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DeCock: Pitkanen injury may have far-reaching consequences

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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RALEIGH The apparent lack of progress with Joni Pitkanen’s shattered heel is awful news for the Carolina Hurricanes in so many ways. It’s hard to pick just one: The minutes he plays; the all-around role the defenseman can fill when at his best; the fact that the needless injury, suffered on a meaningless icing play, has the potential to be career-ending.

It’s a frightening set of circumstances for player and team alike.

While Pitkanen’s long-term prospects remain in question, the short-term prospects of the Hurricanes will unavoidably take a hit. If Thursday’s CT scan produces further bad news, the Hurricanes may have no choice but to pursue a replacement, which would mean money that should be spent on a forward could end up being spent on defense while any chance of trading the final year of Pitkanen’s $4.5 million contract evaporates.

“Especially with Joni’s situation, we have to keep our eyes on how much cap room we have,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said Tuesday. “There’s a little more priority for a defenseman.”

The good news, so to speak, is that a ready replacement for Pitkanen exists in the form of Ron Hainsey, still a free agent at this late date for reasons unexplained. Hainsey is a versatile defenseman capable of soaking up a good chunk of the minutes Pitkanen typically plays. The fact a defenseman of his caliber is still available – perhaps because of the active role he played during the lockout for the NHLPA? – is a huge break for the Hurricanes, who wouldn’t exactly be scraping the bottom of the barrel.

There’s only so much money to go around, though, and until now there wasn’t any reason to spend it on defense. Before the grim news regarding Pitkanen’s recovery, or lack thereof, the Hurricanes looked set on the blue line with the additions of Andrej Sekera and Mike Komisarek, which not only added some needed components – Komisarek’s bulk in particular – but took pressure off rookie Ryan Murphy by bumping him down to the seventh spot.

Where the Hurricanes really need help at this point is forward, which is why Radek Dvorak is coming to camp on a tryout basis. They need size, capable penalty killers, fourth-line depth and at least one top-nine role player, just for starters.

The first line may be set, but there’s an opening with Jordan Staal and Tuomo Ruutu on the second line and questions about where Jeff Skinner and rookie Elias Lindholm would fit best. At the moment, there will be a mad scramble for jobs between players in the system like Zac Dalpe and tryouts like Dvorak, but the situation really calls out for an experienced winger – like coach Kirk Muller’s former teammate Brendan Morrow – or a veteran third-line center. Or both. Pitkanen’s injury may use up the checkbook and leave those questions unanswered.

For now, the Hurricanes will await news of Pitkanen’s prognosis. While discussions continue with Morrow and Hainsey, among others, Rutherford said his preference is to extend invitations to unsigned players, not contracts, until he sees how training camp shakes out. The Hurricanes will see where they stand with Murphy and Brett Bellemore, which is the same shaky position they were in before Komisarek arrived.

“Until we have an idea how long (Pitkanen) is out, we’ll try to replace him with what we’ve got,” Rutherford said. “We’re pretty sure he’s not going to be starting the season.”

If Thursday’s news isn’t good, there’s no reason to wait. The Hurricanes should snap up Hainsey before someone else does. Still, at this point, it’s hard not to worry: Will Pitkanen’s injury hurt the Hurricanes on defense, at forward, or both?

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