Heading into the offseason, Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford made it clear what his priorities were: re-sign impending unrestricted free agents Chad LaRose and Erik Cole, get RFA Tuomo Ruutu signed to a long-term deal, and add size to the team in the draft.
Rutherford was able to do all that and more, adding some size and grit in both Raleigh and with the River Rats in Albany. The most recent move, the addition of one-time Cane Aaron Ward, bolstered the blueline with a familiar face.
By letting Dennis Seidenberg move on — to a yet-unknown destination —sending Patrick Eaves to Boston as part of the Ward deal, and the impending departure of Anton Babchuk, Rutherford kept close to his budget while making his team, on paper, better than the one that reached last season's Eastern Conference finals.
But the true genius in this offseason is how it doesn't mortgage the future to compete in the present. If fact, it makes the future look even brighter.
One fair criticism of the Rutherford era is how, under his guidance, the team has struggled developing prospects. Even Eric Staal, who was brought to the NHL directly following his selection in the 2003 draft, had the benefit of spending the lockout season in the AHL, where he was a dominant force and developed into the player that helped lead Carolina to the Stanley Cup in 2006.
With the prospect cupboard bare following the Cup win — caused by both the spending of assets to acquire help in 2005-06 and several disappointing draft choices — Rutherford was dedicated to restocking the shelves in a salary-cap era that demands teams infuse young talent into their roster at a low cost.
It would have been easy for Rutherford to go with the kids this year. With several young defensemen — Brett Carson, Bryan Rodney, Casey Borer and Jamie McBain — close to making the jump to the NHL, plus young forwards Brandon Sutter, Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman all promising talents, the Hurricanes could have used one, two or more of these players to fill out their opening night lineup.
Instead, Rutherford added Ward and Andrew Alberts to the defense corps, plus added much-needed grit with the signing of Tom Kostopoulos. None of those moves, on the surface, were earth-shattering acquisitions. But if you dig a touch deeper, it's easy to see the brilliance of Rutherford's plan. Not only has Rutherford made his squad better for next season, but he's bought precious development time for his young players.
First, let's start on defense. With Frank Kaberle's buyout imminent and Babchuk's departure near certain, Rutherford has assembled a top six of Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason, Joe Corvo, Nic Wallin, Ward and Alberts. Corvo, Wallin and Ward all have one year left on their deals (at a total of just a touch less than $6 million). If Rutherford wished to keep Ward or Wallin, he could likely do so with one-year contracts. Corvo will be the most desirable of the three on the open market, but the Canes will be able to pay him more than his current $2.75 million salary if they can replace one or both of Ward and Wallin with a young defensemen waiting in the wings. Even if all three left, the organizational depth on the blueline is good enough to weather such a scenario, even if that isn't ideal.
At forward, Rutherford has to account for the escalating contracts of Staal, Ruutu, Cole, Kostopolous and Sergei Samsonov. But Ray Whitney ($3.55 million), Matt Cullen ($2.8 million) and Scott Walker ($2.5 million) all come off the books after this season, with Whitney — like Ward and Wallin on defense — a candidate for a one-year deal to stay in Raleigh.
If Rutherford can keep Corvo, plus get Whitney and perhaps Ward or Wallin, he will have no trouble with his 2010-11 budget. That will include Cam Ward's salary, which figures to be in the neighborhood of $5-6 million a season.
Looking further ahead, Rod Brind'Amour, Cole, Samsonov, Pitkanen and Alberts will have be in their final contract year in 2011-12. By that time, several of the team's prospects should be already contributing or close to joining the team in Raleigh. But that's a long way off, and compared to teams like Chicago, Ottawa, Calgary and Philadelphia that have placed themselves in cap trouble for years to come, Rutherford and the Hurricanes will not only have a chance to win it all in 2009-10, but compete year after year for the foreseeable future.