Unlikely Free Agency Winner

By nickmarek

With such a weak NHL free agent market compared to previous years, there wasn’t a whole lot of ways to make drastic improvements unless teams got creative (Semyon Varlamov trade or swapping Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat, for example).

The Carolina Hurricanes stayed within their means and brought back key players from the 2010-2o11 season and added some much needed role players. Even though it’s only been a week, they rightfully deserve to be classified as one of the free agent “winners” this off-season.

The Hurricanes made the right signings this off-season and they got players for excellent market value. They sent qualifying offers to restricted free agents Brandon Sutter, Derek Joslin, and four other AHL players. The Hurricanes have their priorities on locking up alternate captain Sutter to a long term deal in the next couple of days. Joslin arbitration will be handled later this week.

The hardest part of the free agent frenzy was saying good-bye to top line forward Erik Cole when he signed a four-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens worth $16 million.

But Cole is the only skater the team lost in the market and the Canes did a terrific job in filling his void. Before free agency opened on July 1, the Canes were able to re-sign forwards Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose, and Patrick Dwyer and defensemen Joni Pitkanen and Jay Harrison. Finish teammates Jokinen and Pitkanen each signed three-year contracts with the Hurricanes while the others inked two-year deals.

In late June, both Jokinen and Pitkanen made it clear that they were going to test the market and see which teams had interest in their services. Miraculously, before that could even occur, the Hurricanes wrapped up negotiations with the two unrestricted free agents and got them to re-sign with the organization. Pitkanen will make an average of $4.5 million each year and Jokinen took a hometown discount of $3 million per season.

Jokinen received a similar contract to two-time Stanley Cup Champion Tomas Kopecky and they are only a year apart in age. But Jokinen is a better offensive producer with 50+ points and 20+ power play points the past two seasons. Last year Kopecky broke out with  career highs in goals (15), assists (27) and points (42) but he finished with a career worst minus-13 for the Chicago Blackhawks while playing on the third line.

The most important piece of the puzzle is that Pitkanen and LaRose each signed reasonable contracts for their production which allowed Carolina to spend some money in free agency. LaRose tallied 31 points this past season and played in all 82 games for Carolina. He has certainly emerged into a consistent threat for a third line forward and was awarded with a $3.4 million contract. Pitkanen has recorded at least 3o points all three seasons he has been a Hurricane and he skates over 25 minutes a game on average, which places him top 10 in the NHL.

July 4 fireworks were postponed in Raleigh, NC due to weather and they had many reasons to launch them on July 5. The Hurricanes inked four-time All-Star defenseman Thomas Kaberle to a three year contract worth $12.75 million. Kaberle averages 22 minutes of ice time, registered 49 points, and was fifth among NHL skaters with 25 power-play assists last season. This unexpected signing should pay dividends to the Hurricanes in the near future because he has playoff experience winning the cup with the Boston Bruins.

It is very possible that Kaberle is in for a better statistical season than he had with the Stanley Cup Champions if he is paired with Pitkanen. The 33-year-old star is a huge addition to the Carolina blue line and like Pitkanen, he knows how to play on both sides of the rink and can really move the puck.

In order to clear cap space for his contract, the Canes shipped hard shooting defenseman Joe Corvo to Boston in exchange for its 2012 fourth round draft pick. When Corvo asked to be traded, it opened the doors for the Hurricanes to move back to the free agency market.

Corvo and Kaberle are swapping places, but Kaberle is an upgrade from Corvo because the Hurricanes mentioned that they are looking to get stronger on the defensive end and Kaberle is a better zone defender than Corvo. Corvo led Carolina defensemen last season with 11 goals, including five on the power play. But he also finished with a minus-14 rating, which is 18 points worst than the Czechoslovakian.

The Canes front office was also able to lock up Jiri Tlusty to a one year deal. Though his offensive production was not impressive last season, he will be in the mix to play third line wing because of the experience he has had with the team.

The Hurricanes were not done just yet. They were thrifty enough in their spending to add a couple of second and third line forwards and a veteran backup goaltender to the mix.

General Manager Jim Rutherford wasted no time finding relief in the net for franchise goalie Cam Ward. Former Flyer, Brian Boucher, signed a two-year, $1.9 million agreement with Carolina on July 1. The veteran netminder went 18-10-4 with a .916 save percentage, but he lost his starting duties in Philadelphia early in the season. Goalie Justin Peters will be sent to AHL Checkers at the beginning of the season.

That same day, the Canes were able to reach agreements with center Tim Brent and left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky. Brent is committed for two years and $1.5 million while Ponikarovsky has a one year, $1 million deal to his name. Ponikarovsky is a reliable third line option as it was just three seasons ago the 31-year-old skater recorded 61 points with the Maple Leafs. Brent, 27, is capable of killing penalties and winning face-offs and last season he found his offensive production. Brent does another thing not too many Hurricane forwards do – get down to block shots at the point. He is scribbled in the depth charts as the starting third line center for the Hurricanes in the fall.

Lastly, the Canes added one more star who may end up sneaking into one of the top two lines due to his quick style of play. Former Thrasher Anthony Stewart shined last season and posted career highs in goals (14), assists (25) and points (39) in 80 games. Stewart is only 26 years old and was a first round pick in the 2003 draft. He is still developing and depending on how much he improves in the off-season, there is a slim chance he could see minutes on Carolina’s top line. Unlikely, but certainly not out of reach. At 6’3, 230 pounds, the Hurricanes may have found a late bloomer.

An interesting fact is that Kaberle, Ponikarovsky, Harrison and Tlusty all played under the tutelage of coach Paul Maurice during his time in Toronto. Outside of Sutter and Joslin, the other question is whether or not the Hurricanes are interesting in doling out $8000,000 to bring back Cory Stillman for another year. He scored 16 points in 21 games since being acquired at the trade deadline. Stillman spent most of his time on Carolina’s top line alongside Eric Staal and Cole.

This off-season has been a fascinating one for all Caniacs and hockey fans because an unlikely spender, the Carolina Hurricanes, made a statement by bringing back key players and finding a slew of new talent. The Hurricanes opened many eyes with all the roster moves they have made and they will do whatever it takes to get back into the playoffs and remain a threat.

Move over NHL because a Hurricane warning has been issued.

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