Carolina Hurricanes: Dealing With The Adjusted Salary Cap

Photo credit: Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI

Photo credit: Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMI

By Dylan Howlett (@DylanHowlett)

In September 2008, Jim Rutherford could see the vultures swirling overhead: salivating, expectant.

The Carolina Hurricanes general manager had assembled a talented nucleus of young, incipient stars. The post-championship blueprint — devised to ween Carolina off the veteran-laden 2006 Cup-winning club and acclimate the Hurricanes to a younger, faster, skill-driven league — seemed surefire, even in the wake of two straight playoff misses.

What wasn’t entirely certain, however, was Rutherford’s capacity to ward off the vultures.

They had victimized the New Jersey Devils on a nearly-annual migration, swooping into the Meadowlands and prying away Scott Niedermayer, Scott Gomez, and Brian Rafalski. They would descend ravenously upon the Chicago Blackhawks just two years later, leaving the 2010 champs hardly recognizable from their Cup-lifting incarnation.

So is the parasitic ways of the salary cap-era NHL, in which teams with looser financial waistlines scavenge the hordes of talent that are, reluctantly, put up for sale by cap-strapped general managers or Cup-starved owners. The carcasses of once-great teams gutted by cap-induced jams or greener pastures elsewhere reside in nearly every NHL barn.

But the Canes would not be summarily disemboweled. Not on Rutherford’s watch.

It was September 2008 when Eric Staal, face-of-the-franchise heir to Rod Brind’Amour, agreed to a seven-year, $57.75 million contract extension. A year later, it was franchise-netminder Cam Ward’s turn to line up the Brinks trucks: six years, $37.8 million persuaded Ward to stay in Raleigh.

Eric Staal and Alex Semin: franchise players and salary-cap stranglers in arms (Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images).

Eric Staal and Alex Semin: franchise players and salary-cap stranglers in arms (Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images).

“To have the young star players that you know are going to be with the organization for a long time, regardless of how bad of a season a team could end up having,” Rutherford said upon announcing Ward’s extension, “you can always turn around and rebuild around those two guys immediately. It doesn’t take as long to fix the problems.”

Rutherford’s words were prophetic. The Canes retooled, hitched their playoff wagon to Staal and Ward, and rode all the way to the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals.

But keeping teams intact soon became even more onerous. The era of gargantuan, decade-long deals dawned, marrying players to teams for up to ten years or more on cap-friendly terms. Rutherford needed to preempt free-agent defections, needed to secure his carefully-crafted nucleus, needed to keep the Hurricanes competitive as the cap system launched league-wide parity into orbit.

Tuomo Ruutu was an impending free-agent heading into the 2012 trade deadline. The Finnish winger was a prototypical rental player that could have fetched a draft pick or two for the Canes. But Rutherford refused to capitulate to the vultures: Ruutu signed a four-year, $19 million extension in February. Rugged defenseman and soon-to-be free agent Tim Gleason fit the same profile, a skittish proposition for the club until he signed a four-year, $16 million extension of his own in January 2012.

Jordan Staal needed to wait only nine days after being acquired from Pittsburgh at the 2012 Entry Draft to get his due: 10 years, $60 million. The indefatigable Jeff Skinner became a card-carrying member of Rutherford’s future-planning club that same summer (six years, $34 million). A highly productive and stereotype-silencing debut from Alex Semin netted the oft-misunderstood sniper a five-year, $35 million pact in March.

This was Rutherford’s valiant — and exorbitant — stab at avoiding a carcass. Instead, Rutherford might have parked the Canes at a gluttonous cruise-ship buffet.

For the Hurricanes’ eight-highest earners against the salary cap strangle 72.4% of next season’s $64.3 million cap threshold. The brothers Staal, Ward, Semin, Skinner, Gleason, Ruutu and veteran defenseman Joni Pitkanen comprise a little more than a third of Carolina’s roster, but will chew up nearly three-quarters of the team’s ledger. The Canes currently boast the NHL’s eighth-highest payroll.

While recently discussing his desire to acquire a top-four defenseman, Rutherford invoked this season’s four conference finalists as the league’s standard-bearers. It was a candid expression of deference that could also be exercised in balancing Carolina’s budget.

The acquisition-happy Penguins are as top-heavy as the Hurricanes: Pittsburgh’s top-eight earners against the cap (Crosby, Malkin, Iginla, Fleury, Neal, Martin, Morrow, and Orpik) represent 73.5% of the team’s spending toward the new ceiling. Iginla and Morrow figure to depart via free agency on Jul. 5.

But the Bruins and Blackhawks have managed to squeeze multiple franchise players into a manageable cap framework: both teams’ top-eight earners occupy 65.3% of available cap payroll, and both teams have hoisted the Cup within the last three years (woe to Chicago GM Stan Bowman, however, after Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane sign long-term extensions).

Rutherford doesn’t have time to marvel at the monetary gymnastics pulled off by his peers. Not with a paltry $7.35 million of cap space to re-arm the Canes this offseason. Not with defensive cornerstones Justin Faulk and Jamie McBain awaiting restricted free agency, and unrestricted bank accounts, in 2015. Not with winger Jiri Tlusty awaiting the same outcome in 2015, one that could end with numberless zeroes tacked onto the end of his salary if the Czech’s chemistry with Semin is as wondrously telepathic as it was in 2013.

Meanwhile, the vultures shall wait to feast. They might have missed out on the Staals, Ward, and a prepubescent-looking sharpshooter in Skinner, but another three-course meal looms if Rutherford can’t summon the same fiscal ingenuity engineered by his counterparts.

Talent demands money, and Rutherford has paid handsomely for it. It has formed a woefully-underachieving team capable of much better, better than its four consecutive springs without playoff action at the RBC Center. It will be better — it must be better — in 2013-14, Rutherford hopes.

Beyond next season, he might find a carcass at his feet.

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