Luke DeCock

DeCock: Canes’ forward thinking needs backup plan

For the first time, the Hurricanes have identified a first-line caliber winger to play with Eric Staal as their top priority.

One could argue a No. 1 defenseman is a more pressing need, but let’s not quibble. It’s taken them so long to acknowledge that Staal has been held back by sub-par linemates that one should never discount such progress.

General manager Jim Rutherford has declared that owner Peter Karmanos is willing to spend the money, and a not-too-subtle whispering campaign has identified New Jersey Devils captain Zach Parise as the No. 1 target.

For good reason: He’ll be 28 at the beginning of next season, in the heart of his career, a no-question-about-it All-Star who will command top value if he hits the free-agent market – and the Devils, with financial and ownership issues, may let that happen.

The Hurricanes won’t be the only team going after Parise. Anyone with the money to spend will make a run, and that includes the Detroit Red Wings. Just because the Hurricanes have money to spend for once doesn’t automatically mean they’ll get the guy they want.

If they can’t land Parise, the Hurricanes may wait a year in the hope Jordan Staal hits the market when his contract expires in 2013, or try to make a trade before then if the Pittsburgh Penguins decide they can’t or won’t re-sign him.

Jordan Staal is an elite two-way center, the kind that doesn’t come along often for small-market teams, but nothing should preclude getting a winger for his brother. If the Hurricanes have the money to spend on Jordan Staal, they need to find more money to spend on a first-line winger.

If there’s only money for one player, saving it for Jordan Staal in 2013 – if the Penguins don’t move him this summer – sounds nice, but it may mean another season in the purgatory of mediocrity, hoping to get into the playoffs instead of actually doing anything to move toward that goal.

There are three players who may be available via trade, perennial All-Stars, all big-time goal-scorers, who could play with Eric Staal: Calgary’s Jarome Iginla, Columbus’ Rick Nash and San Jose’s Patrick Marleau. None of the three appears to have any interest in coming here at this point, but they haven’t spent much time talking to Kirk Muller yet. None would come cheap via trade, but the Hurricanes are relatively flush with young defensemen, the ultimate coin of the realm.

All three make around $7 million, and in years past that would have been a non-starter for the Hurricanes. But if they’re willing to shell out that much for Parise on a long-term deal, or for a second Staal brother, why not Iginla for one year? Why not Marleau for two? Why not Nash for, uh, six?

Of the three, Marleau is probably the best fit. Iginla’s contract and age (34) make him a short-term fix, and it would be perfectly understandable if Nash didn’t want to spend any more time in a non-traditional market. Marleau, meanwhile, has already proven he can put up big numbers playing with a big center, Joe Thornton.

Is such talk realistic? Perhaps not. But the Hurricanes have always had Eric Staal, Cam Ward and a cadre of ex-players all over the league that speak well of the market; now they actually have money to spend. That changes everything.

Jordan Staal would be a welcome addition and an immediate improvement if the Hurricanes can land him this summer, but even if they do, their work won’t be done. Landing a Staal brother would be great, landing a Staal winger even better.

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