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Future Of Hurricanes' D In Question Following Rutherford's Comments

The Schnectady Gazette ran an article Monday that further muddied the status of the Hurricanes 2009-10 defense. In the article, GM Jim Rutherford is quoted as saying:

“For a guy to come up to fill in for us, [Bryan Rodney] did extremely well. Now, he’s put himself in a position that, going into next year’s training camp, he’ll have to play himself off the team.”

That's quite an ascent for a player who as recently as last season was playing in the ECHL. But Rodney has earned it. Not only has he been a valuable part of the River Rats defense corps, playing in every situation for first-year coach Jeff Daniels, but Rodney showed he has what it take to make it in the NHL during his eight games with the Canes earlier this season. His first-rate passing, quick feet and smarts make him an ideal fit for the post-lockout NHL, even if his path to this point was less than ideal.

But Rutherford's statement not only cements Rodney's status as an up-and-coming player for the organization, it also shines a light on the future of the rest of the defense.

With Rodney seemingly penciled in for a top-six role, the fate of more than half of the current Canes back end is up in the air. Veterans Joe Corvo, Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen are all on long-term deals and have been the backbone of Carolina's defense all season. They are the only three who are locked in for next year — barring a surprising trade.

G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Joe Corvo 13 17 30 -2 16
G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Tim Gleason 0 11 11 -1 60
G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Joni Pitkanen 6 22 28 8 48

1) Dennis Seidenberg: The German defender is on the cusp of unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. He'll be 28 this offseason, heading into his prime and looking for the biggest payday of his career — certainly more than the $1.2 million he's made this season. Seidenberg is also having his best season. While his 25 points (four goals, 21 assists) and minus-12 plus/minus are, respectively, decent and underwhelming, the 23:05 minutes of ice time he plays per night ranks 42nd among NHL defensemen and his 138 blocked shot are tied for 16th among his peers. Seidenberg has also managed to stay relatively healthy, playing in 59 of Carolina's 71 games. Colorado defenseman Scott Hannan put up similar numbers in 2006-07 with San Jose and wound up with a four-year, $18 million contract on the open market. Having done it for only one season, Seidenberg will not get a deal like that, especially with a shrinking salary cap on the horizon. But don't be surprised if someone offers him up to $3 million a season — a number that would likely be too much for Rutherford to match.

G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Dennis Seidenberg 4 21 25 -12 33

2) Anton Babchuk: The Canes hold most, but not all, the cards here. A restricted free agent, Babchuk has also put together his most complete pro season. His nine goals are more than he's had combined in his three previous NHL seasons and rank him tied for 21st in the NHL among blueliners. On top of that, only three defensemen (Washington's Mike Green, Nashville's Shea Weber and Calgary's Dion Phaneuf) are younger than the 24-year-old Babchuk and have more goals. That's impressive company. The question is will Rutherford try to lock up the talented Russian long-term or get Babchuk signed to a short-term deal or qualifying offer for next season and see if he can follow up on a breakthrough season — like he did with Tuomo Ruutu prior to this season. At $1 million this year, Babchuk has been a bargain. Rutherford will need to decide how much Babchuk is worth and either make a significant offer (perhaps a three- or four-year deal worth as much as $2-2.5 million a season), a shorter contract, or shop Babchuk around the league. Rutherford will need to be careful, though — Babchuk has returned home to Russia once and there's no telling if he'd be willing to do so again if the money in North America isn't to his liking.

G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Anton Babchuk 9 13 22 10 16

3) Niclas Wallin: Wallin has been a good soldier for the Hurricanes since 2000. He has a Stanley Cup ring and another Eastern Conference title under his belt. That being said, he has become a No. 6 d-man with a salary too high for that slot in Rutherford's budget. Next year will be the final year of Wallin's four-year, $6.9 million contract, and Rutherford could buy out Wallin's final year ($1.725 million) for $862,500 and replace him with a player from Albany (Rodney or another of the young blueliners who are on the cusp of being NHL-ready) for less than the total owed to the big Swede. That means saving money — something that will need to be done if the team plans to re-sign Seidenberg, Ruutu, Babchuk and others. There may even be a trade market for Wallin, though the buyout — if Rutherford plans to part with Wallin — seems more likely.

G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Niclas Wallin 2 8 10 0 38

4) Frank Kaberle: Like Wallin, Kaberle's remaining $2.2 million could be bought out this offseason for half the price, freeing up a space for a younger player at a lesser total cost to the team. Rutherford has tried dealing and waiving Kaberle with no takers, so the chances someone would bite at his inflated salary this offseason seems slim. Expect the $1.1 million buyout.

G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Frantisek Kaberle 0 6 6 -5 8

5) Tim Conboy: Conboy is on a one-way deal next season, so he's on the books for $500,000 regardless of if he plays in the NHL or AHL. But the feisty enforcer will likely play as a fourth-line forward in Carolina instead of as a defenseman.

G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Tim Conboy 0 1 1 1 26

6) Rodney: Like mentioned above, Rodney's spot is his to lose in Carolina next season. He is a restricted free agent, but don't expect much more than the $530,000 he made on the NHL side of his two-way deal this year. In fact, he may take less if it means a one-way contract.

G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Bryan Rodney 0 2 2 -3 2

7) Brett Carson: Carson also showed off his NHL chops this season, and seems like the perfect replacement for Wallin. He's strong, defensively responsible and can make the right play with the puck. He's also an RFA, but his NHL price of $525,000 likely won't go much higher, and he will probably remain on a two-way deal.

G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Brett Carson 0 0 0 -3 4

8) Casey Borer: The past two seasons have been horribly unlucky for Borer, who severely injured his knee last year and will miss the rest of this season after suffering a broken neck — definitely serious, but not career-threatening — in the River Rats bus accident in February. Borer's $510,000 two-way deal is up, as well, but he will likely receive a similar contract to Carson.

G A P +/- PIM
2008 - Casey Borer 0 0 0 0 5

9) Jamie McBain: Here's a real wild card. McBain, in the eyes of many, is Carolina's top defensive prospect. The Wisconsin junior is a Hobey Baker Award and WCHA player of the year contender who has blossomed into a two-way blueliner with the size and skating ability to quickly transition to the NHL. With one year of eligibility remaining, the 21-year-old McBain could return to the Badgers for his senior year or sign with the Hurricanes. If he were to sign, the question would be if he spends a year in Albany to adapt to the pro game or makes the jump right to Carolina.

The final weeks of the season — and postseason, if the team qualifies — could determine who stays — and at what price — and who goes. Luckily for Rutherford, his choices are many. The key will be make the right ones.