RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes will be a lot younger team next season. That, we already knew.
The Hurricanes will be paid a lot less money next season. That, team management has made clear.
"We will not be over $50 million," majority owner Peter Karmanos Jr. said last week.
And what will the Canes look like? Who will take the ice in October? That's coming into better focus.
Karmanos' talk of having a significantly reduced payroll next season - about $44 million - obviously was made with an eye toward attracting someone to buy into the team. General manager Jim Rutherford added that the Canes would not hurl themselves into the free-agent signing frenzy that begins July 1.
"We've definitely decided not to be active in the free-agent market," Rutherford said.
That could mean the Canes will be parting ways with veteran winger Ray Whitney. Rutherford said Monday it's unlikely Whitney, paid $3.55 million last season, will sign a new contract with the team before July 1. He would become an unrestricted free agent.
"I think it will be difficult [to reach an agreement] with where he's at, contract-wise," Rutherford said. "It appears that's the way it will go."
At the top of Carolina's pay scale next season will be center Eric Staal ($7.5 million) and goaltender Cam Ward ($5 million), each receiving a $1.5 million salary bump from last season. Behind the two franchise players are defenseman Joni Pitkanen ($4.5 million) and forward Tuomo Ruutu ($4 million).
At the same time, Rutherford said there could be a half-dozen players at the other end of the salary curve making the NHL minimum $500,000 or close to it. Recently signed to one-year, $500,000 contracts were forward Jiri Tlusty and defenseman Jay Harrison, and Rutherford indicated both would be on the roster next season.
Tlusty, traded to the Canes in early December from the Toronto Maple Leafs, was working under a three-year, entry-level contract signed with the Leafs that paid him $765,000 at the NHL level last season. He agreed to less to get the one-way contract with the Canes.
"He compromised on NHL salary for the chance to play for us," Rutherford said.
Rutherford also talked as if Harrison - the only minimum-wager on the roster in last season's opener - is being counted among the Canes' top six or seven defensemen. Noting the team expected to re-sign Anton Babchuk, who played in Russia last season, Rutherford said the Canes may not have to trade for a defenseman or sign a free agent to shore up the blue line.
The Hurricanes have Pitkanen and Tim Gleason to anchor the back end. Jamie McBain, 22, impressed everyone with his play late in the season after being recalled from the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League. Brett Carson and Alexandre Picard are restricted free agents.
"The numbers get filled pretty quickly," Rutherford said.
Where does that leave defenseman Brian Pothier, obtained from the Washington Capitals on the March 3 trade deadline? An unrestricted free agent on July 1, and a $2.5 million player last season, Pothier might see his stay with the Canes turn out to be brief.
Staal and Brandon Sutter will be the top two centers next season. Staal is a star, and Sutter has the look of a star in the making at 21.
And from there?
Jussi Jokinen could be used at center, but he put together a career season (30 goals, 65 points) mostly on the wing. Rutherford also mentioned Patrick Dwyer and Zac Dalpe, who played in Albany late last season after two years at Ohio State, and the GM also tossed out veteran Rod Brind'Amour's name as another possibility.
Dwyer, 27, is another $500,000 minimum-wage player and apparently one of Karmanos' favorites.
"He's a very smart player and has been a very pleasant surprise," Karmanos said in an interview this season about the 5-foot-11, 175-pound hustler.
It's possible forwards Zach Boychuk, 20, and Drayson Bowman, 21, could be on the opening-day roster against the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland. They could be added to the mix of veterans - Ruutu, Erik Cole, Chad LaRose and Tom Kostopoulos.
Brind'Amour, 39, and winger Sergei Samsonov may be in that mix, or the Canes could elect to buy out their contracts. Rutherford also has said he must decide between Justin Peters or Manny Legace as a backup to Ward in goal before July 1.
"If the forwards we have play the way they're capable of playing, and the defense falls into place and our goalie plays like the goalie we know he can be, we will be a competitive team," Rutherford said. "We have enough structure on our team and people in place to be competitive."
But the Hurricanes missed the playoffs last season with a more veteran, more expensive team. What about spending about $10 million less?
"The general managers [in the NHL] all make the argument if you don't spend... you can't win," Karmanos said. "The fact of the matter is Phoenix had the lowest payroll in this league this year and they did pretty good [50 wins and 107 points].
"We can run a team well under the cap and have it be a team we think can contend. ... Our fans next year have every right to expect we have a chance to win."
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