As the 2011 NHL draft approached and the final week of the re-signing period loomed, the same dismal outlook remained; only Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu would be definitive 'Canes for the '11-'12 year.
But, suddenly, something changed; GM Jim Rutherford finally stepped into action.
After managing to come to terms with only Jay Harrison in the two-and-a-half months after the regular season concluded, deals were suddenly flying in from all sides of the table.
First, it was penalty-killing depth winger Patrick Dwyer who re-signed. Then potential headline unrestricted free-agent (UFA) Joni Pitkanen signed a contract to complete the defensive unit. The next day, energetic fan favorite Chad LaRose jumped on board. On June 30, Jussi Jokinen, who had gone back and forth with his negotiating stance up to that date, agreed to a deal, at last. And, at the last minute, one of the two original restricted free agents (RFAs) that didn't receive a qualifying offer, Jiri Tlusty, accepted an extension.
Suddenly, the Hurricanes roster of forwards had jumped from three members to eight entering the opening of free agency—July 1st at noon.
Still, there was one crucial name missing: Eric Cole. And, as it turned out, he never would make the list. Three hours after 12:00, Cole signed with the Montreal Canadiens in a colossal, superfluous four-year, $14 million contract carrying a salary cap hit of $4.5 million per season.
Nevertheless, Rutherford didn't crumble without getting perhaps his once-biggest offseason priority to agree to stay in Carolina. He simply added a fourth item to his original three-point checklist: a gritty fourth-line center; an inexpensive, potent bottom-six winger; an experienced backup goaltender and a young, enticing mid-line winger.
In a manner of just over 24 hours, that starting-to-become-overwhelming list of needs was shortened to a blank sheet of crossed-off items.
First to be filled was the fourth-line center role, solved with former 'Canes killer Tim Brent, who spent '10-'11 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Brent, 27, played his first full season (79 games played) last year, amassing eight goals (including one game-winner), 12 assists, a minus-four rating and 33 penalty minutes (PIM). In two appearances against Carolina, he had two goals, one of which came shorthanded, and a multitude of crucial shot blocks in both games.
More impressive over the course of the season, though, were Brent's efforts that weren't recorded on the box score. The former third-round pick had 104 hits, seventh on the Leafs, and 58 blocked shots, eighth on the team.
However, he was signed by Rutherford mostly for his ability on faceoffs—a 52.0 winning percentage on 788 total attempts—and killing penalties—an average of 1:58 of shorthanded time on ice per game, second among Toronto forwards. This past season, the 'Canes ranked 29th and 20th in the league on draws and penalty kills, respectively.
Just moments later came the arrival of the new backup goalie, 34-year-old Brian Boucher. Reportedly 'Canes goaltending coach Tom Barrasso's top choice for the role, Boucher played in 33 and 34 games, respectively, over the past two years for Philadelphia in a three-man netminding rotation. After a horrific 9-18-4 record and .899 save percentage in '09-'10, Boucher rebounded with an 18-10-4 record and .916 save percentage this past season. He was also 10-10 in 21 postseason games with the Flyers.
Heading into the summer, Boucher, the 1995 first-round choice for Philly, had 314 games of regular-season and 43 games of postseason experience and had started at least one game for seven different teams. Rutherford hopes to rest starter Cam Ward, who played a league-high 74 games in '10-'11, more often now that he has a reliable backup in Boucher, who could start in as many as 25 matches.
Later in the afternoon saw Alexei Ponikarovsky sign on with the Hurricanes in an attempt to complete that third item on the list of day one to-dos. The left wing, age 31 now, is one of Carolina's riskier signings in a while after totaling only five tallies and 10 helpers last year for Los Angeles and missing 21 games to injury.
On the other hand, Ponikarovsky has had better days and shown times of excellence in the past; over the five previous seasons, the Ukraine native hit the 20-goal plateau four times and surpassed the 60-point level in '08-'09. His trade to Pittsburgh at the 2010 trade deadline, though, ended an almost-six-season-long stint in Toronto and he has yet to recover back to his old production levels since.
After closing out Opening Day with those three signings in hand, Rutherford went into the second day without anything too pressing and without much of an agenda, either. Still, he pounced when the opportunity came to sign a younger player to help ease Cole's loss.
That player was Anthony Stewart. Stewart, who came from Winnipeg but never touched the ice in his new city, had his breakout year last season at age 27, scoring 14 goals and 39 points and shattering his previous career highs set in '09-'10 of two goals and seven points.
The older brother of St. Louis' Chris Stewart, four years the younger but a back-to-back 28-goal scorer for the Avalanche and Blues, Anthony will look to continue catching up with his sibling while playing in a Hurricanes jersey.
Through all of the additions, the Hurricanes remain at their typical position from a salary standpoint—near the lowest in the league. Currently ranking 25th in terms of combined salary, Rutherford and owner Pete Karmanos, typically a low spender, have a combined payroll of just over $45 million, $19.3 million short of the salary cap but, more importantly, a hair under $3.3 million below the salary floor.
Nevertheless, the 'Canes should be able to reach (and stay around) the floor of $48 million relatively easily this summer with two RFAs remaining—forward and assistant captain Brandon Sutter and defenseman Derek Joslin—and other jobs probably to be left open for prospects competing at training camp.
Of the four signings, not one was overly excessive and, all in all, shouldn't break the bank or have a huge effect on the payroll. From money's point of view, the four signings are as follows:
- Tim Brent: two years, $750,000 cap hit
- Brian Boucher: two years, $950,000 cap hit
- Alexei Ponikarovsky: one year, $1.5 million cap hit
- Anthony Stewart: two years, $800,000 cap hit
For more on how the Hurricanes roster stands, at the moment, player-by-player and the terms of the extensions coming in late June, follow this link to CapGeek's Hurricanes page.
As of July 4th, the 'Canes roster consisted of 10 forwards (two short of the minimum), six defensemen (the minimum total) and two goaltenders. Sutter, who, according to reports, is asking for a two- to three-year deal that we estimate will carry a $3.0 million cap hit, and Joslin, most likely to receive something in the range of a two-year, $2.0 million total ($1.0 million cap hit) contract, will eventually leave the Hurricanes roster just one forward short of full.
Vying for that last spot (and perhaps a 13th forward role, as well) would be youngsters such as Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman and Jerome Samson. All four received some NHL experience last year and are probably approaching the time that Rutherford would like them to start becoming NHL regulars.
The remainder of the summer will consist of quieter times in Carolina, for the most part. With the out-of-town UFA signings finished, Rutherford will be focused more on inking his restricted free agents and also on perhaps taking some breaks away from hockey, just like the rest of Caniac Nation.
Besides Sutter and Joslin, three RFA prospects remain unsigned, as well.
Defensemen Bobby Sanguinetti and Brett Bellemore are faced with expiring contracts, and, though injuries have hampered both players' development, will still be needed next year with the Hurricanes' shallow pool of young D-men. Forward Brett Sutter, cousin of Brandon, is also an RFA.
On the unrestricted front, Troy Bodie, originally set to be an RFA before not receiving a qualifying offer, is a free agent open to anyone, as are five former prospects with AHL Albany/Charlotte: forward Nick Dodge, blueliners Bryan Rodney, Zach Fitzgerald and Casey Borer and netminder Justin Pogge. Even though new contracts to any of the five are possible (especially one of the defensemen), don't expect to see many of them dress up in 'Canes colors again.
Lastly, Cory Stillman, officially also a UFA, continues to ponder his retirement. It seems as though he's lost his spot in Carolina, anyhow, regardless of the decision.
Rutherford will also be faced with the decision of whether to sign any of his draft picks from the 2011 NHL draft. Top choice Ryan Murphy may elect to stay in the OHL for one more season. Second-rounder Victor Rask and third-round pick Keegan Lowe may also want to stay in junior hockey for one more season.
Thankfully, though, those newcomers' assets aren't needed on the NHL front this season with the new additions Rutherford was able to ink to start off the month. Now, he can pat himself on the back, relax a little and get to work on smoothing over a well-balanced roster for the 2011-12 NHL season.