RALEIGH — Ray Whitney isn't ready to switch hockey sweaters yet.
The Carolina Hurricanes winger said Friday that while he hasn't signed a new contract with the team, as free agency looms on July 1, it doesn't mean he will be playing for another NHL team next season.
Whitney and Canes general manager Jim Rutherford have not been able to agree on a financial figure. Rutherford said again Friday he doesn't expect anything to change before July 1 and that Whitney, 38, would become an unrestricted free agent.
Asked Friday if the door has been closed on a return to the Hurricanes, Whitney replied, "Never. Not at all. Who knows what will happen? A lot can happen."
At the same time, Whitney is a realist, about his situation, about the team's situation. The Hurricanes are making a big move toward a younger - and less expensive - lineup, and Rutherford on Friday said the decision had been made that Justin Peters would be Cam Ward's backup at goaltender next season.
Rutherford had said the team would make either Peters, 23, or Manny Legace, 37, the backup and would not sign or trade for another goaltender. Peters got the nod.
Whitney was paid $3.55 million last season. With the Hurricanes intent on cutting spending on player salaries to about $44 million next season - all the better to help majority owner Peter Karmanos Jr. help sell off 49 percent of the team - Whitney may have to accept considerably less to stay with the Canes.
"I have a lot of respect for Jimmy (Rutherford) and what he has to do," Whitney said. "He wants to go with younger guys and transition the team. I understand that. I also understand the issue with ownership and what they're trying to do in selling part of the team, and the situation with the (salary) cap.
"They may not have the money out there to sign me."
Rutherford would not say what was offered Whitney, and Whitney would not discuss his asking price. The two have met a couple of times since the season ended.
"Ray has been a very valuable player for us and still could play a big role on our team," Rutherford said. "We're in a unique situation this year with the transition of the team and transition in ownership. We're dealing with the situation as best we can, and I have left the door open for Ray."
Whitney, a savvy playmaker and solid point producer, was an integral part of the Canes' run to the Stanley Cup in 2006. In his five seasons with the Hurricanes, he has 334 points (119 goals, 215 assists) in 372 games.
An alternate captain for the Canes, Whitney played 80 games last season, finishing third on the team in assists (37) and points (58). Of his 21 goals, five were winners.
"I still feel I can play at a very high level," said Whitney, who said his play over the last five seasons did not warrant a significant pay cut.
Peters is a restricted free agent, and Rutherford said contract work is under way. Peters made his NHL debut with the Canes last season and was 6-3-0 with a 2.83 goals-against average and .903 save percentage.
Ward was sidelined twice last season - going out in November when his left leg was slashed by a skate, then sitting out a month with a back problem. Legace was signed to a one-year, $500,000 contract in November and played in 28 games, going 10-7-0. The former NHL All-Star will be an unrestricted free agent.
"Manny did a great job for us," Rutherford said.
Peters spent much of the season with the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League, going 26-18-2 with a 2.54 GAA and .917 save percentage. He was named to the AHL All-Star Classic and helped the Rats reach the playoffs.
"He's a great team guy and he played some very good games for us," Rutherford said. "This is the next step for him."
And the next step for Whitney? A year ago, forwards Erik Cole and Chad LaRose were unrestricted free agents and briefly tested the market before re-signing with the Canes. But the team was willing to spend more money then.
Whitney enjoys playing for the Canes and said his family loves living in the area. But business is business.
"Right now, it's just not working," Whitney said of the contract negotiations. "We'll see once July 1 comes. Or July 15, or Aug. 1.
"You never know. There are still teams out there that need guys they believe can get them over the top (and Cup contenders). We'll see."
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