricanes could see this summer. Goaltender Cam Ward was a frequent subject of trade speculation this season. TSN's Darren Dreger speculates a Ward trade is likely to occur this summer.
Teams in need of goaltending depth (New York Islanders and Calgary Flames) could have interest in the 30-year-old Ward. Moving him, however, won't be easy. Ward has two years remaining on his contract at an annual cap hit of $6.3 million. He'll make $6.7 million in actual salary next season and $6.8 million for 2015-16. He also has a no-trade clause and has had injury issue the past couple of seasons. To improve his trade value, the Hurricanes could be forced to pick up part of his remaining salary.
Dreger also claims captain Eric Staal and winger Jeff Skinner could be “in play.” Staal enters this week as the Hurricanes leading scorer with 55 points, while Skinner is second with 45. Both would attract considerable attention in this summer's trade market, but Staal has the most value.
The 29-year-old center has seven seasons with 70 or more points. The decline in his numbers this season can be attributed to a knee injury suffered at last year's World Championship. Like Ward, he carries an expensive contract ($8.25-million annual cap hit) through 2015-16, with a full no-trade clause, which will limit potential trade destinations.
Skinner, 21, has considerable upside but also a history of concussions. He carries an expensive, lengthy contract ($5.73 million annual cap hit through 2018-19), but his no-trade clause doesn't kick in until July 2017.
The New York Post's Larry Brooks recently observed the pull Rangers defenseman Marc Staal could feel next summer as a free agent to join brothers Eric and Jordan in Carolina. Given Eric's UFA eligibility in 2016, Brooks ponders the possibility of the elder Staal instead joining brother Marc in New York.
It's difficult to believe Staal could end up on the trade block, especially considering the lengths Rutherford went to two years ago in order to bring brother Jordan to Carolina. The Hurricanes dealt Brandon Sutter, prospect Brian Dumoulin and their first round pick in 2012 (Derick Pouliot) to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Jordan, then quickly signed him to a 10-year, $60 million deal. Eric could be unwilling to leave Jordan behind, unless the pair is part of a trade package.
Regardless of who's in the GM's chair, the Hurricanes require considerable improvement. They must decide if they'll retain or replace Kirk Muller as coach. If they do move Ward, they'll need to re-sign or replace Justin Peters as a backup for Anton Khudobin. And they lack depth on defense and at forward.
Trading Staal, Skinner or Ward could address these needs, but their salaries and no-trade clauses means finding the right fit won't be easy. With the salary cap expected to rise next season, this summer will be the best opportunity to gauge their trade value.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly 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 and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.