By Allan Muir
There's no evidence to support the theory that some dark curse holds sway over the Carolina Hurricanes, though after losing Cam Ward and Tuomo Ruuttu for long stretches last season, and learning today that Joni Pitkanen would be out for the entire 2013-14 campaign, you can forgive the hard-luck 'Canes for wondering just whose bad side they're on.
The heel injury that's sending Pitkanen to the sidelines takes a big bite out of a defense corps that's already considered to he Carolina's weak spot. The veteran blueliner played upwards of 22 minutes a night in all situations, and while his position as the team's top defender had been usurped by Justin Faulk, he's not easily replaced as part of the group.
But the 'Canes do have options.
GM Jim Rutherford said today that the team would explore every avenue in order to soften the blow.
Here's what he's looking at:
Ryan Murphy, a 2011 first rounder, was already expected to get a long look in camp. He's a high-risk/high-reward puck-moving blueliner who can step up on the power play and key the transition game, but he'll need protected minutes while he figures out how to play in this league.
Brett Bellemore could step in, but he's a physical defender who is at his best when he's discouraging opponents in front of his net and making simple plays to clear the zone. He could fill a role on the third pair, but he lacks the two-way ability of Pitkanen.
Even without Danny Cleary on the books, the Flyers are in a cap bind and would like to move Andrei Meszaros. He has size and better-than-average puck skills, but there are times when he has all the position discipline of a pee wee. He can't handle by himself the workload left by Pitkanen, but he can take on a healthy share.
The Penguins are looking to dump the contract of Matt Niskanen. He's a more confident two-way player than when he was with Dallas, but he still can't think the game as quickly as he skates, and that leads to more breakdowns in the D zone than the 'Canes might want to stomach.
The Leafs would be willing to move John-Michael Liles for a song -- not simply to clear enough cap space to sign RFA Cody Franson, but to get the $11 million he's owed over the next three years off the books. It seems unlikely Carolina would bite on that, but if contract talks between Franson and the Maple Leafs break down, they'd love a call.
Rumors this week hinted at former Minnesota Wild stalwart Tom Gilbert signing in Switzerland. He might be glad he didn't waste time learning how to yodel. He's capable of handling a heavy workload (he averaged 27 minutes a game as recently as 2011-12) and plays a similar style to Pitkanen in that he can move the puck effectively but he doesn't get anywhere near the physical value out of his 6-2, 204-pound frame that he should.
Ron Hainsey is from the same mold. He can be frustrating with his inconsistency, but he still skates well and could bring veteran smarts to the Hurricanes . . . if he's not being blacklisted for his work with the NHLPA during the lockout, that is. After waiting this long for an offer, both players likely could be had for a one-year, low-dough deal. If it takes a little more though, no problem. The 'Canes have nearly $5 million worth of space under the cap with another $4.5 million available if they put Pitkanen on long-term injured reserve. That's more than enough to add a significant piece, wherever they decide to pursue him.