Luke DeCock

After Skinner’s bittersweet return, could Ferland be next?

If watching Jeff Skinner score against the Carolina Hurricanes – for the first time in his career – was a little painful, wait until Micheal Ferland does it later this season.

There was something both bittersweet and inevitable about Skinner’s first-period goal, batted out of midair on a power play in his first visit back to Raleigh since the trade that sent him to the Buffalo Sabres in August. Trading Ferland, who had a career-high three points in a 4-3 win, is slightly less inevitable but would be even more cruel.

It may be hard to fathom a Ferland trade since the Hurricanes have won six of seven to get back on the fringes of the playoff bubble and are finally getting bounces – Friday, they scored off sticks and skates and the upper back frame of the net – but the realities of the business of hockey are never far away, and the Hurricanes are stuck in a tough spot with Ferland, who stands to make life-changing money on the free-agent market this summer.

The Skinner trade is still, unsurprisingly, hard for some to understand, never more so than after he scored his 30th goal Friday night, a mark he hit three times in eight seasons with the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes decided they had a better chance to win without Skinner than with him – consider it a cultural adjustment – and time will tell whether they’re right about that. That’s the why. As for the what, the paltry return of a prospect and three draft picks, none in the first round, was clearly the best they could do after dangling Skinner on the market all summer.

At one point, they were even prepared to go into the season with Skinner on the roster, which only made his eventual and immediate success in Buffalo all the more infuriating, especially as the Hurricanes went through a two-month period where it seemed like Skinner was personally outscoring them.

When things were good with Skinner – that magical 2011 season in particular, with the All-Star Game and the parade of prom proposals – they were so good. But after eight postseason-free seasons here, Skinner needed a change of scenery as much as the Hurricanes needed one from him. Combine that with a contract year, and Skinner was primed for a career year wherever elsewhere he went – especially when it turned out to be Jack Eichel’s left wing.

Which is where he was Friday night, offering a wave to the applause after the team’s video tribute, not long before the many Buffalo fans celebrated his goal while the home fans could only shake their heads. (Skinner finished the game with the one goal and minus-2 in a loss, which resembled what heads had often been shaken about in this building in the past.)

And heads will shake if (or when) Ferland is traded because of his contract situation. Ferland will be an unrestricted agent this summer and, at 26, this is his chance to cash in on a massive free-agent deal. He will be in serious demand. He may even be able to write his own ticket.

The Hurricanes love Ferland and would like to keep him, and there’s every indication he enjoys playing here, but their current surplus of salary-cap space will evaporate quickly as Sebastian Aho backs up the armored car to the PNC loading dock and Teuvo Teravainen gets an extension and someone (Sergei Bobrovsky?) gets paid to play goal next season. They’re willing to give Ferland a hefty raise on the $1.75 million he makes now, but not what he might get on the open market this summer.

Ferland has been exactly what the Hurricanes needed, big and rough, a huge factor in Aho’s extraordinary play, willing to crash the net but with a sneaky-good wrist shot as well. Beyond his 13 goals, he makes the Hurricanes a better team, all by himself.

There’s an argument to be made that Ferland is worth whatever he wants. There’s also a counterargument that teams that aren’t Stanley Cup contenders have to make smarter, tougher decisions for the future, and paying players more than you’ve determined they’re worth – and the Hurricanes, to be sure, think Ferland is worth a lot – is a road to long-term ruin.

That’s why it remains imperative they move either Justin Faulk or Dougie Hamilton for a forward by the Feb. 25 trade deadline; having an excess of that kind of talent on the right side is a luxury this team can’t afford at the moment. The same is true if they can get a first-round pick for Ferland, who may only get one shot at the free-agent market like this in his career. He owes it to himself to make the most of it. Can’t hold that against him.

The reality for this franchise is it can’t afford to lose Ferland for nothing, and if the Hurricanes can get a first for him, that’s a trade they have to make. If he is traded and interest doesn’t materialize in Ferland in the summer as he hopes and expects it will, there will be a place for him back here. It’s hard to imagine a better fit.

Still, even if all of that makes sense, even if you trust Tom Dundon and Don Waddell and Rod Brind’Amour and their plan, it doesn’t make any of it easier to swallow. That point was driven home all too effectively when Skinner scored his first goal ever against the Hurricanes on Friday.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.