The Carolina Hurricanes are in the enviable position of having 10 or 11 forwards (either signed or RFA status), with top nine skill. The problem is, there are only so many spots and minutes to go around. One or two of these forwards will have to be traded, probably for some help on the blueline. The magic question is, who stays and who goes?
I won't pretend to have all the definitive answers here, but I certainly have some theories that I will share. There are many factors that will determine who gets traded, including salary, value of a player to another team, age, injury history, and contract status. Each player brings something different and has his own strengths and weaknesses.
Let's take a look at what each forward brings to the table and put the Canes Country odds on whether or not that player will return next year. We'll start with the highest salary and move down.
- Eric Staal ...... What does anyone need to say about Staal? He led the team in scoring with 38 goals and 44 assists. He has not missed a game in over 3 seasons. He stepped up his leadership this past year when it was needed the most. He is a genuine star in the NHL, solidifying his status by winning the NHL All-Star Game MVP honors. Staal is signed for one more year and will make a team high 5 million this coming season. Bottom line, Eric is the franchise and isn't going anywhere. Chances of him returning are 100%.
- Erik Cole ...... As everyone knows, Cole has had his problems with injuries, but he can also be one of the most dynamic, offensive players in the league. He has one more year left on his contract which will pay him 4 million next season. This past season was the worst of his last 3 as the skater had only 22 goals and a total of 51 points in 73 games played. Erik can bring a physical edge to his game which is a huge asset as well. His rare offensive abilities have made him the subject of several trade rumors for years now, and this summer will be no different. I believe that Cole's contract is a bit high for Carolina's liking, and he most likely will be on the list of players to offer as trade bait. There are a couple of intangibles to be aware of though concerning Erik. First of all, since this is the last year of his current contract, he probably will be stepping up his production bigtime in order to maximize his value for upcoming contract negotiations in the coming year. Good players have a knack of doing that. It would be a shame to trade him right before he has a career year. Also, he has been room-mates on road trips with Eric Staal since Staal's first year in the league, and breaking those two friends up might be tough. Regardless, someone has to go and it could very well be Cole. I think that the odds of him returning are 50%.
- Rod Brind'Amour .... The Captain's season ended early because of a serious knee injury which required major surgery. He still ended up tied for 3rd on the team in scoring with 19 goals and 51 points in just 59 games played. Brind'Amour will be entering the 3rd year of a 5 year deal which will pay him 4 million this coming season. I believe that the only way Rod would be traded is if he asked to go somewhere, (maybe Philadelphia or Vancouver?) but I don't see that happening. Odds of him returning are at 95%.
- Ray Whitney .... Whitney finished 2nd on the team in scoring with 25 goals and had a total of 61 points in 66 games played, but "The Wizard" ended the season on a sour note as he was recovering from some type of freakish ankle injury at the most crucial point in the season. The forward will enter the 2nd year of a 3 year contract which is paying him 3.55 million each year. It's been rumored that he has a no-trade clause with this deal, but that is unconfirmed. Ray's obvious strength is his scoring ability, but he is not a physical presence and is not known as a great defensive specialist either. He could be on the trading block, but I'm not sure if his value would be as high as Cole, who is more explosive and has more of a complete game. Still, I would not rule out the possibility of Rutherford testing the market with the highly skilled, veteran forward. I think the odds of Whitney returning are 80%.
- Justin Williams .... Amazingly, Justin Williams also suffered a season ending knee injury. He only had the opportunity to play in 37 games and was able to score 9 goals and 30 points before his injury. Williams is in the 3rd year of a 5 year contract which pays him 3.5 million per year. At one time, that seemed like a bargain and Justin appeared to be in a similar situation as Eric Staal, "untouchable", but now he could very well be on the list of players to be traded if the right deal came up. The odds of Williams returning are 75%.
- Matt Cullen .... Cullen was having a career year before getting concussed by New York Ranger, Colton Orr near Christmas time. The good news is that he had recovered and was contributing again to the Canes success after the All Star break, but he suffered another set back in a game against Chicago and for all intents and purposes was done for the season after that. He still managed to tie his previous career high with 49 points, and did it in only 59 games played. Matt is in the 3rd year of a 4 year deal which will pay him 2.8 million this year. The center is extremely valuable to the Canes on the powerplay and he will most likely be kept if at all possible. Chances of him returning are at 95%.
- Scott Walker .... Walker is yet another forward who missed ample time because of injuries. His stats are down from previous years because of that, but he still was one of the more consistent performers in the last part of the year and was the glue that held the Ryan Bayda/Keith Aucoin line together. In 58 games played, Walker had 14 goals and 32 points. He will be starting the 2nd year of a 3 year deal that pays him 2.5 million per year. Even though he is not a big-time scorer, Scott is a valuable physical presence and I doubt the Canes will try to move him. But it is possible, so I will place the odds of him returning at 80%.
- Sergei Samsonov .... The super skilled Russian skater was recently signed by Hurricanes management to a brand new 3 year deal. It's been well-documented about how Samsonov had poor stats at Chicago and Montreal in recent years, but he certainly made the most of his opportunity this past partial season with the Canes and scored 14 goals and 32 points in just 38 games with Carolina. He will make 2.3 million next year and I don't think that he's going anywhere. Rutherford would not have gone through the trouble of signing him if he didn't want to keep him. Chances of Sergei returning are at 100%.
- Tuomo Ruutu .... Ruutu was an instant fan favorite and brings a physical element with his game that the Canes sorely need. But in addition to that, he also has decent skills, can pass the puck, has a quick snap-shot, and has soft hands around the net. His game should thrive in the Carolina system. The problem? He is a bit pricey for a player of his status. Last year he made 2.25 million and he needs a new contract this off-season. Will he be looking for a raise, and if so, how much? I believe that the Canes would love to keep him in the family, but only if the price is right. There is a possibility he could be a problem to sign and if that happens he might be traded because of it. The good news for Carolina is that he is a restricted free agent, meaning that they have first dibs on him. But if he isn't signed by July 1st, things could get dicey. Another GM could present him an "offer sheet" which the Canes could either match, or refuse. If they refuse, Carolina would get compensatory draft picks, depending upon the size of the contract. Call it blogger's intuition if you like, but I sense a possible problem getting him signed. If Ruutu wants close to 3 million a year or more, I don't see Rutherford wanting to pay that much. These negotiations will be interesting to follow. The odds on Ruutu returning are at 60%.
- Patrick Eaves .... Eaves was the "throw in" player in the Joe Corvo/Mike Commodore, Cory Stillman deadline deal with Ottawa. Although reportedly, Jim Rutherford wouldn't make the deal without Eaves being thrown in, so I believe that the young star will be in the mix come next season. Patrick also needs a new contract and like Ruutu, is a restricted free agent as well, but his salary last year was reasonable at 942,000, so even if he gets a bit of a raise he will be affordable for the Canes. He scored 20 goals in his rookie season with the Sens in just 58 games and was drafted in the 1st round, so he will be counted on as having top 9 skills and will at least get a legitimate chance at playing on one of the top 3 lines. The biggest problem with Eaves though is his health. He only played in 37 games last year and needs to prove that he can play and contribute throughout a complete season. He probably would be the easiest person to trade though if the Canes wanted to keep the top end talent, but I don't think that they would not get much in return for him. The odds of Eaves returning are at 80%.
- Chad LaRose .... Another fan favorite, LaRose has shown flashes from time to time that he can play in the top 3 lines himself. But Chad is mostly known for his energy and hustle. In my opinion, he is best suited for the 4rth line, but he's good enough to be counted on to fill in when needed on the top 3, occasionally. LaRose scored 11 goals and had 23 points in 58 games last year. He earned 500,000 and will be due a slight raise. Chad is also an RFA, but I don't see any contract problems for him on the horizon. The odds of LaRose returning are at 90%.
- Jeff Hamilton .... Hamilton earned 800,000 last year and is under contract for one more year for another 800K. After a fast start last season, Jeff cooled off and eventually spent more time in the pressbox than he did on the ice. Finally he was put on waivers and sent to Albany, but no other team picked him up. When the Canes needed him to return due to injuries late in the season, Jeff was called back and still was not claimed even at half of his salary. Carolina will probably try to include him in some type of trade this off-season, but he has negative value due to his high contract and will be hard to move. I think that he will be in Carolina come training camp time, but whether or not he sticks will be up to him. He could very well find himself as one of Albany's highest paid players next year. Odds of Hamilton returning are at 50%.
- Trevor Letowski .... For the most part, Letowski had a rough 2 years with Carolina, although he did a good job late in the year when he filled in for an ailing Matt Cullen at 3rd line center. Still, it's hard for me to see value in bringing him back since his role for this team would be on the 4rth line and he is not physical enough to fill that role. Carolina needs to get bigger and nastier at that position, and that is not Trevor. The center made 800,000 last year and is a free agent. My guess is that he will sign elsewhere next year and his fans will be able to watch him kill penalties for Florida or possibly Atlanta. Odds of Letowski returning are at 10%.
- Wade Brookbank .... Brookbank was recalled from Albany the day after Matt Cullen was knocked out in New York. He seemed to fill his role as "protector" very well as opponents appeared to take fewer liberties against the Canes when Wade was suited up. Most importantly, his team-mates appreciated him and wanted him in the lineup. I specifically remember both Mike Commodore and Scott Walker saying that they felt better with Brookbank on the ice. While Carolina might be able to do better out in the free agent market filling that position for next year, they could also do worse than Brookbank. He's not a bad skater, didn't take any stupid penalties, and seemed to use common sense as he did his job. Wade is a free agent next year and I think that the odds of his returning are at 50%.
- Ryan Bayda .... Bayda has been the last one to make the team out of training camp for 2 consecutive years, only to get sent to Albany soon afterwards. Could next year be the one when he stays in Carolina for good? I doubt it. Rutherford has already been quoted as saying that he wants to get bigger on the 4rth line next year. The best chance that I can see for Ryan to return again is if he signs another 2-way deal which would allow the Canes to move him back and forth from Albany, like in the past. If he can't get a better contract somewhere else, he could very well be back again in the same capacity for this team. Bayda had 3 goals and 3 assists in 31 games last year and the odds of him returning are at 30%.
- Keith Aucoin .... Aucoin really made a name for himself last season with some solid play. He finished with 5 goals and 13 points in 38 games with Carolina. I would place him in the same boat as Bayda though. If Keith is willing to sign a 2-way deal, he could very well be back, but if he can get a full-time contract somewhere else, he will grab it. It's very possible that he could get that offer somewhere else too, because he looked more like an NHL player last year, than an AHL'er. But if he is only offered a 2-way deal by other teams, then he should accept one here. With the continual injuries that this team has year after year, Carolina has to be the best possible place for any borderline NHL'er to be signed. Chances of Aucoin returning are at 30%.
Summary.... As you can see above, the first 10 forwards listed all have top 9 capability. It would be a waste of money and talent to keep things status quo, and that will not happen. The only question is, who will go?
As I mentioned earlier, it will come down to the types of deals that Jim Rutherford has offered to him and the player(s) he wants coming back here. Also, money is a huge issue and I believe that one of the higher paid players would be more apt to be traded than a lower paid one, simply because of budgetary concerns.
For instance while making a trade, JR can't replace a lower paid forward with a higher paid defenseman. The Canes will be stretched thin money wise and after signing all the remaining restricted free agents, adding a backup goalie, and filling in a couple of warm bodies on the blueline, they could end up approaching 50 million in salary.
Forget about signing any notable free agents or taking on a higher salary for a defenseman unless they cut salary somewhere else.
Jim Rutherford certainly has his work cut out for him this summer.
Agree? Disagree? What do you think?