The Carolina Hurricanes are 11 games into the 2009-10 NHL season, 11 games filled with frustration, penalties, poor play and ... well, more penalties. It's hard to point the finger in any one direction. A combination of offensive ineptitude, special team struggles and untimely defensive errors have all sunk the Canes at different moments in this still-young campaign, with the mistakes coming from all corners of the locker room.
Coach Paul Maurice has tried just about every trick in his repertoire: shuffling lines, repositioning players, focusing on avoiding ill-advised infractions, preaching defense, praying for offense. Nothing is working. So it's time for Jim Rutherford to step in — and boldly. It's time to trade Ray Whitney.
Rutherford has tried subtle tactics to motivate his team, including sending newcomer Stephane Yelle through waivers and calling up Brandon Sutter from Albany. The first was a warning shot to every veteran on the team. The second was a reminder that there are young, hungry players waiting for a chance. Neither seems to have worked. If Rutherford wants to save the season, he needs to make a move that will rock his team the core. Enter Whitney.
There's no denying that Whitney has been one of the players holding up his end of the bargain this season. Like last season, he's atop the Canes scoring leaders with four goals and four assists. He's had several momentum-shifting goals, tallies that mostly failed to get his teammates to rise to the occasion, but nonetheless provided hope. He's been a leader and producer for Carolina. and horribly underrated — look no further than The Hockey News leaving him off the list of the NHL's top-20 left wings, behind inferior players like Ryan Malone (15), Scott Hartnell (16) and fellow underappreciated forward J-P Dumont (20).
But while the Canes have struggled, Whitney has continued to play like a player a decade younger than his 37 years. He skated in his 1,000th NHL regular season game Oct. 21, a milestone few would have expected from a 5-foot-10* winger who filled the scoresheet in juniors but lacked the size to make NHL scouts drool. (*generous listing)
On Sunday, the Canes will honor Whitney's achievement at the RBC Center prior to the team's game against the San Jose Sharks, the team that selected Whitney in the second round — 23rd overall — in 1991. So you give Whitney the honor he deserves. Then you thank him, and send him to Chicago on Monday.
In the final year of his deal, Whitney makes sense for the cash-strapped Blackhawks. With Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane all due new deals following this season — and each should get at least $5 million a season, if not significantly more — Chicago needs to prepare for the inevitable: you can't keep everyone.
Departed GM Dave Tallon made several mistakes in assembling this team: he overpaid Brian Campbell, a very good offensive defenseman, giving him No. 1 d-man money for a No. 3 guy; and he screwed up in signing journeyman goalie Crisotal Huet to a four-year, $22.5 million deal to be his No. 1 netminder, a job he has yet to firmly grab a hold of. Then, Offer Sheetgate, with Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker earning big paydays (more than $3 million annually each) because of a paperwork error that would've kept the two emerging stars on the cheap for another season. Sprinkle in the signing of injured Marian Hossa and several other players looking for new contracts after this season, and you have, simply put, a mess.
Acquiring Whitney could alleviate some of the money problem while improving the Hawks' chance at winning the Stanley Cup this season. First off, he's in the final year of a contract that pays him $3.55 million annually. Second, he's an upgrade at left wing, where ex-Cane Andrew Ladd is the only natural playing in the spot. On top of adding a left wing, the Blackhawks would get an elite passer up front, something they lack outside of Kane. In return, Carolina could get back one of the $3 million-club youngsters (Dave Bolland, Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien or Cam Barker) or sniper Patrick Sharp, who is set to take up $3.9 million in cap space through 2011-12.
Bolland, frankly, is overpaid. And while Sharp's scoring prowess, Versteeg's creativity, Byfuglien's size would all help the Canes patch up an area of need, it's Barker who would add the most to the Hurricanes.
Barker would add offensive punch to a struggling blueline, and also serve as the long-term replacement for Joe Corvo, whose deal expires following this year. At 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, Barker has desirable size and isn't afraid to use it. His ability to play the point on the power play — he had six goals and 40 points last season — would allow Eric Staal to return to the front lines with the man advantage and free up fellow point patrolmen Corvo, Joni Pitkanen and Matt Cullen. Plus, Barker' is no slouch in the point shot department himself.
With a $3.083 million cap hit through 2011-12, the Hawks may need to offset more cash, perhaps in the way of recent waiver claim Andrew Ebbett ($500,000 this year). They also will likely want a premium for the talented Barker, who was chosen after only Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in the 2004 Entry Draft in — you guessed it — Raleigh. A draft pick and/or mid-level prospect (Bryan Rodney? Nick Dodge?) might be enough. Or maybe a swap of Brent Sopel (too pricey at $2 million this season and next, $2.33 million cap hit) for Andrew Alberts ($1.05 million cap hit this year and next) would be desirable to Chicago?
The Canes could then carve out a more significant full-time role for Brandon Sutter or even Zach Boychuk — a player Whitney himself said would take his spot one day — while shaking up the team and adding a valuable piece for now and the future. Chicago would improve their chances at a title this year and, though lose a valuable young asset, clear cap space to re-sign Toews, Kane and Keith.
With Campbell untradeable, Seabrook valuable and Keith irreplaceable, the Hawks simply can't afford to shell out more than $3 million a year to Barker as a No. 4 defenseman. And in Whitney they'd get a winner, a player who knows how to overcome the odds and spur his team to victory.
And the Canes — despite losing an important and admired player and man — might just turn things around.