Are the ‘Canes sellers, aware of their unlikely postseason odds and hoping to get a big return on several out-of-favor players? Or are the ‘Canes buyers, hoping to end their five-year playoff drought and surge past the crowded Metropolitan Division bubble? General manager Jim Rutherford has yet to clarify his position on the matter and, thus, the ‘Canes remain one of the league’s biggest question marks as the March 3rd deadline creeps closer.
However, the Hurricanes’ playoff picture, while difficult, is far from hopeless. The squad trails the Red Wings by just two points for the 8th seed with a game in hand, and the Flyers by five points for the 3rd automatic Metropolitan bid with two games in hand. Yes, 16 of their final 25 games are on the road, but 16 are also against teams with true records of .500 or worse.
The path to an 83rd game is undoubtedly a challenging one, yet it is an entirely feasible one, as well. With that in mind, the odds seem to favor the ‘Canes taking an aggressive “buyer” stance in the week leading up to the deadline.
The third line center role has been a weakness of the ‘Canes roster all season long, despite the front office’s apparent persisting that it’s not. Manny Malhotra’s impacts are streaky at best outside of his faceoff mastery, and Riley Nash isn’t much more than an especially stable fourth liner.
Many in Raleigh have been salivating over the idea of landing Mikael Backlund for months. The 24-year-old former first-round pick would certainly fill the hole for years to come, but he’s experienced something of a career revival campaign in Calgary in 2013-14 and would be pricey to say the least. Everything else – his age, scoring totals (29 points in 57 games), defensive reliability (Flames-leading Corsi relative) and contract ($1.5 million cap hit through 2015) – seems great, but Calgary pseudo-GM Brian Burke would likely demand a return package of one of Brock McGinn/Daniel Altshuller/Victor Rask/etc and a high draft pick and Rutherford could well scoff at that.
David Legwand‘s name rose quickly up the rumor wire during the last week prior to the Olympic break and would also be a splashy acquisition for Carolina. The 33-year-old lifetime Predator’s contract will expire this summer, and he’s demonstrated remarkable offensive and defensive consistency as Nashville’s third-line center for a decade. The biggest obstacle in Legwand-to-Raleigh negotiations will be competition, as a hoard of other franchises will also have a foot in this auction.
Dallas and Buffalo could both be frequent phone call destinations for Rutherford in the coming week.
Sabres captain Steve Ott, the team’s leader in hits and faceoff percentage, could be the veteran leader this young ‘Canes squad needs. He’s a more capable playmaker than either Malhotra or Nash and has the physicality component to perhaps re-excite Tuomo Ruutu, too (more on Ruutu later). Meanwhile, on the defensive side, Buffalo’s Henrik Tallinder could also be a target if the ‘Canes seek to replace Jay Harrison, who’s had an underwhelming season.
Vernon Fiddler of the Stars is reportedly disgruntled with his role on the team this season; Rutherford, if interested, could be able to force Dallas GM Jim Nill’s hand here. Fiddler, 33, will be a UFA in July and carries a cap hit less than $2 million. While his scoring is down significantly in 2013-14 – to a paltry 11 points in 52 games – he’s certainly a much more affordable solution than Backlund, Legwand or Ott.
2006 Stanley Cup champion and Raleigh fan favorite Ray Whitney seems likely to retire this summer and might like to close out his career in the place where it was most successful (and also where his family still resides). Even at age 41, Whitney can still tally points – he has 22 in 51 appearances – but, unfortunately, he’s not a center. The return of No. 13 would do wonders for the ‘Canes middling attendance numbers, at the very least.
Defensemen like Derek Morris of the Coyotes and Andrew MacDonald of the Islanders top the charts on the list of potential blueline acquisitions. MacDonald is attracting a plethora of rumors, but his contributions on Long Island in recent seasons have been largely underappreciated: he’s capable of surprisingly sizeable minutes and accumulates impressive assist totals. Morris packs 1,123 games of NHL experience and a strong shot-blocking acumen.
Other possible targets may include Colorado’s Jamie McGinn (winger), the brother of prospect Brock McGinn and a 2014 UFA; Florida’s Marcel Goc (a center) and Brad Boyes (a winger), both of whom have been connected in rumors to Carolina; St. Louis’s Chris Stewart (winger), whose $4.15 million cap hit through 2015 would be tough to swallow; or Edmonton’s Sam Gagner (center), who is almost guaranteed of being dealt somewhere and whose team has traded with Carolina often in the past.
Tuomo Ruutu has had an incredibly up-and-down time of late and has been the Hurricanes’ No. 1 trade rumor subject all season long.
He had two hip surgeries in the 2013 calendar year, causing his checking confidence and ability to drop off drastically. Between Jan. 13 and 31, his ice time dipped into single digits in six of nine games; it previously hadn’t gone below 10 minutes in a single non-injury-affected game since arriving in Raleigh in Feb. 2008. However, Ruutu caught fire on a line with Nash and Drayson Bowman in the ‘Canes pre-Olympic homestand, and he continued that momentum to Sochi, establishing himself as a key contributor on the Finnish offense and bringing home the Bronze Medal.
Whether Ruutu can build off his promising February is yet to be determined, though, and he’ll certainly garner some calls as March 3rd approaches. With a $4.5 million cap hit that doesn’t expire this summer, the ‘Canes would likely be forced to retain some salary if they did trade him.
At only 24, Riley Nash is still clinging to some of his youth-based trade value; if the ‘Canes do acquire a new center, he could find himself the odd man out.
Jay Harrison, who transformed from overage minor-leaguer to reliable second-pairing defenseman over the past half-decade, is in the midst of his most inconsistent NHL season. With Brett Bellemore deserving of far more time off the healthy scratch list and Ryan Murphy and Michal Jordan rising up the pipeline, Harrison may suddenly find himself on a warm (if not hot) seat.
The goaltending puzzle also remains an enormous elephant in the room, as much as Rutherford, Kirk Muller & Co. attempt to ignore it.
Cam Ward inexplicably received no looks prior to the Olympic break, but Anton Khudobin simply cannot start all 25 remaining regular season games without a single rest. Justin Peters had the best stretch of his NHL career last fall, but his play dropped off sharply around the holidays and his trade value continues to decline. Rutherford has seemingly ruled waivers out of the question. Do the ‘Canes keep all three on the roster, or trade one? If so, which one? Those two questions linger heavily on all trade negotiations with no clear best-case (or worst-case, for that matter) answer evident.
Pulling random names out of a hat may be just as accurate, but these three proposals seem the most balanced and helpful of all the possibilities:
Victor Rask to the Nashville Predators for David Legwand
2014 fourth-round pick to Dallas Stars for Ray Whitney
Justin Peters, Jay Harrison to New York Islanders for Andrew MacDonald
What to Expect
The ‘Canes have been expected to be active at many recent trade deadlines and have been disappointingly lethargic each time. Only Marc-Andre Bergeron was brought in at the 2013 deadline, and no trades were made at the 2012 deadline.
Again, the 2014 deadline is expected a busy time for Rutherford and the Hurricanes. And again, the excitement could be replaced with boredom, as Rutherford is a notoriously stubborn and frugal trader.
Nonetheless, the week ahead holds plenty of deal possibilities for the ‘Canes. A number of players have been connected to Carolina, and almost as many have been rumored the other direction. Fans should keep an eye on the rumor wire and breaking news ticker closely.