RALEIGH — After putting on a great show to convince the world of the Triangle's hockey credentials, financial reality set back in for the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday. This may be a good hockey market, but it's still a small one, and the budget is as tight as ever.
Tuesday's opponent to resume the regular season served to prove that point.
The Boston Bruins are third in the NHL in payroll, spending more than $9 million more than the Hurricanes, who rank 25th.
That's two or three extra players, but those are the odds the Hurricanes are up against, trying to even the playing field with young players like Brandon Sutter and Jeff Skinner, whose ability outpaces their salaries.
It was an even game into the third period, when the game turned on back-to-back-to-back plays: All-Star Tim Thomas stopped All-Star Eric Staal just before the Bruins scored two goals 72 seconds apart on their way to a 3-2 win.
Given that thin margin, it's impossible not to wonder if one more player - one more veteran, goal-scoring winger? - could have made a difference Tuesday. It's impossible not to wonder if one more player might be the difference between making the playoffs and not.
So the question remains, and will remain for the rest of the month: Could the Hurricanes add a player for the playoff push? Would they?
The closer the Feb. 28 deadline gets, the more the finances play into Carolina's favor. The deadline falls with 41 days left in the season, leaving the Hurricanes responsible for only 22 percent of any annual salary they acquire.
As always with this team, the real dollars matter, not the salary cap, so if owner Peter Karmanos was willing to throw another $1 million into the pot, that would mean general manager Jim Rutherford could go out and pick up a player making $4.5 million.
It's not just about the money. The Hurricanes would probably have to give up one of their good young forwards to make a deal, and Rutherford has good reason to keep that foundation for the future together. (On that note: The Hurricanes have nine potential unrestricted free agents of their own who would bring a nifty return should they fall off the pace and become a seller.) As for the finances, that's going to be up to Karmanos.
At the moment, the Hurricanes are on pace to spend about $47 million, which is already about $3 million more than Karmanos originally wanted. But he was willing to open his wallet in 2006 to add Doug Weight and Mark Recchi (who celebrated his 43rd birthday Tuesday by picking up an assist for the Bruins), and while this team hasn't had the same kind of regular-season success that team had, it does offer the decent potential of bringing in some playoff revenue to offset any additional salary.
Consider this: Almost lost in the post-All-Star hangover was Brandon Sutter's little joke at Jeff Skinner's expense, putting a picture of Justin Bieber above his locker Tuesday morning. In terms of raw humor, it's probably the last gasp of the Bieber jokes, but it may bode extremely well for Carolina's chances going forward.
That kind of playful jibe among teammates is typically only seen among winning teams, and if that's really the atmosphere within the dressing room, the Hurricanes have the potential to go far, maybe enough to make a little boost at the end of the month worthwhile.