Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford was a guest on NHL On The Fly the other morning and I heard him make a few interesting comments in regards to what moves he would make in free agency. He basically stated that he thinks he can sign a veteran defenseman in the early part of July but isn't sure if he can get a top-six forward because of the market. I reviewed the options for a top-six winger not too long ago and you can see that Rutherford's concerns about the market are valid. Outside of Parise, Semin, Doan, Parenteau and a few others, there isn't much available unless you want to take a risk or overpay someone.
This is one of the reasons why the Jordan Staal trade is so important. It gives the Canes a top-six talent who they might have struck out on in free agency. As of right now, they have a pretty good unit up front with the Brothers Staal, Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu, Jeff Skinner and possibly Jiri Tlusty. That's a respectable top-six but they are still short a winger if they want to be considered a dangerous team. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, their options for acquiring a top-six winger are limited so it's very likely that the top-six for next season will compose of players who are currently on the team. That might come as a disappointment to some fans but it might not be the worst thing in the world, especially with Jordan Staal now on the team.
Something that might be getting overlooked in the 'Canes hunt for a top-line winger is that they just don't need someone to play in the top-six, they need someone who can hold their own against tough competition. Both Staal brothers are power vs. power type players, meaning they normally are used against other team's top-six's and there's a good chance that Kirk Muller will use them in this fashion come this season. The Canes had the luxury of protecting Jussi Jokinen's line last season because of Brandon Sutter but now that he is gone, the wingers are going to need to learn to play against tougher competition.
If the Hurricanes are going to use one of their current wingers in a tough-minute role, the one who I feel is most suited for it is Tuomo Ruutu. Find out why after the jump.
The nice thing about the Hurricanes top-six is that they have a lot of players who have experience playing both center and wing, so if they want to protect their second line by using Jokinen at center, they can. Let's assume they don't follow that method and use Eric and Jordan Staal as the first and second line centers respectively. Both would likely be deployed in a tough-minute role with Jordan Staal doing most of the heavy-lifting. Using them in any other fashion wouldn't be playing to their strengths. Skinner, Ruutu and Jokinen have shown the ability to keep up with Eric Staal in the past so there won't be much of an issue there. The bigger problem is finding linemates for Jordan Staal and the tough minutes that will come with him.
It's going to be especially difficult finding someone of that mold through free agency so the best thing might be to find someone already on the team who can play on Jordan Staal's wing and the right guy for the job could be Tuomo Ruutu. Why? Because he has done this before and has been very effective in this role. Moreso with being matched up against tough competition than getting more defensive zone starts.
Not only has Ruutu played against some of the toughest competition among Carolina forwards, he has been able to drive the play and score at a top-six rate while doing so, or at least he did for two seasons. For whatever reason, he's been used in a more protected role since then. This might be because he has played on Jeff Skinner's line for the majority of the last two seasons but it's still strange to see the Hurricanes switch his role like this. Ruutu is still a positive player in terms of possession and he has scored at a strong rate the least two years, so him returning to more of a heavy lifting role isn't out of the question. It might actually help the team in a big way, too.
One thing that is important to remember is that J. Staal's line isn't going to be completely buried like the Sutter line was last year, so Ruutu isn't going to have his offensive opportunities restricted. He is just going to have to play in a more difficult role and do his best to produce at a top-six rate. That's certainly not impossible because he has done it before but one has to wonder if he can do it now that he is almost 30. If the Hurricanes can't find anyone through free agency, using Ruutu on Jordan Staal's line might be what they have to do and I honestly like the idea.
With that being said, even if this does happen, the Hurricanes might need to sign another winger to make it work and that's going to be the major challenge of this off-season. They also may not have much to fall back on if this experiment fails but the versatility of players like Jokinen and Eric Staal allows them to shake things up a bit, so that's a nice luxury to have. This is just one of the many options that the Hurricanes can explore in the upcoming season.