July 1, 2010. Coming off a disappointing year to follow up their run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes were beginning the transition to a youth movement. That included letting go of several veteran players, including Ray Whitney, a top-six forward, leader and holdover from two of the team’s best playoff runs.
The Canes allowed Whitney to walk in free agency, and the veteran playmaker signed a two year deal with the Arizona (then Phoenix) Coyotes at a $3 million AAV. But what if the Canes had decided to keep Whitney around as a shepherd for their rebuild. Let’s explore.
Let’s say the Canes match the Coyotes’ offer, and Whitney is more than willing to accept to stay in a place he had called home for five seasons and won a Stanley Cup. That means Whitney is on the Canes for the 2010-11 season. Canes fans don’t need to be reminded how that year ended, with a 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in game 82 that kept the team out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It seems, at first glance, easy to say that with Whitney in the fold, the Canes easily make the playoffs that year. Perhaps, but it’s not that simple. That was Jeff Skinner’s rookie year, that ended with him winning the Calder Trophy and scoring 31 goals and 63 points. But, if Whitney is already in the fold at left wing, does Skinner still make the team instead of going back to juniors?
I say yes, as it would have been nearly impossible to keep him off given the talent and readiness he displayed, and the fact that Carolina was still fairly thin at left wing (Sergei Samsonov would have been the next on the depth chart), but it’s a debate worth having.
So, let’s go into the season with Skinner and Whitney both on the team. That gives the Canes a top six of Eric Staal, Erik Cole, Whitney, Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu and Skinner. That’s a pretty formidable group, and would have allowed Paul Maurice to go with a top line of Whitney, Staal and Cole backed up by the famous “Skinns and Finns” line.
With that in mind, yes, the Canes easily make the playoffs. Whitney put up 17 goals and 57 points in Arizona in 2010-11. That kind of production would have been more than enough to make up the two standings points the Canes missed out by. In fact, we’ll give them an extra three wins, especially given that the team ranked 24th in the league on the power play with a 15.9 percent conversion rate that year, and Whitney was a strong performer up a man in his career.
Those three extra wins would have given the Canes 97 points and vaulted them to sixth in the Eastern Conference… right into the buzzsaw that was Tim Thomas and the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. The Canes have shown they’re capable of anything in the postseason, but I don’t think they’d have made it past that Bruins team.
So, the Canes head to the offseason coming off a trip to the playoffs after a one-year absence, gaining valuable experience for young players such as Skinner and Brandon Sutter. The team had a number of key contract decisions that summer, and still re-signs Jokinen, Chad LaRose and Joni Pitkanen.
However, playing a season with Whitney, Cole likely breaks 30 goals (he had 26), and the budget-conscious Canes, with extra money tied up in Whitney, still lose a bidding war to the Montreal Canadiens.
While having Whitney in the fold helps, the following season is probably still derailed by the loss of Cole, injuries to Skinner and Pitkanen and the start of Cam Ward’s decline. The Canes miss the playoffs in 2011-12, and with Whitney on an expiring contract, deal him at the deadline for picks and prospects. Let’s say he approaches the 77-point output he had in Phoenix that season, and that return includes a first rounder.
However, coming off a trip to the playoffs, the Canes probably don’t fire Maurice in season, and give him at least another year. With two first rounders, the Canes still trade for Jordan Staal, but also add another valuable young player for their rebuild by keeping one pick, allowing them to land someone like Filip Forsberg or Teuvo Teravainen, and maybe the team is competitive sooner and returns to the playoffs sometime this decade.
Re-signing Whitney likely would have only given the Canes one playoff appearance, but could have had a long-term impact in giving the team a tradeable asset at the 2012 trade deadline that netted the Canes key pieces for the future, and allowing Skinner and other young players to spend two years learning from a proven veteran and winner.