Carolina pays its Calder Kid

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Does Cheerwine come in champagne bottles?

Jeff Skinner, seen exulting two seasons ago during a game against the New York Islanders
The Carolina Hurricanes locked up another component of the team’s core by inking 20-year-old forward Jeff Skinner to a six-year contract extension. The deal keeps the gifted scorer in the red and black for the next seven years since it begins after his current deal expires in spring of 2013.

It also shows a hockey franchise making every effort to run with the big boys.

The 2010-2011 Calder Trophy winner will pocket $4,350,000 in the 2013-14 season and then $6 million per season through 2018-19. He has one year remaining on his current entry-level deal that will pay him $900,000 this coming season.

Nice raise, Jeff.

“It’s nice to be a part of the organization for even longer,” Skinner said in a conference call with media this afternoon. “Obviously I’m very grateful to them for selecting me in the draft and, today, for showing the confidence to have me around long-term.”

Now that Skinner’s signed, Rutherford turns his attention to the search for some muscle to protect him and free-agent signee Alexander Semin. Number 53 saw a lot more rough stuff last year. A concussion reduced the young star’s sophomore campaign to just 64 games peppered with shoving matches after whistles. Skinner realizes that his own maturity is as important as having a brawny guardian patrolling the ice.

“The biggest thing I can do personally for that kind of stuff is prepare mentally,” he said. “Going through last year, I learned a lot. Obviously there were some situations that I probably could have handled a little bit differently and I think that I’m going to learn from those instances.”

By getting the deal done a year in advance, general manager Jim Rutherford eliminates any chance of another team possibly signing Skinner to an offer sheet when he would have become a restricted free agent next summer.

To this point, general managers have had something of a gentleman’s agreement about not poaching teams’ RFAs. It’s rarely happened. But last month, when the Philadelphia Flyers signed defenseman Shea Weber to an offer so front-loaded with bonus money as to break the budget of the small-market Nashville Predators, that agreement might have ended.

Nashville, backed into a corner by their loss of unrestricted free agent defender Ryan Suter to riches with the Minnesota Wild, swallowed very hard and matched the offer to retain Weber. But the next few years won’t be pretty for the Predators’ bottom line. Now Rutherford doesn’t have to worry about that with Skinner. And neither do Caniacs.

Caniacs might, instead, wonder about what Rutherford has been eating these past nine months. The general manager’s boldness, in a series of moves since he dumped franchise darling Paul Maurice for coach Kirk Muller last November, continues to be remarkable.

It’s not dietary, however. There seems to have been an organizational sea change in Raleigh. Carolina is going all-out to raise its profile in the National Hockey League.

Look at what’s happened since a small crowd of new, local investors, including Jim Goodmon’s Capitol Broadcasting Company, bought into the ownership group after Halloween.

Maurice was gone within weeks. While it’s true that the mid-season coaching change had been the subject of wide speculation, the choice of Muller, who had no previous relationship to the organization, was uncharacteristic for the nepotistic Canes. Ron Francis and Rod Brind’Amour were in the wings. And they still are.

The next month, Rutherford dumped pouting defenseman Tomas Kaberle, whom he’d signed to a five-year deal just months before, on Montreal’s doorstep. He’ll be the Christmas present Habs fans never wanted, into the back half of the decade. Quel dommage, les habitants.

After New Year’s, Rutherford shipped off his other big free-agent signee of the recent summer. Alexei Ponikarovsky was sent up the New Jersey Turnpike for a fourth-round pick and a minor-leaguer we’ll never hear about again. If the Devils had offered a warm case of beer for the sulky power forward, Rutherford might have taken the deal.

Fast forward to draft-day. The Canes swung a blockbuster trade with the Penguins, sending the stalwart Brandon Sutter to Pittsburgh for Selke Trophy-nominee Jordan Staal, then signing Eric’s younger brother to a 10-year, $60 million deal. High-end talent, brought into the boat with a family-affair lure.

When free agency opened in July, the Canes ran with the big franchises, firing an unsuccessful contract offer to Zach Parise, the best forward available. When he inked an insane mega-deal with Minnesota, Rutherford didn’t blink, trying to talk his way onto sniper Rick Nash’s shortlist of teams he’d waive his no-trade clause to leave the dreadful Columbus Blue Jackets for.

Nash, seduced by Broadway’s dazzle, rebuffed Rutherford’s courtship, but the manager didn’t sulk about it. He spied Semin alone in the shadows on the edge of the dance floor. Jilted by the Washington Capitals and saddled with an arguable reputation as a slacker, Semin signed a one-year, $7 million deal to prove himself in Raleigh. That’s a lot of Benjamins for a Houdini with a wrist shot, but Semin’s totally dumpable at the trading deadline on the one-year deal. Shrewdness, thy name is Rutherford.

Now Skinner’s locked in long-term and the Canes’ top two lines and power play are looking pretty formidable. Though some pundits are already griping about how Rutherford has lavished money on an unproven player in Skinner, no one who actually buys PNC Arena tickets would use that adjective to describe him. In fact they might key your car if you did.

Rutherford’s decisive moves sketch the portrait of a franchise frustrated with the B-list. The Canes have traditionally done their free-agent and trade shopping in the clearance aisle. That’s what small-market teams in low-profile cities are supposed to do. And although you come up with the odd Jussi Jokinen or Tuomo Ruutu here and there when you troll for players not living up to their talent or expectations, it’s more likely that you come home from the store with an Alexei Ponikarovsky and an Anthony Stewart. Even Bear Grylls couldn’t start a fire with that.

There are legitimate concerns about the mettle and maturity of the Carolina blueline, as well as Justin Peters’ ability to spell Cam Ward enough to carry this team into the playoffs. But clearly, Rutherford and the expanding ownership group wanted to see more goals scored. You can always add pieces to fine-tune a team, so long as you have something worth adding pieces to.

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