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Monday, January 30, 2012

After All-Star break, Canes look to the future

Posted by on Mon, Jan 30, 2012 at 3:20 PM

Before you click away elsewhere, take a quick look at the Carolina Hurricanes’ roster. And, as you read it, refresh the page a few times. Chances are fair that it might change before your eyes.

The trade deadline approacheth.

Tuomo Ruutu, seen here in a December game versus Buffalo, might not be a Cane much longer.
  • Photo by Peggy Boone
  • Tuomo Ruutu, seen here in a December game versus Buffalo, might not be a Cane much longer.
One name will stay for certain. Earlier today, blueliner Tim Gleason inked a four-year contract extension for the Canes—essentially inheriting the terms and dollars that went off the books when flop-tacular Tomas Kaberle was catapulted to Montreal in early December.

Another name might vanish though. I’m actually hurrying to write this and get it posted before something happens. General manager Jim Rutherford, between presumed gulps of an energy drink, could be typing up his third press release of the day right now. In addition to the Gleason announcement, Riley Nash was recalled today from the Charlotte Checkers. Sure, not a big deal. It’s Nash’s second cup of coffee this season. And he’s probably just taking the spot that Zac Dalpe vacated when he was sent down a week ago.

But it could also foreshadow a roster forward’s departure, possibly Tuomo Ruutu, whose contract expires at the end of the season. Ruutu leads the Canes with 15 goals and has been playing his guts out for months. Any team with hopes of going deep in the playoffs would love to have his mix of grit and skill.

Unfortunately, the Canes are not one of those teams.

This past weekend’s National Hockey League All-Star break provides the last pause before the spring playoff rush. It’s a time for teams to take stock of where they are in the standings, to decide if their play thus far merits improving their rosters before the Feb. 27 trading deadline or if they should dump pending unrestricted free agents for draft picks and prospects. In short, it is when teams become either buyers or sellers.

This season, after playing Hyde for the fall and into winter, the Canes are hoping to dust off their Jekyll garb to make a spring run. Although modifying phrases like “just ten points out of a playoff spot” can be placed before the team’s name, so can “Eastern Conference basement-dweller.” Which you choose depends on how you would describe half a glass of water.

Carolina is a seller. Sure, if the team got crazy-hot it could make a run at the eighth and final playoff spot like it did last year. But it’s not going to happen. And it actually shouldn’t.

There is no reason to add the equivalent of a Doug Weight or Mark Recchi—two wily, motivated veteran ingredients in the 2006 champion concoction—to this lineup. Rutherford communicated that with two moves last week, upgrading his minor league larder of forwards with Evgenii Dadonov coming over from Florida for Jon Matsumoto and then cutting bait on free-agent signee Alexei Ponikarovsky for an American Hockey League defenseman and a fourth-round pick from New Jersey.

Everyone makes mistakes; the smartest of us can subsequently correct them. Rutherford’s off-season signings of retreads Ponikarovsky and Kaberle—which had more to do with their past accomplishments and relationships with then-coach Paul Maurice in his Toronto years than with the players’ ability or motivation—have been made things of the past in Raleigh. Anthony Stewart has ended up being the cream of Rutherford’s free agent harvest. And don’t chuckle at that. He’s the only one that had the combination of work ethic and team-first attitude, characteristics as valuable to coach Kirk Muller’s approach as skill.

Stewart, ahem, leads the team in plus-minus at +3, and has pitched in six goals while averaging a paltry eight minutes of ice time a game. Plus, he’s the only player on the whole team who makes himself available to the media after every game to face the music, win or lose. Most of the time, of course, it has been lose.

I sure didn’t see this season coming. Or, if I did, I averted my eyes and told myself a nice story otherwise. I said to myself “Just because the Bruins dumped Kaberle by the side of the road the second they won the Stanley Cup doesn’t mean he’s no good. Plus he has those rosy cheeks like a sugarplum fairy.” Or I said “Ponikarovsky must not have scored in Pittsburgh because he had no decent centers to play with.” Or “Cam Ward plays better the more shots he faces. This blue line should be perfect for him.”

Remember the All-Star Game last year? Hosted in Raleigh, Eric Staal and Cam Ward were front-and-center stars, Jeff Skinner was the apple of every fan’s and reporter’s eye, and the Canes were hot and right on the playoff cusp.

This year? Rookie Justin Faulk skated in the skills competition. That’s it. What the hell happened?

Since the last collective bargaining agreement brought the National Hockey League into the salary cap era, we’ve seen the same weird behavior in the NHL standings as in the NFL. First and foremost, parity: teams stalled around the playoff cutoff line for year after year; not much of a difference between the fifth seed and the eleventh seed in a conference; the sense that good teams end up just missing the playoffs while bad teams just make it—tempting owners to want to expand the playoff brackets when probably they should contract them.

More descriptive of the Hurricanes is the other salary cap phenomenon of worst-to-first/first-to-worst. In 2006, the Canes emerged from nondescriptitude to take the first Stanley Cup after the lockout. Then they plummeted to the bottom of the standings in 2007. A run to the conference finals in 2009 was followed by another dive. Even last season, in which the Canes missed the playoffs by losing their eighty-second and final regular-season game, was not attributable to parity but to a compression of Jekyll and Hyde into one bimodal year.

But despite being in the conference basement, guarded optimism is in the air. Muller’s remaking of this team one week at a time since his Nov. 28 takeover reveals not so much how mediocre Maurice had become behind the Carolina bench as how well Muller’s mix of ambition and accountability matches a roster that’s not sprinkled generously with stars and a payroll that no one should bother hoping will approach the cap.

Quietly, Staal’s year has recovered. He now leads the Canes in scoring. Muller’s pushed the right buttons there.

Muller’s also managed to bring the Carolina power play back from the dead. Suddenly, point men can skate laterally. Instead of a big body in front of the net, which the roster lacks, Muller uses a shot-tipper in the high slot. Zone entry is still an issue but that's normal. Now they have a chance at scoring once they set things up.

And although the team has managed only one win streak of over two games all season, which ended before you bought Halloween candy for trick-or-treaters, they have points in four straight heading into the break.

These are all things to build on, and they have the builder (Muller) as well as some foundational chunks (Staal, Skinner, Ward, Faulk, and now Gleason) in Raleigh. Moving UFAs Ruutu, Jaroslav Spacek, and Bryan Allen (who would have to waive a no-trade clause) could stockpile further assets.

Speculation is rampant in the hockey press that a Ruutu trade is imminent, as Rutherford doesn’t seem too interested in stringing things out to the deadline to see if demand builds. Better to use the games between now and then to evaluate talent than to showcase guys with one skate out of town.

So keep refreshing your screen. Hopefully, the list of names will get better.

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