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Rutherford stated his belief that head coach Paul Maurice did a “very good job” with a young team last season, indicating that he will return behind the bench. He added that he’s been pleased with Maurice in two of his three seasons since returning to the organization in the fall of 2008, with the exception being the doomed-from-the-start 2009-10 campaign.
However, there will be changes that affect the rest of the coaching staff and front office. Rutherford said that, in a move that’s been planned for several seasons, Ron Francis, who spent the previous two seasons as associate head coach, will now focus solely on his role of assisting Rutherford with player personnel decisions and player development.
That leaves an opening on Maurice’s staff, with no replacement named as of yet. Rutherford said that Jeff Daniels, an NHL assistant with the Hurricanes from 2003-08, would remain in his capacity as head coach of the American Hockey League Charlotte Checkers, where he’s been instrumental in the development of the organization’s young players. Rutherford did say that Daniels’ “time will come” as an NHL head coach.
Rutherford indicated that there will likely be an increased role for Rod Brind’Amour, who served as director of forwards development last season, his first since retiring as a player.
“He’s got a bright future as a head coach or general manager,” said Rutherford of Brind’Amour. “He makes his point in very short order and makes points others don't make. He has a very special way about him"
Of the seven unrestricted free agents who ended the season on the Hurricanes’ roster, Rutherford expressed doubt about both Joni Pitkanen and Jussi Jokinen. The general manager said that he expects both players to test the open market on July 1, but that the door would be open for them to return at the right price.
Should Pitkanen join another team, the Hurricanes would then use his $4.5 million salary, which trailed only Eric Staal and Cam Ward on the team’s payroll last season, to sign a free-agent defenseman. Should Jokinen leave, Rutherford said he would then try to bring back 37-year-old left wing Cory Stillman, who he believes has at least another year left in the tank and could be a contributor at a salary less than the $3.5 million he earned last season. Rutherford added that Stillman could have a future in the front office once he retires.
Rutherford seemed optimistic about the rest of the group, mentioning the re-signing of Erik Cole, who he believes had a “special year” as a top priority. Rutherford noted that, although Cole would be sure to attract interest from other teams on July 1, he plays his best hockey in Carolina. The GM went so far as to say that Cole signing elsewhere would be "a mistake on his part."
After saying that Chad LaRose experienced an “off year” in 2010-11, Rutherford expressed interest in bringing him back into the fold, saying, “He is the guy that drives this team.”
Although he did not address them specifically, Rutherford alluded to Patrick Dwyer and Jay Harrison at various points when discussing the team’s makeup for next season. The same was true for restricted free agents Derek Joslin, Jiri Tlusty and Brandon Sutter, the latter of whom Rutheford hopes to bring back on a long-term deal rivaling the length, if not the dollar figures, of deals signed by Eric Staal and Cam Ward. Rutherford identified Staal, Ward, Sutter and Jeff Skinner, who the GM believes will continue to “climb the ladder” in his sophomore season, as the team’s current core.
Justin Peters play more regularly at the AHL level next season alongside current Checkers’ starter Mike Murphy. With Rutherford saying he was “not satisfied” with Justin Pogge’s recent season, it seems likely that Pogge may depart as a restricted free agent.
Rutherford said that Assistant Coach Tom Barrasso has already been watching video of goaltenders set to be free agents in July and will submit a short list for management to work with. The belief is that an experienced backup will help take pressure off Ward while allowing the development of Peters.
“If we don’t give Cam Ward more relief, he’s going to have to retire when he’s 28,” said Rutherford of Ward, who will hit that mark next season.
Next on Rutherford’s list is a fourth-line center that can win faceoffs and kill penalties – taking pressure off the likes of Eric Staal - and ideally offer something in terms of physical play. Rutherford said that he preferred Dwyer, who filled that role towards the end of last season, on the wing.
Finally, Rutherford expressed an interest in acquiring an established power-play contributor via trade or free agency. He said that he would consider trading prospects for an in-his-prime player who fits the bill, while free agent efforts would likely depend on the fates of Pitkanen and Jokinen.
Rutherford named Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe as the team’s best forward prospects, with an estimated two spots open for next season. While more could join that group in training camp, Rutherford said that Dalpe, the team’s second-round pick in 2008, has the best chance of making the jump. The GM went so far as to say that he could see Dalpe playing in a prominent offensive role alongside Tuomo Ruutu and Jeff Skinner next season.
Defensively, Rutherford said that Justin Faulk, who began his pro career with Charlotte last month after a highly successful freshman year in college, would likely need at least half a season at the AHL level but could still see NHL games next season. More defensive help could be on the way, with Rutherford stating that the team could go in that direction with the No. 12 pick in next month’s draft, bucking a recent trend.