July 3, 2012

Fischler Report: 'Canes will be Cup contenders in 2013

By Stan Fischler

Our newest addition to the TFR staff is national columnist James Wrabel, Jr. In his opening piece, Jim examines trades that turn a pretender into a contender.

After all is said and done next season, the Carolina Hurricanes may point to June 22nd, 2012 as the date their franchise turned a corner.

Jordan Staal will play a much bigger role in Carolina than he was given behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. (Getty Images)

Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford executed a blockbuster deal that day, acquiring Jordan Staal in exchange for Brandon Sutter, defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin, and the eighth overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft, adding a new dynamic to their team.

"I think this improves our team,” Rutherford told Scott Burnside of ESPN.com. “You name me two or three other players, center-ice men that are like Jordan Staal. You just can't find them. ... I think it'll be great. With the character those two guys [the Staal brothers] have, the will to win, I think it's a great fit."

Preserving the impressive array of defensemen lead by Justin Faulk and Jamie McBain will be vital for Carolina’s success. Had Rutherford surrendered either player, the organization would be starting from scratch next season.

Add to the mix Jeff Skinner and former Conn Smythe and Cup winner Cam Ward in net, still in his prime at 28, and Carolina has a chance to do something great in 2012-13—surprise everyone and be a force in the Eastern Conference, similar to what the New York Rangers did this past season.

The tangible effect rookie head coach Kirk Muller has had on his team will be the reason why Carolina makes its trek upwards earlier than expected. After starting 8-13-4 with Maurice, Muller led Carolina to a 25-20-12 record in 57 games.

“Early on when he came on he challenged me to be a leader, to be a difference maker,” Cam Ward said of his coach to Adam Hirsh of The Hockey Writers. “He’s a guy that tries to hold players accountable and the guys are responding. We’re playing a much simpler game.”

The biggest change in Carolina has been a shift to a maximum effort and energy style in all three zones every game.

"His energy. He brings kind of an up-tempo style of game," second-year forward Jeff Skinner said of Muller to The Sports Xchange. "He has taught everyone to bring that compete level every night."

With half a season to learn the system and the upcoming training camp to perfect it, Carolina will be more adept to what Muller wants, and more dangerous with their added depth.

However, it won’t stop there, as Rutherford will be looking to add another winger to Carolina’s top six.

With roughly $22.5 million in cap space and Cup aspirations firmly in their grasp, Carolina will be a dark horse next season.

With Jordan Staal on board, look for the Carolina Hurricanes to be one of the best coming out of the East in 2012-13.

SIDNEY SIGNS – OUR VINCE COMUNALE APPROVES

Our man in Pittsburgh, Vince Comunale, takes a hard look at Sid Crosby’s new contract:

Like Mario Lemieux before him, Sidney Crosby is poised to spend his entire career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

Sidney Crosby has 37 points in 22 games for the Penguins in 2011-12. (Getty Images)

Crosby’s new 12-year, $104.4 million extension will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2024-25 season.  The contract pays Crosby an average of $8.7 million, which is the same average amount as his current deal. 

The Kid certainly took less money than the market suggested he could make.  He could have easily asked for the cap maximum and the Penguins would have obliged. 

Sid should certainly be commended for his loyalty to the Penguins, but Penguins’ management should also be commended for its commitment to Crosby. 

You see, Crosby’s new deal is not insured against concussions.  Given his concussion history, Penguins’ management could have negotiated for a shorter term, but from all accounts, this was one of the easiest contract negotiations that g.m. Ray Shero ever conducted. 

Obviously, with Sidney taking less than market value, the Penguins have room under the salary cap to go after big name free agents like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and perhaps Shane Doan. 

Even if the Penguins don’t make a big splash in free agency, they will have that much more leeway to take on salary at the trade deadline. 

Crosby surely realizes that at some point in the next 13 years there will be players that will make more money per season than him; although he has certainly set the standard for selflessness for the other high-end talent currently under contract with the Penguins. 

Evgeni Malkin can sign an extension on July 1st next year, as can Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang.  Malkin, the NHL’s reigning MVP, could easily ask for more money than Crosby, but it would not be a surprise if he signs the exact same contract as Crosby, just as he did with his last contract. 

Letang, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, could very well be offered similar dollar amounts to Crosby as well, but with a shorter term. 

Currently, Malkin’s cap hit is $8.7 million, Kunitz’s is $3.725, Orpik’s is $3.75 million, and Letang’s is $3.5 million.  With the example that Crosby has set, Letang and Malkin will have to think twice about whether they want to bank as much money as possible or take a little less and compete for the Stanley Cup each season. 

Yes, $8.7 million/season is a ton of money to the average person.  However, Crosby could have easily asked for and received upwards of $11-13 million per season if he so chose. 

Yes, we have all seen how long-term deals with big caps hits can handcuff franchises. For example, Rick DiPietro (Winthrop, Mass.) still has nine years left on his deal with the Islanders with an annual cap hit of $4.5 million annually.

Roberto Luongo has ten years left on his deal with Vancouver with a cap hit of $5.33 each season and Rick Nash in Columbus still has six years left on his deal with a cap hit of $7.8 million each season. 

Sure, Luongo and Nash make for interesting trade bait, but the market is very narrow as far as teams that can take on such large contracts.

Like DiPietro and all of his injury issues, there is a similar risk that Crosby can suffer another severe concussion and the Penguins will be on the hook for all of that money. 

However, when the best player in the world comes to the table and offers to take significantly less money than he is worth, well, that is a risk that the Penguins’ management will take every time.

OBSERVATIONS

Devils goalie Marty Brodeur (Getty Images)

BRENDAN SHANAHAN has been snubbed by the Hall of Fame's selection committee. The rejection in and of itself is not the end of the world, neither for Shanny – as long as he gets in next year -- nor for the Hall. But the fact that Mats Sundin did get in ahead of Brendan does not seem kosher to us. Shanny was an integral part of three Stanley Cup-winners. Sundin never came close to tasting the champagne. If nothing else it makes one wonder about selectors and their values.

MARTIN BRODEUR'S decision to remain in New Jersey's fold proves that there is a smidgen of loyalty remaining  in the NHL world. Mister Goalie has been as much a part of the Devils institution as, say, Lou Gehrig was to the New York Yankees, a club he remained with -- as opposed to Babe Ruth -- throughout his baseball career. At age forty, Marty has carved a commendable niche among future Hall of Famers. It will be fascinating to find the protégé Lou Lamoriello eventually appoints as Brodeur's successor.

FRED SHERO, on the other hand, rated entrance into the Shrine long ago. What gives? It may be difficult for the young set to comprehend the monumental coaching job pulled off by the onetime Rangers defenseman in 1973-1974. But Freddie The Fog not only guided Philly to a Cup in 1974 -- beating Bobby Orr and the Big, Bad Bruins -- but repeated the Cup-winning feat in 1975.

GOSSIP

Cory Schneider's (Marblehead, Mass.) new Vancouver deal virtually assures an eventual Roberto Luongo exit from B.C. But to where? We're betting Florida, a place "Louie" knows and loves so well. Nothing against Jose Theodore, but a Luongo acquisition would confirm the continued smart moves being made by Dale Tallon. ...

Kings goalie Jon Quick (Getty Images)

By the same token, Jonathan Quick's (Hamden, Conn.) virtual lifetime deal with the Kings enables LA's Dean Lombardi (Ludlow, Mass.) to once and for all unload Jonathan Bernier. ...

Just wondering, but what if Scott Howson fails to get an adequate offer for Rick Nash? Would -- make that could -- Nash return to Columbus as an effective Blue Jacket? Our answer: NO WAY! ...

Does Tim Thomas know -- or care? -- how much he's being reviled by players around the league for what his critics call lack of teamsmanship?  By the way, most of the criticism is downright unfair. Still, it is out there. ...

We'd be surprised if Wayne Gretzky took any NHL position as some media types suggested to Gary Bettman during the Commissioner’s Cup Final media melee. The only logical role for The Great One would be as goodwill ambassador. But there's not unanimous "good will" nurtured by all NHL owners vis-a-vis Gretzky. Some governors remain miffed over Gretzky's impact on skyrocketing salaries

Follow Stan Fischler on Twitter at @StanFischler.