The locker between Zach Boychuk and John-Michael Liles sat empty Thursday night. The placard above it that used to read “Harrison” was now merely a generic “Hurricanes.” It is a sign of things to come, as anonymity inevitably replaces known names.
Only hours before Thursday’s game, on the eve of the NHL’s Christmas trade freeze, the Carolina Hurricanes dealt popular veteran defenseman Jay Harrison to the Winnipeg Jets for a sixth-round pick, about as token a return as you can get. The Hurricanes even picked up a chunk of Harrison’s salary this season and next.
Harrison had been in and out of the lineup, recent call-up Michal Jordan had auditioned well, the Jets were in desperate need of defensive help in the midst of an injury crisis on the blue line and Harrison already had played for Jets coach Paul Maurice on three other teams – the AHL Toronto Marlies, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Hurricanes. There’s also Rasmus Rissanen in the AHL, who the Hurricanes would like to audition at some point as well.
So off Harrison went. And off went the Hurricanes. A poor-starting, offensively challenged team at the bottom of the standings on a six-game losing streak came out gangbusters against the Leafs on Thursday, scoring two first-period goals on their way to a 4-1 win over one of the hottest teams in the NHL.
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Anyone who says Harrison’s sudden departure wasn’t a factor in the team’s unexpected turnaround is either naive or lying. It was a wake-up call. A trade like that always is. And there will be more, although not before the Hurricanes host the New York Rangers on Saturday.
“Trades do happen,” Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk said. “When it’s one of your friends and your teammates, it’s tough to see guys go. You never like it.”
A sixth-round pick seems a little light given the Jets’ desperation at the position, Harrison’s pre-existing relationship with Maurice and the Hurricanes’ willingness to retain some of his salary, but it was an easy dip of the toe into the trading pool for Ron Francis, his first trade in almost eight months as general manager.
So Harrison’s departure ignited a fire under the Hurricanes that had been previously absent, and Cam Ward’s stellar goaltending made the early lead hold up. After a rocky start, Ward’s been awfully good lately – allowing two or fewer goals in six of his past eight starts, only three of them wins – which presents a bit of a conundrum for the Hurricanes.
Had there been takers for Ward over the summer, Francis’ inaugural trade might have come then. The way Ward is playing, there will be interested parties at the trade deadline looking to shore up their goaltending for the playoffs. But the way Ward is playing, is it perhaps worth holding onto his contract instead of offloading it?
That obviously isn’t an issue with expiring contracts such as Andrej Sekera and Jiri Tlusty. They’ll have to be converted into picks or prospects at the deadline. And if Francis decides to trade Eric Staal or Jeff Skinner, that’ll be as much about changing the direction of the franchise as anything else, mostly but not entirely unrelated to their level of play.
Ward’s exit once seemed like a fait accompli, but his comeback season has been so dramatic, it has given birth to a valid debate whether it’s worth keeping him and trading Anton Khudobin instead.
Trading away a player such as Harrison, as popular and valuable a personality as he was, is easy. He’s a depth guy who was sliding out of the lineup. Let the young guys take over. Easy enough.
Trading away a player such as Ward will be immeasurably harder. Thursday’s trade was a good first step for Francis. The next one won’t be so simple.