Carolina Hurricanes' Complete Guide to the 2014 NHL Offseason
It's a goal that's deceptively simple on its surface and overwhelmingly challenging at its roots.
The 'Canes will need to maximize use of seven draft picks, negotiate with 26 pending free agents within the organization, lure out-of-town free agents in to fill holes and make trade decisions on several underperforming stars in a span of two months, all while transitioning general managers and perhaps coaches as well.
The on-ice action in Raleigh may be finished, but the (arguably more important) off-ice business is just now taking center stage.
A complete preview of all the items on the Hurricanes' summer agenda and the potential storylines and situations that will surround them lies on the coming slides.
In late March, Chip Alexander of the News & Observer reported that general manager Jim Rutherford, who has filled the position for the Hartford/Carolina franchise for the past 20 years, is expected to step down this offseason.
Rutherford, 65, serves as president and general manager of the Hurricanes. Sources close to the team say he could remain president, although that decision has not been made.
It’s expected Ron Francis, the Hurricanes’ vice president of hockey operations, will succeed Rutherford as general manager. That decision will be made by team owner Peter Karmanos Jr.
A feeling that Francis' succession is all but guaranteed has grown steadily in the near-month since.
It's not certain exactly when such a transition would take place, although Francis would presumably want at least a few weeks at the helm entering the 2014 NHL Draft in late June.
Tension and frustration slowly converged on Kirk Muller's coaching position in the final months of this past season.
Muller, who had just two months of head coaching experience at any level when hired in November 2011, has not finished higher than 12th in the Eastern Conference in any of his three seasons behind the bench in Carolina.
In many ways, the 48-year-old coach has been sacrificed as a bridge between the depth-focused, low-spending "hometown team" Hurricanes of old and the wheeling-and-dealing, cap-pushing Hurricanes of today.
A new boss more in line with the team's new Ron Francis-led franchise vision would likely experience more success.
Barry Trotz, who was fired by the Predators on Monday, led a similar small-market Nashville club to the postseason seven of the last 10 years, despite a woefully one-dimensional cast of forwards. John Stevens, Kings assistant coach and up-and-coming commodity in the coaching market, is quite familiar with success. Carolina assistant Rod Brind'Amour and AHL coach Jeff Daniels may be best able to learn from Muller's mistakes.
But owner Peter Karmanos could also get in the way.
Karmanos ired many fans when he expressed support of the coaching staff earlier in April, saying "I like our coaching staff. I think they’ve made a lot of progress with the team. I like our players," in a Fox Sports Carolinas TV interview.
2014 NHL Draft
The Hurricanes currently occupy seven picks in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft on held June 27 and 28 in Philadelphia.
Round One: Pick No. 7 overall
Round Two: No. 37
Round Three: No. 67
Round Four: No. 96 (from Vancouver) and No. 97
Round Five: No. 127
Round Seven: No. 187
The 'Canes acquired the Canucks' fourth-round selection in the trade that sent Jeremy Welsh and Zac Dalpe to Vancouver last September. The Kings acquired the Hurricanes' sixth-round selection in the trade that brought Kevin Westgarth to Carolina in Jan. 2013.
While the 2014 draft class is not nearly as top-loaded as 2013's crop, a plethora of top-grade prospects will be available with the seventh overall choice.
RW William Nylander, perhaps the most interesting and unpredictable prospect in the top 20, could be Carolina's second consecutive top 10 selection from Sweden. OHL star LWs Michael Dal Colle (95 points in 67 games with Oshawa) and Brendan Perlini (71 points in 58 games with Niagara) may entice. On the defensive side, WHL defenseman Haydn Fleury has a Shea Weber-like presence.
Salary Cap Situation
The Hurricanes have just 13 NHL players—seven forwards (only five of which are on one-way contracts), four defensemen and two goaltenders—currently under contract for the 2014-15 season, according to Capgeek.
However, their projected $19.3 million in salary cap space will be the 11th-smallest around the league, and it's not certain if the team is even willing to spend to the new $71.1 million cap within the club budget.
The injury-destroyed Joni Pitkanen debacle and the retained salary from the Jussi Jokinen trade blunder finally get off the books this summer, but Justin Faulk's cap hit jumps from $840,000 to $4.83 million and four of the forwards under contract will make more than $4.7 million next season.
Unless Ron Francis' GM tenure begins with an enormous bang, the 'Canes may also end up paying $6.3 million for their backup goalie (Cam Ward) next autumn.
Simply put, Carolina's financial situation is a confusing, cluttered and wasteful mess at the moment.
Upcoming Free Agents
Of the Hurricanes' 26 total pending free agents at both the NHL and AHL levels, 13 are unrestricted free agents. A full list of all 26 is below:
Forward UFAs: Manny Malhotra, Radek Dvorak, Brett Sutter, Chris Terry, Nicholas Blanchard
Forward RFAs: Jiri Tlusty, Andrei Loktionov, Drayson Bowman, Nathan Gerbe, Greg Nemisz, Justin Shugg, Aaron Palushaj, Zach Boychuk, Jared Staal, Kellan Tochkin
Defensemen UFAs: Joni Pitkanen, Ron Hainsey, Mike Komisarek, Brett Bellemore, Matt Corrente, Mark Flood
Defensemen RFAs: Rasmus Rissanen, Tommi Kivisto, Michal Jordan
Goaltender UFAs: Justin Peters, Mike Murphy
The 'Canes may have their most intriguing decisions to make with their restricted free agent forwards. It's not likely they can afford (nor do they desire) to qualify all 10.
Was Andrei Loktionov's strong month-long audition enough to earn him a new contract? Have Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk worn out Carolina's patience? Is Jiri Tlusty consistent enough to warrant the big raise he'll likely demand? All of those questions, and more, will need to be answered.
Elsewhere, veterans Manny Malhotra and Ron Hainsey could be 50/50 toss-ups to remain in Raleigh, while the decision to re-sign or part ways with longtime AHL leaders Brett Sutter, Chris Terry and Michal Jordan could rest on their perceived chances of developing into NHL-caliber assets.
Players on the Hot Seat
The Hurricanes retain two compliance buyouts, which will expire if not used this summer.
However, it is again unknown whether the team has the internal budget to spare on "dead" salary (compliance buyouts remove cap hit, but the player must still be paid all guaranteed salary).
Removal by trade is another more complicated but often less expensive method.
Longtime Hurricanes cornerstones like Cam Ward ($6.3 million through 2016) and Eric Staal ($8.25 million through 2016), along with overpaid recent acquisition John-Michael Liles ($3.875 million through 2016), per Capgeek, could fall prey to one method or the other.
The controversies surrounding many of Carolina's top-paid players are likely to remain central storylines as the heart of the 2014 offseason approaches.
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