In the summer of 2005, Jim Rutherford went fishing for other teams' castoffs. Coming out of the lockout, teams were forced to adapt to the new realities of a salary-cap NHL, and talent was there on the market waiting to be snapped up by an ambitious team.
Rutherford wanted to be that ambitious team. He went into the market, made a few largely unheralded signings of players like Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney among others, and promptly won the Stanley Cup.
Some gambles, like those signings, pay off in spades. Some, like Rutherford's signing two summers ago of Alexander Semin to a long-term contract, don't.
Let's be fair: there is blame to go around on all sides here, and to lay it solely at the feet of one party in this multi-actor soap opera is to miss the point entirely. Coming out of the 2012 lockout, Semin looked like a bargain signing at $7 million. Not many players have the talent he has, and he showed it in posting nearly a point per game in that shortened season. When Rutherford signed Semin to a five year contract the following summer, it was a show of faith that Semin had finally turned the corner.
Turns out, the conventional wisdom ended up being correct. Flush with a long-term deal, Semin reverted to the skittish, inconsistent player that drove the Washington Capitals crazy for years.
The Hurricanes did Semin no favors, to be fair. The reason the likes of Stillman and Whitney (throw in Matt Cullen too, even though he had signed before the 2004 lockout) worked so well is that the team was built to their strengths. It was a case of the perfect players for a system not necessarily being the most talented players in the league.
Semin was, and is, one of those most talented players. Put bluntly, the system failed him in his last two years.
This buyout was really the Canes' only way out. No team would willingly take on a $7 million cap hit on a player who had proven in the past two seasons to not be worth that kind of money. With the new administration of Ron Francis and Bill Peters, Semin's previous cover from the front office had evaporated.
Yes, it will hurt, both financially and as a point of pride. The Hurricanes now have the grindstone of the NHL's largest-ever cap hit for a buyout hung firmly around their necks, a scarlet letter warning other teams what expensive mistakes in a salary cap world can wreak on a team. And we all know that an 80-point breakout on a one year deal somewhere next season is a foregone conclusion.
But for the team to move forward, Semin's buyout is a necessary step. Francis is clearly positioning himself to make significant moves next offseason, with the number of contracts coming up for renewal and the cap space to make those moves happen. Having Semin remaining on the team's financial bottom line would be an obstacle that ultimately couldn't be overcome.
Here's hoping that Semin, whose confidence was shot to pieces by the end of his time in Carolina, will turn it around. It's the right move for him and for the organization. Each owed the other better, and they were ultimately left with no choice but to part ways.
Sometimes, those gambles just don't work. Ron Francis found out the hard reality of that fact as a general manager today.