The National Hockey League trading deadline is three weeks away. Teams looking forward to the playoffs are shopping for that extra bit of scoring or a reliable defender. Teams already planning for next year are shining up their soon-to-be unrestricted free agents and setting them out in the window, hoping to offload salary for draft picks and prospects.
As the Canes begin a five-game road trip in New Jersey on Tuesday night, they hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Atlanta Thrashers have the same number of points as Carolina, but fewer wins, and the Canes have three games in hand.
In a good spot, to be sure. But not comfortable there. And not likely to be much more comfortable three weeks from now either.
General manager Jim Rutherford has a knack for making deals early in the season to improve his team. Just before Thanksgiving, the Hurricanes reworked their fourth line and second defensive pairing in three transactions within a week. The net effect: Ian White took Anton Babchuk's spot on the blueline and Troy Bodie and Ryan Carter brought their brand of toughness to replace that of Tom Kostopoulos. Bodie drops the gloves for Carolina now, Carter wins faceoffs, and White doesn't suffer those brain freezes that Babchuk used to.
What are the Canes' needs at this point? A top-six forward would help, preferably someone who could endure the rigors of the front of the net. An upgrade at backup goaltender might be a good idea. But a top-flight defender might be at the top of the list.
A good number of current Canes are slated to become unrestricted free agents come July 1. If Rutherford doesn't intend to re-sign an impending UFA player, he might as well move him. That is, unless he thinks the player is an essential part of a deep playoff run for Carolina.
Whatever Rutherford does, it will be a risky gambit. The organization has invested a lot of development effort in a good crop of forwards, and had ample opportunity to test that depth with the Charlotte Checkers so close. Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Jon Matsumoto, and Drayson Bowman have spent time in Raleigh. Jerome Samson, who leads the Checkers in scoring, has not played an NHL game yet this season.
Here are the Hurricanes who can become UFAs this summer.
Cole, Jokinen, and LaRose play consistently on the top three lines. Samsonov has played on the top line, but also the fourth. Carter and Dwyer are useful role players.
On the back end, Pitkanen has struggled to contribute despite being the team's third-highest paid player. Harrison has developed an efficiency to his physical game and White has proven to be a good, if overpaid, piece.