John-Michael Liles’ name hasn’t popped up in a lot in trade speculation, but that could change in what might be a fateful, perhaps transformative, February for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Liles is having a productive season for the Canes. The defenseman is mobile, can move the puck, run a power play, kill penalties.
Should the Canes become sellers before the NHL’s Feb. 29 trade deadline, there could be interest in a veteran such as Liles, who has playoff experience. Liles is one of eight Canes players due to become unrestricted free agents after the season, and general manager Ron Francis, who often refers to the big-picture view of building a franchise foundation, may look to make moves.
The Canes, after time off for the NHL All-Star Game, will play the first of three straight road games Wednesday at Calgary, then move on to Winnipeg and Montreal. Carolina (23-20-8) has 54 points, one point out of a wild-card playoff position in the Eastern Conference before Tuesday’s games.
After the three-game trip, the Canes will play eight of the last 10 games this month at PNC Arena. There’s an opportunity to stay in the playoff chase up to the deadline, which could complicate Francis’ decision-making.
Eric Staal, the Canes captain, and goalie Cam Ward will be unrestricted free agents in July. So will forward Kris Versteeg, who won two Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Rick Curran, who represents Staal and Ward, has stayed in contact with Francis but said in an email this week that there was “nothing new to report.”
Staal, after the Canes stopped the Blackhawks 5-0 in their final game before the break, sounded like a player who wanted to be around the rest of the season.
“We’re playing good hockey, and we’re in the mix,” Staal said. “This is when you want to keep things going. To me, we’re finally seeing some of the depth and some of the things that make the future brighter. Obviously, there are decisions to be made, but for me, I’m excited about the future of this team and these young players who are coming in, filling roles and grabbing spots.”
Staal, like Ward, has a no-trade clause in his contract. He said Francis has not approached him about waiving the clause or given him any list of potential trade partners for prior approval.
“No, no, no,” Staal said. “That will sort itself out. I’ll play hard and do my thing and see what happens.”
Liles, 35, doesn’t have the same, full no-trade contract protection. He does have the kind of cap hit ($3.875 million) and salary ($2.75 million) that some teams could absorb.
Liles has twice been traded. The Colorado Avalanche dealt him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in June 2011, and the Leafs traded him to the Canes on Jan. 1, 2014, in the deal that sent defenseman Tim Gleason to the Leafs.
“It’s not the way you want it to end (in Toronto), but at the same time, I looked forward to coming to the Hurricanes and getting an opportunity to play and try to show people I can still play,” Liles said.
The system installed by Canes coach Bill Peters last season fits Liles’ playing style, allowing defensemen to jump into the play. Liles also said he changed up his offseason conditioning this past summer as he headed into a contract year.
“I’ve felt better on the ice in terms of my stamina, my wind, my explosiveness,” he said.
Liles scored in the win over the Blackhawks last week and has four goals in his past 11 games. Moved to the penalty kill, he has the Canes’ only short-handed goal this season.
Liles believed he would have veteran James Wisniewski as his defensive partner this season, only to have Wisniewski go down with a knee injury in the opener against Nashville. Instead, Liles often has been paired with rookie Brett Pesce, who now is on injured reserve with a lower-body injury.
“He’s a real good pro, and he’s had a good year,” Peters said of Liles. “He’s been excellent with our young guys. He has a real good demeanor about him, on the bench and in the room, in practice. He’s very calm, very cerebral. And very accountable.
“He’s versatile. He can play the left side, the right side. You can match him up against the other team’s best players.”
Sounds like the kind of player whose name could be mentioned this month.