Andrei Loktionov could be playing in the Kontinental Hockey League this season and making a lot more money.
But Loktionov wanted to be in the NHL. He wanted to play with the best hockey players in the world.
Loktionov now plays for the Carolina Hurricanes. Obtained Wednesday in a trade that sent Tuomo Ruutu to the New Jersey Devils, the Russian center will be in the Canes’ lineup Friday against the New York Rangers at PNC Arena.
Loktionov, 23, put in his first practice Thursday with the Canes. Wearing No. 8, he centered the fourth line with Manny Malhotra and Drayson Bowman on the wings.
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Asked about the trade, Loktionov said he was a “little surprised” but added, “It’s just a business and you have to be ready for that.”
The Ruutu trade had a lot to do with the business side. The Finnish forward wasn’t putting up the offensive numbers the Canes wanted, and general manager Jim Rutherford believed he needed to shed a contract that would pay Ruutu $5 million each of the next two seasons.
“Your top forwards need to play in the top six,” Rutherford said. “As time has gone on, he is not in our top six. So from a financial point of view it doesn’t make sense to continue to carry that type of player.”
Ruutu, 31, had just five goals and 11 assists in 57 games this season, but he led the Canes in hits and is a physical, in-your-face kind of forward. His departure leaves a void for the Canes, hardly the most bruising team in the league.
“From a physical point of view it may be something we need to address in the offseason,” Rutherford said. “But as much as I liked Tuomo and as much as I think his game is starting to turn around, he wasn’t giving us as much as we would have liked.”
Loktionov fielded offers from KHL teams after last season – one reportedly for $3 million.
“My agent talked to them, but I was not ready to go back,” Loktionov said. “I am a young guy and this is the best league in the world. It’s not about the money for a young guy. I’m happy to be playing here, against the good players.”
Loktionov had a one-year, $725,000 contract with the Devils. He’ll be a restricted free agent after the season and Rutherford said he has no concerns about Loktionov being tempted to leave for the KHL.
“I really don’t know, but if he does it just gives us flexibility to do something else,” Rutherford said. “If we were still sitting here with Tuomo we wouldn’t have that flexibility. Andrei, if he decides to go back to the KHL, it just opens a spot for someone else.”
But the Canes hope Loktionov continues to develop. He played for the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League when the Spitfires won the 2009 Memorial Cup, showed promise with the Los Angeles Kings and again with the Devils after being traded to New Jersey last season.
Loktionov said his play this season had been “not bad.” He said his ice time fluctuated with the Devils as he was used on all four lines, and he was a healthy scratch in 13 games.
“All the time they (were) changing lineups,” he said.
Loktionov, listed at 5-11 and 190 pounds, had four goals and eight assists, and a plus-2 rating in 48 games for the Devils. He had assists in two of the first four Devils games following the NHL’s Olympic break.
“He’s a skilled player,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said. “Coming out of junior he was really highly touted. For us, he brings a different dimension. He’s a good half-wall guy on the power play and makes plays. We’ll start him off as the fourth-line center and see what chemistry he has with different guys.”
The Canes (27-26-9) made one personnel move Thursday, recalling defenseman Ryan Murphy from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL. Carolina on Wednesday recalled goaltender Justin Peters from the Checkers.
The Canes are back to having three goalies, and Anton Khudobin, Cam Ward and Peters all got work in practice. Muller didn’t announce a starter for the Rangers game.
“Whoever we feel is ready and rested and gives us the best chance, that guy will play,” Muller said.