The Carolina Hurricanes "need to be tougher to play against." What that means is open to interpretation.
GM Jim Rutherford and head coach Kirk Muller held their end-of-season press conference Thursday at PNC Arena, closing the book on a 2012-13 campaign that started with so much promise and again ended with disappointment and question marks.
There are only three givens this offseason:
• The top line of Eric Staal centering Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty — arguably the best forward trio in the NHL season — are locked in to be the starting forwards on opening night.
• The defense will continue to revolve and rely on 21-year-old Justin Faulk, already a legitimate top pairing blueliner despite having just 104 NHL games under his belt.
• The team will look to Jordan Staal to find a better comfort level in the first year of his 10-year, $60 million contract, and for Cam Ward to rebound from the knee injury that cost him most of this season.
Beyond that, the changes that will occur to the Hurricanes roster are anyone's guess and open for discussion. That includes the proposition of dangling Jeff Skinner for a similarly young and talented defenseman, as Luke DeCock mentioned in his column in Friday’s News & Observer.
It also likely means saying goodbye to long-time Canes like Joe Corvo (who turns 36 this offseason) and Chad LaRose (whose drop in production and effectiveness, coupled with Rutherford's touched upon disappointment in the 31-year-old's decision not to attend his exit interview), pending UFAs Tim Brent and Bobby Sanguinetti, and stretch-run rental Marc-Andre Bergeron.*
(*Note: Rutherford did say the team would look at Bergeron as someone who could be back with the team next season, especially given the improvement on the power play after he was acquired. But with the need for at least one defensive-minded defenseman and prospect Ryan Murphy turning pro, it seems unlikely the team would use one of their roster spots on a specialist like Bergeron)
In their place, you can expect Rutherford to target at least one veteran, defense-first blueliner, and Muller also seems to want some bottom six forwards that can contribute on the penalty kill.
The latter has been an issue the past two seasons. Outside of Patrick Dwyer, the Canes’ bottom six forwards have failed to establish themselves as assets on special teams. LaRose and Brent — both of whom saw too much power play time and not enough penalty kill time given the expectations one should have for them — both stand out as players that should have found a niche on the PK and instead rarely played there in favor of top line players like the Staals, Tlusty and Semin.
That means looking at UFAs like Edmonton horse Ryan Jones, who logs big-time PK minutes, or even Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke — a top-of-the-line agitator that has toned down his aggression of late and thrives short-handed — to be the guy on the Hurricanes bench who relishes the opportunity to stop an opposing team's power play.
As for the defenseman/men, a lot will depend on Rutherford’s willingness to part with an asset and who the team is targeting in the June draft. If Valeri Nichushkin is on the board at No. 5 and willing to come to North America immediately, can the team pass on a potential Evgeni Malkin-esque player that could immediately take Skinner’s spot on Jordan Staal’s left wing, leaving the Canes to use No. 53 as their third line center or even trade bait for that much needed defenseman?
Does Rutherford revisit what he did at last year’s draft and try to bring another Staal brother to Raleigh? The Rangers would probably like to hold on to Marc Staal, especially given his reasonable $3.975 million cap hit over the next two seasons. But with their own cap troubles looming and Ryan McDonaugh due a new deal, would New York listen if Rutherford called looking to complete his four-of-a-kind?
Or would the NHL-run Coyotes, with three defenseman costing nearly $15 million in cap space next season and little in the way of goal-scoring, discuss a Keith Yandle-for-Skinner offer now that Oliver Ekman-Larsson has emerged as a second No. 1 blueliner on their defense?
Rutherford even has the option of making some room in his budget (deal Jamie McBain?) and waiting to how some teams handle the lowering salary cap. He then may be able to land a player via trade that otherwise wouldn't be available, or grab a buyout victim to add talent to his back end.
The options are many and go well beyond what's outlined above. As he has said most seasons, Rutherford likes his "core" of players. But just like Brandon Sutter wasn't untouchable last offseason, so it is for all but a very few Hurricanes this summer.
Muller will finally have a full training camp to set his systems and lines with old and new players alike, and outside of any setbacks Tuomo Ruutu might have following a second hip surgery, the team should be completely healthy come September. If Rutherford can can reshape his defense, Muller can live up to the coaching expectations heaped on him, and the team performs to their capabilities, there's no reason next season’s Carolina Hurricanes will not be playing in May.
Who will be on the ice for them? That remains to be seen.