Despite uniting brothers Jordan and Eric Staal - plus adding Alex Semin - Carolina still missed the playoffs by a mile. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)
A season that began with considerable optimism for the Carolina Hurricanes ended once again in disappointment.
Last summer's acquisitions of Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin led the Hurricanes to atop the Southeast division for over a month at mid-season, but injuries to key players and poor defensive play knocked them out of playoff contention for the fourth straight season.
Though the loss of goalie Cam Ward to a season-ending knee injury was significant, GM Jim Rutherford believes the real problem was putting some of his defensemen “in roles they couldn't handle.”
Rutherford has a point. His club finished the season 29th in goals-against average (3.31), gave up the fifth-most shots-per-game (32.2) while their penalty-kill ranked 28th overall.
In the wake of Ward's injury, Luke DeCock of the Raleigh News & Observer noted the Hurricanes had an excess of mobile puck-moving blueliners, lacking physical defensemen who wouldn't be out-muscled in their own end.
Adding a physical presence to their blueline could be expensive. The Hurricanes currently have over $56.65 million invested in 17 players for next season, leaving just over $7.6 million in cap space.
Their core players are under contract for next season so there's no concerns about expensive re-signings. Blueliners Joe Corvo, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Bobby Sanguinetti are unrestricted free agents and unlikely to return.
Long-time checking forward Chad LaRose, who won a Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006, is also an unrestricted free agent. He earned $1.7 million this season and could be an affordable re-signing, but that depends upon Rutherford's efforts to bolster his defense.
Rutherford forecasts his payroll could come in “about $60, $61 million next year”. He's willing to spend, but might not have enough cap space to add the necessary blueline muscle.
The Hurricanes are deep in scoring forwards, prompting DeCock to propose dealing Jeff Skinner if an opportunity arose to land an elite defenseman.
While acknowledging such a suggestion was unthinkable a year ago, DeCock cited Skinner's defensive shortcomings, rising cap hit (which climbs to $5.75 million next season) and concussion history as reasons to consider trading the 20-year-old “for the right player”.
Skinner would undoubtedly attract attention in the trade market, but those issues DeCock cited could also dampen his value.
Rutherford may be reluctant to part with Skinner but the young forward could be the Hurricanes best trade chip.
Eric and Jordan Staal obviously aren't moving, nor is the recently re-signed Semin. The affordable Jiri Tlusty ($1.6 million) scored a career-high 23 goals playing on the top line this season, while the battered but still effective Tuomo Ruutu has a full no-movement clause in his contract.
Rutherford could also shop one of his puck-moving defensemen. Leading up to this year's trade deadline, Jamie McBain was believed available “for the right price” and could be swapped for a shutdown blueliner this summer.
Rutherford's made bold moves last summer to bolster his offense. Expect him to be equally bold in addressing his defensive issues.
Rumor Roundup appears weekdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).