RALEIGH — Missing the playoffs for a fifth straight year could necessitate a major makeover for the Carolina Hurricanes after the season, with some tough decisions to be made on players.
Or in Nathan Gerbes case, maybe not so tough.
Gerbe approached this season with a lot of uncertainty. He had the final year of his contract bought out by the Buffalo Sabres after last season, and not many teams seemed interested in a 5--5 forward with back issues.
The kids a workaholic and I really felt he was on his way with us (in Buffalo), but he suffered the back injury and that was a big setback, said former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, now coach of the Dallas Stars. I remember trying to get him in the lineup and get him going but he was suffering.
The Canes decided to give Gerbe a chance, signing him to a one-year, two-way contract in July. Thats all he wanted and he has responded by matching his career highs in goals (16), assists (15) and points (31) with four games left in the season. He has been a mainstay on the penalty kill, scoring twice shorthanded, and proved to be fearless around the net.
He came in with no guarantees or promises and earned his ice time, Canes coach Kirk Muller said. The thing with Gerbs has been he has been very versatile. Penalty killing, power play, different line mates, playing left or right (wing), you can put him with every group and hes good with it.
Hes been very durable for us. Plays hard. Hes the typical little guy who knows he has to play hard every night to stay in the lineup, and hes pretty mentally tough.
Gerbe, who has a $550,000 salary, will be a restricted free agent after the season. Unless the Canes decide a bigger, more physical team is a must, bringing about a number of personnel moves, Gerbe could be re-signed.
Forwards Jiri Tlusty, Andrei Loktionov and Drayson Bowman also will be restricted free agents, and Manny Malhotra and Radek Dvorak unrestricted free agents. Its unlikely all six will return next season.
Tlusty is a good two-way player who showed last season he can be a 20-plus goal-scorer when healthy, and Malhotras leadership and proficiency on faceoffs made him a valuable addition this season. But the Canes could find room for Gerbe, 26, who likes to call himself a pest on the ice and has played like one, buzzing around the crease, working hard on the forecheck, and stick-checking in the defensive zone.
My expectations are always high, Gerbe said. I know coming into a new organization there are a lot of unknowns, but for me I knew what I can do and I wanted to come in here and do it. I also know I always want to strive to do better. And everybody wants to win. It doesnt matter how your season is going, you want to win.
The Canes (34-33-11) face the New York Rangers on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. Their season will end with a final home game Thursday against the Washington Capitals, then road games at Detroit and Philadelphia.
With 79 points, the Hurricanes are eight points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, who hold the second and last wildcard playoff position in the Eastern Conference. One more point by the Jackets, who host the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday, or a Canes loss to the Rangers would close the final playoff door for Carolina.
Gerbe needed spinal surgery in July 2012 for his back and neck injuries, and said he rushed his recovery to get back in the Sabres lineup for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Being bought out by Buffalo was a jolt for him, making him an unrestricted free agent and needing a team.
With the (salary) cap and everything, its tough to get contracts, Gerbe said. There still are a lot of players who dont have contracts. Its a tough situation, but for me its all about trusting your abilities. It sometimes takes a leap of faith but it worked out here for me and Im pretty happy.
Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip