RALEIGH — General manager Jim Rutherford talked a lot Tuesday about the Carolina Hurricanes being a team in transition last season.
And next season? More transition.
Paul Maurice will remain the coach, but Ron Francis no longer will be behind the bench as associate head coach. Rutherford confirmed the Hockey Hall of Fame member will return to his old job as assistant general manager and director of player personnel.
The Hurricanes likely will re-sign veteran forwards Erik Cole and Chad LaRose but may lose defenseman Joni Pitkanen and forward Jussi Jokinen. The four players are due to become unrestricted free agents July 1, and Rutherford called Cole a top priority. Pitkanen and Jokinen "question marks" given the value of the contracts they may be looking to receive, he said.
Cory Stillman, who helped Carolina win the 2006 Stanley Cup and returned to the Canes in a late February trade with the Florida Panthers, could be back. But not, Rutherford indicated, if Jokinen is re-signed.
Forward Zac Dalpe could make the jump from the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League to right wing on Tuomo Ruutu's line opposite Jeff Skinner.
The defense could add a veteran defenseman through free agency or a trade, and the Canes could do the same to bring in someone to help a power play that was 24th in the NHL.
The Canes will have a more experienced goaltender to back up Cam Ward. Justin Peters, the backup last season, is expected to compete against Mike Murphy with the Checkers and gain more game experience.
Carolina will add a fourth-line center who can kill penalties and is strong on draws, allowing Patrick Dwyer to go back to the wing.
All that was discussed Tuesday as Rutherford made his first public comments on the team during a news conference at the RBC Center. The comments came more than a month after the Hurricanes fell one victory short of reaching the Stanley Cup playoffs, losing 6-2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in their April 9 regular-season finale.
Rutherford apologized for the delay, saying he needed sufficient time to recover from the disappointing end to the season and to mull over decisions on the coaching staff and personnel. At 62, Rutherford also must think about his own future but has given no indication he plans to retire anytime soon.
On the bench
Speculation had arisen that Maurice might be replaced after the Canes missed the playoffs for the second straight season after reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2009. Maurice, who returned as coach when Peter Laviolette was fired in December 2008, has one year remaining on his contract.
Rutherford offered support for Maurice, saying, "The first year he came back, he did a good job when the team was going in the wrong direction. He did not have as good a year the second year. But I think with the team we had and what we were trying to do this past season he did a very good job."
Francis, a former Hurricanes captain, left the front office to join Maurice's staff. Rutherford said Tuesday that Francis going back to his assistant GM duties had been planned for a few years.
"It's really what he wants to do," Rutherford said.
Rutherford has not decided who will replace Francis on the coaching staff. Checkers coach Jeff Daniels may be a possibility, but Rutherford said he likes the job Daniels has done in developing younger players and prefers that Daniels stay in Charlotte.
Rutherford said he believed Daniels would one day be an NHL coach, saying, "His time will come."
Former Canes captain Rod Brind'Amour served as Carolina's director of forwards development in his first year following retirement from the NHL, and he impressed Rutherford with his on-ice work and off-ice comments and judgments about players. Rutherford said Brind'Amour eventually could be an NHL general manager or coach.
Rutherford did not say if Brind'Amour was being considered as Francis' replacement but said, "There's a very special way about him. ... Quite frankly, we'd like him to take a bigger role already."
Another looming question about the Canes continues to be the division of ownership and how that could affect the budget next season.
Rutherford said owner Peter Karmanos Jr. still is in the process of lining up local investors to buy into the team, adding, "It seems to have picked up more momentum the last couple of months."
Rutherford said he believed five or six people had made commitments, noting investments would help "take this franchise to another level."
For the Hurricanes, that would mean back in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"When you step back and look at the overall season, the Hurricanes have made great strides forward," Rutherford said. "The key will be can we make that big stride forward next year?"
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