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DeCock: Money part of this Hurricanes postmortem

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH So much of what was said Thursday has been heard so many times before in these premature postmortems that have become an annual ritual for the Carolina Hurricanes.

They really like their core players. Sometimes, you have to take a step back to take two steps forward. And they’re not just trying to make the playoffs, they’re trying to win the Stanley Cup.

If there’s a difference this time around, it’s that Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos might actually spend the money it takes to back up those words with action.

Twentieth out of 30 NHL teams in payroll this season, they’re moving into a new division full of free-spending major-market teams and general manager Jim Rutherford said the Hurricanes will try to keep pace with their new peers as the cap drops from $70.2 million to $64.3 million.

“We have been a budget team for a long time,” Rutherford acknowledged. “But we are now at the point where we’re going to be a lot closer to the cap than not. We’ll probably be at about $60, $61 million next year. Now we’re getting into that area. We know we had to do that with the change of divisions.”

Take comfort in those big hikes in ticket prices and parking fees, folks: Presumably, that’s where your money is going.

After spending about $57 million this year, the Hurricanes are committed to about $56 million for next year already, which would leave about $5 million to spend – more if there are other departures (trading Drayson Bowman, Justin Peters and Jamie McBain, just for example, would free up another $2.9 million).

The optimism about the core – which is really the group of seven players that includes both Staal brothers, Alexander Semin, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu, Justin Faulk and Cam Ward – comes not only from the top of the food chain but a long way down it as well. Head coach Kirk Muller and captain Eric Staal are genuinely and honestly enthused about some of the talent the Hurricanes have assembled.

It’s a lot easier to find role players to fill out the third and fourth lines than it is top-level talent, which the Hurricanes now have. They have a few other guys, like Jiri Tlusty and Patrick Dwyer, who may not be of that caliber but showed their value this season. They just need more of them.

While the flaws defensively were all too apparent after Ward was injured, they were lurking even while he was healthy and certain to be exposed in the playoffs. Rutherford talked Thursday about adding two or three more bodies, potentially re-signing Marc-Andre Bergeron and getting some of the current players – read: Tim Gleason and Jay Harrison – to play the physical game they’re capable of playing.

So that’s the task now: Use this expanded payroll space to add experienced veteran leadership, quality forwards who can fill specific roles and upgrade the blue line via trades or free agency, ideally poaching players from quality teams struggling to get under the cap as it drops.

Money may not be enough, though. If the opportunity arises to add an elite defenseman, it may require parting with part of that core group. It would have been unthinkable a year ago, but it is worth some serious thought about what trading Skinner might bring in return.

With his issues defensively, continuing susceptibility to concussions, a contract that jumps to $5.75 million this season and the Hurricanes’ relative depth at forward – especially if they bring in an immediate-help player with the fifth overall pick in a deep draft – this might not be a bad time to trade the former Calder Trophy winner if, and only if, it means adding a defenseman of comparable quality.

It wouldn’t be a popular move, but for the right player, it would be the right move. If the Hurricanes are serious about getting back into the postseason, everything has to be on the table. Including Karmanos’ checkbook.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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