The Carolina Hurricanes’ admirable late-season push to respectability has already raised expectations for 2010-11. The influx of young talent like Jamie McBain, Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman and Justin Peters — who could all crack the Carolina lineup next season — has caught the eye of Carolina's management, coaches and the team’s fans.
GM Jim Rutherford will have decisions to make regarding his crop of 20-somethings, but perhaps more pressing is the decision on whether or not the team should attempt to re-sign impending free agent Ray Whitney.
Whitney, in his fifth season in Carolina, has become a mainstay in the Hurricanes’ top six, averaging nearly 67 points a season and almost a point per game (0.91 in 369 games) during his stay in Raleigh. At the same time, Whitney is just one month shy of his 38th birthday and will probably want at least a two-year deal in the offseason. Of course, The Wizard could've been gone much sooner.
Rutherford reportedly had a trade worked out with Los Angeles that would've brought pick(s) and a top-level prospect to Carolina. But Whitney, armed with a no-trade clause, supposedly nixed the deal when he was unable to iron out a multiyear contract with the Kings. The development was surely a disappointment for Rutherford, especially once he was unable to fetch similar value in offers he received leading up to the deadline.
But not only was Whitney's decision to use his no-trade clause — a right he earned in negotiations on his previous contract — a blow to the Canes’ fast-rebuild plans, it raised questions among some as to what Whitney’s plan was going forward. Was he simply looking for one more big payday instead of a chance to challenge himself in the playoffs? Did he think the Kings weren't a true contender this year, and that a multiyear deal would keep him in Hollywood while the team further emerged as a powerhouse? Was he hoping Chicago or Pittsburgh would come calling and give him a better shot at winning another Cup this season?
One thing we can deduce: Whitney’s play since the deadline hasn't increased his value this offseason. Playing major minutes on a team that has gone 8-6-3 in the past 17 games, Whitney has scored just twice and has nine points (0.53 points per game) down the stretch. His overall numbers still impress — 21 goals and 37 assists for 58 points in 77 games — but he has fallen to third in team scoring behind Jussi Jokinen and Eric Staal, and if those numbers hold up it would be the first time he has not been one of Carolina’s top scorers since he finished sixth with 55 points in 63 games on the Cup-winning 2005-06 team.
That's not to say Whitney has had a bad season, but Rutherford has to ask himself if a 38-year-old who made $3.55 million the past three seasons deserves anywhere close to that much — even on a one-year deal — after seeing how quickly things can go downhill for a once-dominant veteran like has happened to Rod Brind'Amour.
Furthermore, the insertion of Boychuk, Bowman and perhaps Dalpe to the top-six forward ranks in the next season or two means making room for them and getting value out of their entry-level deals. Couple that with needed extensions for Jokinen (a bargain for one more season at $1.7 million) and Brandon Sutter (one year left on his entry-level deal), and keeping Whitney in the fold starts to make less and less sense unless it's at the right amount for just one year.
Does Whitney's age, contract expectations, lackluster March, and possible indifference at making a run at the Cup this season make him not only a less-pursued player in the unrestricted market, but also less of a priority for Rutherford? Only time will tell. But there are many people excited about the possibilities for a return to the postseason in Raleigh next year, and those expectations don't seem to hinge on whether or not Whitney is back in the red and black.