Luke DeCock

Early returns on Rask deal promising for Hurricanes – DeCock

The Canes’ Victor Rask warms up Sunday before the game against the Philadelphia Flyers at PNC Arena in Raleigh.
The Canes’ Victor Rask warms up Sunday before the game against the Philadelphia Flyers at PNC Arena in Raleigh. cseward@newsobserver.com

When Ron Francis decided to sign Victor Rask to a six-year, $24 million extension in July, the length of the new contract raised more than a few eyebrows. The Carolina Hurricanes were now inextricably tied to a player who had yet to make a $4 million impact at the NHL level.

A month into that new contract, Rask is making Francis look awfully smart. It’s not much of a surprise that he’s playing at a $4 million level. His numbers before weren’t far off. It’s that his performance so far offers every indication that he’s going to continue to improve, which could potentially make his contract one of the better bargains in hockey for a long time.

Rask picked up an assist on Jeff Skinner’s goal during Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers to give him a point in all eight games this season, an impressive start exceeded only by Francis himself in franchise history. That’s kind of fluky, even if there’s nothing fluky about 10 points in eight games, but more important has been Rask’s role centering the Hurricanes’ most dangerous offensive line with Skinner and Lee Stempniak.

“He’s pretty slippery,” Stempniak said. “I’ve been very impressed. He’s a lot better than maybe I had appreciated.”

This is what the Hurricanes hoped would happen when they made a very serious, long-term commitment to a player who, at 23, was obviously a player of considerable potential, but one who had scored 32 goals and recorded 81 points in two NHL seasons, posting career-highs of 21 goals and 27 assists last season – and coming off shoulder surgery to boot.

If Rask’s development stagnated – and that’s always a risk with young players, as the Hurricanes are experiencing with Elias Lindholm – six years is an eternity.

The flip side, of course, was that if Rask performed at the level Francis and his front office thought he could attain, $4 million would be a bargain in the later years of the deal – not only on a year-by-year basis, but by locking him down for the first two years of his eligibility to become an unrestricted free agent, when players can make the really big money.

The Hurricanes had leverage. Rask hadn’t spent enough time in the NHL to earn arbitration rights. The Hurricanes were under no obligation to give him any more than a small raise on the $750,000 he made on his entry-level contract. A one-year deal (or even a shorter long-term deal than six years) would have let them monitor Rask’s progress (and health) at the risk of potentially paying more down the road if he continued to develop.

Instead, they made a long-term commitment to a player they saw as a core piece of their puzzle, essentially gambling millions on Rask – no small decision on the team with the cheapest payroll in the NHL – even the risk they took was really in the length, not the salary. So far, so good.

The Hurricanes have given Rask every advantage, using his line heavily in the offensive zone while assigning the defensive-zone heavy lifting to Jordan Staal. But Rask, Skinner and Stempniak have converted that advantage into points, 27 among the three of them in eight games. While his game could be more well-rounded, he is delivering the kind of offensive punch the Hurricanes hoped would emerge.

Rask is far from a finished product – his turnover on the power play and inability to win the puck back led directly to Philadelphia’s game-winning short-handed goal in the third period – but his hot start has helped assuage any doubts about the length of his contract. If Rask can stay healthy and keep up this pace, $4 million is a relative pittance for a point-per-game center.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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