RALEIGH — Joni Pitkanen won't be leaving the Carolina Hurricanes.
General manager Jim Rutherford announced Tuesday that the NHL team had signed the smooth-skating defenseman to a three-year contract worth $4.5 million a season.
The Hurricanes also reached an agreement Tuesday with versatile forward Patrick Dwyer, who was signed to a two-year deal.
But Rutherford, while pleased to keep Pitkanen and Dwyer in the Canes' fold, said he now is becoming pessimistic about re-signing forwards Erik Cole, Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose. The three veterans will become unrestricted free agents Friday if not signed, and Rutherford said it appears the financial gap may be too wide in each case.
"I'm very, very disappointed," Rutherford said Tuesday. "It does not look good."
Two years ago, Cole and LaRose tested free agency but quickly signed two-year contracts to stay with the Canes. Rutherford said that likely would not occur again.
"I don't think we will cross that bridge twice," he said. "We've made substantial offers."
Cole, 32, was paid $3 million this past season and LaRose and Jokinen $1.9 million each. Rutherford said he would not publicly discuss the financial figures being negotiated with the players.
"With the way it looks now, it doesn't appear anything will change it," Rutherford said. "Maybe with LaRose. We did up our offer to him a few days ago, but we have not heard anything from him.
"But the way it looks, I would say it will go into free agency with Cole and Jussi. After the offers we've made, it tells me this is about money and they're looking to go elsewhere."
Cole's agent, Steve Bartlett, said Tuesday that Cole is headed to free agency.
"Erik wants to see what the options are on July 1st," Bartlett said via email. "That is in no way a slam on the Hurricanes or his appreciation of the role they have played in his career. He has never really explored free agency in his career and feels that he is at the age when it makes sense to see all offers before deciding on what he wants to do."
Pitkanen won't be going elsewhere.
"This is an important signing for us," Rutherford said. "Joni plays as many minutes as anyone in the league. It's hard to find players who play as much as he does, and he's one of the top puck-moving defensemen in the league. We're really thankful he decided to come back to us."
Pitkanen, 27, is the Hurricanes' highest-paid defensemen and led the blueliners in assists (30) and was second in points (35) this past season. The Oulu, Finland, native played in 72 games and finished 13th in the NHL in average ice time per game (25:01).
The Canes earned points in 26 of the 30 games in which he had a point, posting a 21-4-5 record.
Rutherford said he initially was not sure if the Canes would be able to keep Pitkanen, who joined the team in a July 1, 2008, trade with that sent Cole to the Edmonton Oilers. It was believed Pitkanen might be able to demand $5 million a year or more if he tested free agency, given the number of teams seeking defensemen.
The Dwyer signing wasn't nearly as expensive. Dwyer, 28, will make $600,000 next season and $650,000 in 2012-13.
Dwyer had NHL career highs in games played (80), goals (eight), assists (10) and points (18) last season. He averaged 12:34 of ice time per game and finished second among Canes forwards with 63 blocked shots.
But Rutherford's biggest concern now is the three unsigned forwards. Should they leave, he said the Canes likely would have Eric Staal centering a line with Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu, and that Brandon Sutter would center the second line. The team would look at adding one or two free-agent forwards while opening roster spots for such prospects as Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman.
"We'll just have to see how it all works out," Rutherford said.
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