Jokinen trade signifies end of Canes' season
Posted April 5, 2013
"I believe we had a team in place that was a very good team. I believed we had a good product and as we sit here today, we don't."
On Wednesday afternoon, just after 3 p.m., Jim Rutherford, the president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes essentially performed last rites on a $57 million collection of talent that was expected to control the Southeast Division and should have been among the five or six best in the Eastern Conference.
Yes, injuries have destroyed the lineup. Cam Ward, Justin Faulk, Joni Pitkanen and Tuomo Ruutu have all missed (or will miss) huge chunks of the year. But let's be honest, this is a team that was battling inconsistency all season even when they were at full strength, so let's not bury our heads in the ice and pretend that these problems are all due to a manpower shortage.
On Wednesday, Rutherford looked down, a beaten executive, and who could blame him. The offseason acquisition of Jordan Staal from the Penguins and the free agent signing of former 40-goal scorer Alexander Semin put the Hurricanes in the role of division favorites and theoretically gave Carolina two dynamic scoring lines that would certainly be the best the franchise has seen since the halcyon days of 2006.
Yes, that was only 7 years ago, but it might as well be 70.
Wait, what ever happened to "it ain't over 'til it's over"? Where is the Fat Lady? Why in the name of Trevor Kidd is there a white flag flying over PNC Arena with 13 games to go, no matter how utterly disappointing this season has become? Why did the architect of this team throw in the towel with three and a half weeks left in the season?
If you don't think that's what happened, then explain why Rutherford simply gave away one of the team's better players for nothing. Rutherford said that there just wasn't a hockey trade out there that would have guaranteed an improved product.
"I wasn't going to trade younger players or high draft picks for somebody who may or may not have made a difference here in the last month," he said.
But, did you have to make the team WORSE?
Jussi Jokinen was not having a good year, there is no denying that. His 11 points in 33 games were a far cry from the 30-goal season The Juice poured in during the 2009-10 campaign. But, even this Jokinen was 8th on the team in scoring. This Jokinen was still better than every single forward Carolina was using outside of the top two lines. You can't convince me that this team is better without him for the balance of this year, and you can't convince me that this partial salary dump wouldn't be available in the offseason.
Maybe the fact that Jokinen wasn't really used among the top six forwards has contributed to the dramatic dropoff in production. Or, maybe Jokinen is experiencing the inevitable career decline. Either way Rutherford felt the need to unload his contract and tried to literally give Jokinen away a week ago only to find no takers for the final year of a 3-year/$9 million deal. By Carolina Hurricanes standards, that simply isn't a bad deal.
Dumping him for exactly zero return is, however.
Did I mention that the Hurricanes are still going to pay a portion of Jokinen's 2014 salary? Or that Jussi was given to a team in Carolina's division next year? That's right. In the new conference alignment that goes into effect next season, the Hurricanes will be battling for one of the three designated playoff spots with Pittsburgh, and Carolina will be paying one of the Pens players to help send the Canes to a fifth consecutive non-playoff season. That doesn't sound like a great plan to me.
However, the worst aspect of all of this is that in spite of the fact that the Canes have now lost 10 of their last 11 games, a free fall that in a condensed, 48-game, sprint of a schedule should have buried them in a Grand Canyon-sized chasm in the standings, as of Wednesday morning they still had a chance. Carolina was – and still is – only four points down in the division race. All they needed was a couple of wins to get back in the hunt. Seriously, the Southeast Division is so mediocre, that even a team that earned a mere three points in an 11-game stretch still had a chance.
Then Rutherford laid down his sword and surrendered.
Trade fails to balance the books
Oh, he had his reasons for doing the deal. The team is staring down the barrel of salary cap purgatory going into next season. With contract extensions for Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner and Alex Semin all kicking in next year the Canes are looking at a $55 million payroll for a 16-player roster that is still woefully deficient of quality NHL defensemen. With the cap shrinking to just over $64 million, that means Carolina would have just over $9 million for the remaining seven roster spots.
Dumping a portion of Jokinen's contract on the Penguins unfortunately didn't even come close to solving Carolina's payroll issues. Consider that Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu will combine to make $14 million next season. Or, that Jamie McBain is on the books for nearly $2 million.
For a franchise that has repeatedly stated that it is a "budget" team and not a "cap" team, the Canes certainly have a lot of players who are varying degrees of vastly overpaid. Budget teams can't afford to do that. Budget teams need to pay their star level players and be judicious with how they allocate the rest of their payroll. Jordan Staal is a very good player, but is he three times better than Brandon Sutter? Carolina gave Eric's brother a 10-year, $60 million contract and the Penguins a very good player, their top defensive prospect and the 8th pick in last year's draft.
Are the Hurricanes better off?
This isn't a question of whether Jordan is a better player than Brandon, it's a question of whether or not this team can afford to pay that salary to a player who has never produced more than 57 points in a season. Budget teams can't afford to have five players each earning north of $6 million per year. And, this budget team still needs to figure out a way to pay Justin Faulk in a couple of years.
The issues facing the Canes are vast. It's an expensive, underachieving team that Rutherford rightfully thought would be better. It isn't, and the doubling down with long-term, big-money contracts have put the team in a position where there is no easy way out. No wonder Rutherford looked depressed.