Canes ponder options with their free agents

Staff writerJune 17, 2011 

— Jim Rutherford is gearing up for a busy two weeks, facing much uncertainty and saying a trade or two may be forthcoming.

Rutherford, general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, re-signed defenseman Jay Harrison on Thursday. Harrison, 28, agreed to a two-year deal that will pay him $650,000 next season and $750,000 in 2012-2013.

But it is the players who have not been signed - namely defenseman Joni Pitkanen and forwards Jussi Jokinen, Erik Cole and Chad LaRose - who are Rutherford's biggest concern. All become unrestricted free agents July 1, and Rutherford said Thursday none is close to coming to terms with the team.

"With Pitkanen, Jokinen and LaRose, we know what their position is," Rutherford said, referring to their financial demands. "I've given our position. It does not appear we will be able to sign them."

As for Cole, Rutherford said the Canes have yet to have any substantive talks with the veteran power forward or his agent, Steve Bartlett.

"We expected to hear something by now, but we have not," Rutherford said.

Bartlett, contacted Thursday, said via email that he and Cole were "working through things" and "will get back to Jim here at some point."

Granted, this is the time of the year when both sides, management and players, send up smoke screens publicly. Two years ago, Rutherford said many of the same things about Cole and LaRose in June, only to promptly sign both to two-year deals come July.

Cole was paid $3 million and LaRose $1.9 million this past season. Jokinen also received $1.9 million, considered a bargain price for the versatile forward.

"Things are not moving as we had hoped, and it's getting closer to July 1," Rutherford said Thursday. "We may have to look at other options. It may be easier to trade for players with existing contracts. Then we would know what we would be spending next year.

"I still prefer to sign some of our players. If not, we will look at a trade."

Rutherford said the Hurricanes would not look to move their first-round pick in the NHL Entry Draft next week - Carolina has the No. 12 overall selection - and likely would trade none of their other draft picks this year. He also said he did not want to trade any of the young prospects in the Canes' system such as Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk or Drayson Bowman.

"My preference is not to move any of the younger players," he said. "We'll need to wait and see who's available and what other teams would want when trading."

It seems almost a given now the Canes will not re-sign Pitkanen, who earned $4.5 million last year and may be seeking more on the free-agent market. Rutherford referred to Pitkanen in the past tense Thursday, saying, "With Joni not coming back ..."

Rutherford said it would be hard to replace the 25 minutes of ice time Pitkanen was able to play each game, noting the Canes could look to add a power-play specialist and two-way defenseman to make up for Pitkanen's absence.

"We could do it in different ways," he said.

With Harrison signed, the Canes have Harrison, Tim Gleason, Joe Corvo, Jamie McBain and Bryan Allen under contract for next season. Derek Joslin, a restricted free agent, should be in the mix on the back end.

That's six defensemen, but Rutherford has said he wants an upgrade among the top four defensemen and is determined to get it. No names have been mentioned, but there are defensemen such as the Vancouver Canucks' Kevin Bieksa and Christian Ehrhoff who will be available July 1 if not re-signed.

Bieksa made $3.5 million and Ehrhoff $3.4 million this past season and will be in high demand. But the Canes could work a trade for another defenseman and stay away from the free-agent frenzy.

"We have to look at it very closely," Rutherford said. "Other teams will be looking at adding players and looking at free agents, and we want to be in position that if they're available, we're ready to move on it."

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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