DeCock

DeCock: Canes need to choose a path soon

Staff WriterMay 4, 2011 

The pain from how the season abruptly ended remains so fresh that Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford still hasn't held his annual end-of-season, state-of-the-union news conference. Quickly, though, it's becoming time to move on.

As the playoffs roll through the second round, the NHL draft and the July 1 opening of the free-agent window creep closer and closer. There are difficult decisions to be made. Soon, the Hurricanes will have to make them.

Four top the list, the four unrestricted free agents who played the biggest roles for the Hurricanes this season: Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose and Joni Pitkanen.

Each, in his own way, is indispensable, yet it's going to be nearly impossible for the Hurricanes to keep all of them. What the Hurricanes do with those four players will set the tone for everything else they do this summer.

Rutherford has indicated he would like to bring Cole back, so the only question is how much and how long. Cole made $3 million this season and looked revitalized on his way to 26 goals. That's an easy one, as these things go, but of course nothing is guaranteed.

At the other end of the spectrum, the budget situation will make it very unlikely that the Hurricanes can afford to keep Pitkanen, who made $4.5 million this season.

When the Hurricanes acquired Bryan Allen, they acquired his $3.15 million contract as well, so if the Canes want to keep Pitkanen it will require some budgetary sleight of hand.

That leaves two very difficult choices with Jokinen and LaRose, who are coming off identical contracts worth an average of $1.8 million per season.

With 49 goals and 120 points over the past two seasons, Jokinen has found a home with the Hurricanes since arriving in the middle of the 2008-09 season. He's a good fit in the dressing room and on the ice. At what he's making now, or with a moderate raise, he's a good fit in the budget as well.

Assuming the Hurricanes make him a good-faith offer to stay, which they should, Jokinen will have to decide whether to take that money or, at 28 with good years ahead of him, test the market.

That leaves the toughest decision of all, what to do with LaRose. His hustle and unlikely rise from undrafted free agent to Stanley Cup champion have made him a fan favorite, and for good reason. From a standpoint of pure production, though, he appears replaceable.

LaRose has averaged 30 points over the past three seasons. Given the Hurricanes' tight budget, $1.8 million is a lot to pay for 30 points, particularly when there's a long list of players waiting in the wings, like Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe, among others, who may be able to score more than 30 if given a shot.

Painful as it may be, it might just be time to pat LaRose on the back, shake his hand, thank him for six years of service and see if there's a kid in Charlotte who can do the same thing for a third of the cost.

Then again, LaRose has been a big part of this franchise and its identity for some of its best years. Such matters should not be taken lightly.

As the NHL roster gets older and the AHL roster fills up with prospects ready to make the next step, the turnover that started last summer will accelerate this summer. To what degree, only Rutherford knows, and even he may not know yet.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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