With the NHL Draft set for Sunday, FOXSportsCarolinas.com spoke to Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford to get some insight into the team's strategy going into the event and also into the busy offseason process, which is set to begin on July 5 with the start of free agency. The 'Canes hold the fifth overall pick in the draft.
John Manasso: Do you think you will take the best player available (as opposed to drafting for a specific need)?
Jim Rutherford: Well, I think so. I wouldn't say 100 percent for sure. There's different types of players who fall into that area in the first round. We have a lot of skill guys. We feel we have enough guys who can score so I would say we could opt to do a different type of player, if the player could come in and play this year or next.
Manasso: Are there a lot of NHL-ready players in this draft?
Rutherford: Yeah, I think so. Usually, the higher you pick, the better chance you have to play right away. There's probably a group of five or six you'd put into that group. I don't know for sure. I'm not going to say everybody in the top 10 will play next year. You could find players picked in the top 10 and somebody could end up playing next year.
Manasso: A lot of the players who are projected in the top six or so are big players (Seth Jones, Darnell Nurse, Aleksander Barkov and Valeri Nichushkin all are 6-2 or taller). Does that help make the transition easier to playing in the NHL right away?
Rutherford: There's no question. The league's getting bigger all the time. Certainly, you watch those playoffs and you see a lot of big players in them. But the one player thats a little bit smaller (Chicago's Patrick Kane) won the Conn Smythe (as playoff MVP). It's not that smaller players can't compete.
Manasso: You haven't drafted a forward in the first round since 2010 when you took Jeff Skinner. Does that mean you'll trend towards taking a forward?
Rutherford: Not really. Eric Staal (drafted as an 18-year-old in 2003) is still is a young guy. You start looking at (Jiri) Tlusty and (Tuomo) Ruutu and Skinner. That's some pretty good skill up front. They should be able to score enough goals for us to compete in the division.
Manasso: The top two European skaters, as rated by NHL Central Scouting, are both Russian speakers. Does the fact that you have an established Russian veteran like Alex Semin who can show them the ropes make you any more likely to take those players?
Rutherford: It wouldn't factor for us in making a decision on a player. Nichushkin and Barkov are really good players on their own. That would not be a factor at all.
Manasso: Nashville general manager David Poile compared this draft to the 2003 draft, which is considered the best in recent memory. Do you agree?
Rutherford: This is a real good one. This is really, really loaded at the top end, the first couple of rounds. It could end up being like the '03 draft, which was a very, very strong draft. I think this year's draft and next year's are a lot like the '03 draft.
Manasso: Shifting gears towards free agency, forward Chad Larose (a member of the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning team) has been one of your longest tenured players. Where do negotiations stand with him?
Rutherford: He'll go into July as a free agent. I think all of our UFAs (unrestricted free agents, including defensemen Joe Corvo and Marc-Andre Bergeron and goalie Dan Ellis) will go to July and will see if they work their way back to us. That's the way free agency will start.
Manasso: Will you look for a depth defenseman in the free agent market?
Rutherford: Our main priority is a top-four defenseman, whether it's free agency or trade. I would say it's going to be apt to be a trade. When you get into free agency, there are longer-term contracts involved. I would say that's our priority. Hopefully, we're going to be able to fill that hole.
Manasso: Do you think a top-four defenseman might be available on the trade market with the salary cap set to decrease, which will make some teams have to shed salary?
Rutherford: Maybe. There could be a chance.
Manasso: Do you expect defenseman Ryan Murphy, your first-round pick in 2011, to be on the team next season?
Rutherford: He'll have every opportunity to be on the team. He came up and played a few games last season. The first couple of games the coaches loved him and overplayed him. He played about 23 minutes a game then they took his minutes down to 17 or 18. He played very well. He has the skill level. It's a type of player we need, a quarterback on our power play. He's going to be given every opportunity to be there.