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Jim Rutherford Flexes Muscles Once Again

Jim Rutherford surrounds himself with people that he trusts.  So far, the philosophy has worked well for him.
Jim Rutherford surrounds himself with people that he trusts. So far, the philosophy has worked well for him.

Peter Karmanos is a lucky man.  Why?  One reason is that the CEO has one of the best general managers in all of professional sports running his NHL franchise for him.  The former two-time NHL executive of the year, Jim Rutherford, had another great offseason this summer and he claims he is not finished yet.

This has been a busy month for the Carolina brain trust. What exactly has the GM accomplished since July 1st?

  • Signed Erik Cole to a two year deal
  • Signed Chad LaRose to a two year deal
  • Signed Tom Kostopoulos to a three year deal
  • Signed Andrew Alberts to a two year deal
  • Signed Tuomo Ruutu to a three year deal
  • Traded Patrick Eaves and draft pick to Boston for Aaron Ward

Not too bad for a general manager who claimed he was going to wait until August before he dipped his toe into the free agent pool.  And the most amazing part of all of this?  After the completion of Frantisek Kaberle's contract buy out this week, (now confirmed), the Canes will be almost right on their self-imposed budget of 50 million dollars.  

Not bad at all.   

Even the most pessimistic of fans could argue that Rutherford has now assembled one of the strongest, most balanced lineups in franchise history, including the 2006 championship year. All the key components of the imposing front line group which dominated games late last season return.  Keep in mind that when  the Canes acquired Erik Cole in early March, they finished the season with a 12-3-2 record, one of the best in the league during that time frame.   

One can mix and match the forward lines anyway you see fit.  Flexibility is the key here.

  • Staal, Ruutu, Cole
  • Cullen, Whitney, LaRose
  • Brind'Amour, Samsonov, Jokinen
  • (Sutter), Kostopoulos, Walker

The defense has a balance of speed, puck-moving skill, and toughness. 

  • Corvo, Gleason
  • Pitkanen, Ward
  • Alberts, Wallin

Cam Ward, one of the league's top goalies, will return between the pipes.  Michael Leighton will back him up.  

But not only has management beefed up the club's starting roster by adding a couple of badly needed big bodies to the mix, the franchise now has better depth than ever before.  Tough guy Tim Conboy has a one way NHL contract and will be kept close by, just in case the team needs his services. 

Several players have two-way deals and are borderline big league players who could easily fill in if needed.  Michael Ryan, Steven Goertzen, and Patrick Dwyer each have NHL experience and are capable forward fill-ins.     

The defense is deeper yet.  Recent acquisitions Jay Harrison and  Zack Fitzgerald could be NHL ready.  Prospects Brett Carson, Bryan Rodney, Casey Borer, and Jamie McBain will each be fighting for a spot in Raleigh as well. 

And let's not forget youngsters Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Chris Terry, and Matt Pistilli.  Each of these athletes were stars in the junior leagues, but now have something to prove at the next level. 

The franchise undoubtedly looks stronger from top to bottom, than ever before.  On top of all that, management has helped to create an overall positive environment, one where players are happy. Raleigh has gone from being an obscure NHL city to a place where professional hockey players desire to live and play.

The club is receiving more and more accolades from all across the sports world and as we pointed out before, was recently named by ESPN Magazine as being the second best overall franchise in all of major sports.  The primary driving force behind it all?  Jim Rutherford.  

Some fans disregard the fact that the Canes are a small market team with less revenue than the big city, higher populated centers up north.  They would like to see the team spend closer to the top of the league imposed salary cap.  But even if a team has unlimited funds, spending to the cap limit has proven to be an unwise strategy in the past. 

History has shown us that more often than not, big name signings on July 1st have become more of a burden than a boon for teams.  Look at the clubs in Chicago, Ottawa, Philadelphia, and Boston, just to name a few.  They are struggling to keep under the cap and they are making some decisions based more upon how it affects the cap, than what the team actually needs.  For instance, if you leave yourself room under the cap and your team needs a more physical presence, then you can find that player and sign him.  But if you spend to the cap limit every year, you could eventually end up running out of room to sign your own players who are due a raise when they come up for a new contract.  (see Boston and Phil Kessel)

Rutherford seems to have mastered the "capology" aspect of managing a franchise, as he showed in this most recent deal with Boston.  Somehow, he got Boston GM Peter Chiarelli to accept Patrick Eaves in the Aaron Ward deal, when the Bruins had no intention of keeping the young forward.  The Hurricanes were able to add the physical presence on defense that they needed, as well as deduct the final two years and 3.1 million dollars that Eaves was owed.  

Perhaps the most important reason a team should not spend to the cap is because they might need help later on in the season.  Sometimes a key injury will derail a good team's chances to make the playoffs.  Sometimes a new weakness will present itself during the year.  But when the team has already maxed out the cap, it makes things very difficult to improve later in the season.

If the Hurricanes spent to the cap limit at the beginning of the 2005-06 season,  they would not have had room to sign Doug Weight and Mark Recchi before the trade deadline.  And if Carolina did not have the services of Weight and Recchi, they most likely would not have advanced past Buffalo in the Eastern Conference Finals, let alone win the Cup.

With 21 players presently signed for the roster, the Canes have a cap number of just under 54 million, (and a cash budget number of just over 50 million).  That gives them some room to make another low cost addition or two, and save some room for a trade deadline deal later in the season if necessary.  

Rutherford seems to have the roster and the team's finances exactly where he wants them.