Joni Pitkanen had 35 points in 72 games with Carolina this season. (Photo by Greg Fiume/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Carolina Hurricanes’ late-season failure to clinch the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference will help bring about significant roster changes this summer.
Unrestricted free agent defenseman Joni Pitkanen may be the most notable casualty, as GM Jim Rutherford considers restructuring his defense corps, telling The Raleigh News & Observer the Hurricanes will remain a “budget team” next season.
That means Rutherford will likely try to keep the payroll close to the salary cap minimum next season, which is expected to be around $46.2 million. Currently the Hurricanes have a little more than $30 million invested in 11 players.
While that gives Rutherford at least $16 million to re-sign his key players, Pitkanen - who earned $4 million this season - could prove too expensive to retain, especially if he seeks a substantial raise.
Other notable Hurricanes UFAs include forwards Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose and Cory Stillman.
Rutherford singled out Cole as one of his priorities, but while the 32-year-old left winger - who netted 26 goals this season - expressed his wish to remain with the Hurricanes, it will come down to his salary demands.
Cole earned $3 million this season and may garner more than $4 million on the open market in the summer, although his history of seemingly only playing well for the Hurricanes will make Carolina his only reasonable choice.
Stillman, 38, would like to return with the Hurricanes for another season, claiming he can still help out.
He struggled through the first half of the season with the Florida Panthers, managing just 23 points in 44 games, but appeared rejuvenated when he returned to the Hurricanes at the trade deadline, netting 16 points in 21 games.
Stillman is coming off a three-year deal with a cap hit of $3.53 million per season and at his age can forget about landing a similar salary for next season. But if Stillman is willing to accept a one-year deal for around $1.5 million, Rutherford would consider bringing him back.
LaRose and Jokinen both posted decent numbers this season and are coming off contracts worth an annual cap hit of $1.7 million. They'll seek raises, but it remains to be seen if Rutherford can afford to meet their demands, particularly if the GM intends to upgrade his blueline.
LOTS OF WORK TO DO IN NEW JERSEY
New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello faces considerable challenges entering the off-season.
Amongst them is re-signing left winger Zach Parise to a long-term extension, upgrading the defense and finding a future replacement for aging goalie Martin Brodeur – all while trying to spend salary cap dollars wisely.
Parise keeps saying he wants to stay with the Devils, but contract talks have yet to begin, though it's expected they’ll start shortly; retaining Parise is Lamoriello’s priority.
Goaltender Johan Hedberg, left winger Adam Mair and defenseman Andy Greene are unrestricted free agents. Mair and Greene both said they wanted to return to the Devils, but Hedberg's status isn’t as clear; he's yet to hear if the organization intends on bringing him back.
Another consideration for Hedberg is he wants to be closer to his family in Atlanta, though it appears unlikely the Thrashers would bring him back if he hits the open market. For that matter, it's possible the Thrashers won’t even play in Atlanta next season if the ownership situation gets out of control.
Hedberg did rule out returning to his native Sweden next season, saying he wants to continue playing in the NHL.
If the Devils do re-sign Hedberg he's obviously not the heir apparent to Brodeur, who may possibly retire at the end of next season when his contract expires. Finding a future No. 1 goalie won't be easy this summer, particularly given the Devils’ cap woes, unless they trade away a good young player for someone such as Vancouver's Cory Schneider or Los Angeles' Jonathan Bernier. But those teams aren't about to just give those two away.
Veteran left winger Brian Rolston, meanwhile, expressed his hope of returning next season to play out the final year of his contract.
Rolston struggled in the first half of the season, winding up on waivers where his $5-million salary and low offensive numbers made him unpalatable to rival teams, but his performance notably improved following Jacques Lemaire's return behind the bench at mid-season.
The 38-year-old also has a no-trade clause and intends to speak with Lamoriello in the coming weeks to discuss his future.
Retirement isn't an issue as Rolston still wants to play. Even if he did retire the Devils wouldn't get any cap relief because he was older than 35 when he signed his current contract.
The primary issue for Lamoriello is cap space. If the cap ceiling for next season increases as expected to $62.2 million, he'll only have about $10 million available, which isn’t enough to re-sign Parise and have enough left over to sign or replace Hedberg, Greene and Mair, plus fill in the remaining roster gaps.
Clearing Rolston's $5 million would help, but that's unlikely to happen, so Lamoriello will be forced to consider other salary-dumping moves.
WILL VOKOUN RETURN TO THE PANTHERS?
Recent reports claiming goaltender Tomas Vokoun had played his final game with the Florida Panthers are premature.
The Miami Herald reported Monday Vokoun hadn't fully closed the door on the Panthers, saying he enjoyed living in South Florida while praising management for its efforts to rebuild the team the right way.
GM Dale Tallon claimed Vokoun would like to remain with the Panthers and the team would consider all its options.
While Vokoun didn't have harsh words for recently fired coach Pete DeBoer, the goalie acknowledged his relationship with the former coach had been tense. DeBoer’s firing may be a factor in Vokoun's possible return.
Dollars will ultimately be the determining factor as Tallon won't re-sign the veteran goalie for the same average cap hit ($5.7 million) he earned on his current contract.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Foxsports.com and Eishockey Magazine.