RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes plan to make significant roster changes before next season, creating some tough decisions.
But a decision also must be made on Jeff Skinner and where he best fits in the lineup.
Should he remain at left wing or should he be used at center?
Skinner, the 2011 Calder Trophy winner, has played most of his first three seasons as a winger. But Canes coach Kirk Muller had him center the third line late this season, and Muller said Thursday that remains a possibility.
The decision obviously would affect the makeup of the Canes’ second and third lines. General manager Jim Rutherford also said it could affect the team’s first-round pick in the NHL Entry Draft in June. The Hurricanes have the No. 5 pick.
“You’ve got some center-icemen in the top five (prospects),” Rutherford said.
Asked last week about getting the chance to play center, Skinner said, “It was good. I feel comfortable there. It allows me to be around the puck more.
“You’re always in that middle of the ice breaking out. A lot of teams pinch down and take away the walls and a lot of time that middle is open. That allows you to touch the puck a little, be around the play a little more.”
Being among the top six forwards offers significant ice time, but Skinner said being the third-line center would not be a big adjustment.
“Sometimes, the way the bench works, the third line gets out there just as much as the second, and sometimes you get a little better matchups playing against the fifth and sixth (defensemen),” he said. “I don’t know how it will shake out. Obviously there’s a lot of things that will play into it.”
The Canes could have Eric Staal, Jordan Staal and then Skinner down the middle. As Skinner noted, “I don’t think anyone ever worries about having too much down the middle.”
Muller said using Skinner at center was a late-season experiment. He also said if the change was made, Skinner would need physical wingers, using Tuomo Ruutu as an example.
“My intention is not to take offense away from Jeff, and his creativity,” Muller said. “The challenge is to make him a plus player and make him more of a two-way forward. I think he’s capable of playing either the wing or at center, but he needs guys who are grinding, strong guys in support.”
Skinner scored 31 goals his rookie season, then 20 last year when he missed 16 games with a concussion. He was out five games this season following a second concussion, closing with 13 goals and 11 assists in 42 games, and his minus-21 rating was the worst on the team.
But after missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season, the Hurricanes face other, weightier decisions.
Rutherford, in a year-end press conference Thursday, said Muller’s coaching staff would remain intact. Rutherford also will remain as president and GM.
The Canes have six players on the final roster who will be unrestricted free agents – forwards Chad LaRose and Tim Brent; defensemen Joe Corvo, Bobby Sanguinetti and Marc-Andre Bergeron, and goalie Dan Ellis. It’s possible only a couple will be re-signed.
LaRose has played more than 500 games for the Canes and was a member of the 2006 Stanley Cup champions. But his production dropped off this season and Rutherford said LaRose skipped his exit interview with management this week. Rutherford called it “disappointing.”
Rutherford said he would like to add one or two veteran defensemen through free agency or trades, saying he might be willing to part with a top-six forward if that was the price of getting a star defenseman.
“I think it would take a lot for us to move one of our top-six forwards,” he said.
Rutherford said having the No. 5 draft pick in what many agree is a deep draft should bring in an impact player who can offer immediate help. It will likely be a forward, he said.
“Sometimes in this league, teams take a step back and take a few steps forward,” Rutherford said. “As disappointing as it is and as emotional as it gets for the fans and media and all our organization, it’s behind us.”
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