On Saturday, the Carolina Hurricanes will wrap a frustrating 2013 campaign.
On Friday, Jim Rutherford was already looking to the future.
In speaking with Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News and Observer, the Carolina GM acknowledged improving his defense was a major priority heading into the offseason.
“We need to be a lot harder to play against,” Rutherford said. “We made it too easy for opponents.”
The numbers confirm Rutherford’s assessment.
On Mar. 12, the ‘Canes beat the Caps to move to 15-9-1 on the year and first place in the Southeast Division.
From there, the team went 4-15-3 and, depending how the final games go, could finish in the bottom five of the league.
Injuries played a major role in that slide, most notably to starting netminder Cam Ward (lost for the year in early March) and defenseman Joni Pitkanen (lost for the year in early April).
But the fact remains Carolina had major defensive issues before those injuries hit, and were simply magnified afterward.
Rutherford suggested as much in speaking with the News and Observer last week.
Rather than fall back on the goaltending excuse — he said Dan Ellis and Justin Peters performed as expected — he made it clear the blueline didn’t take the body enough, and needs to improve outlet/breakout passing.
“Whether it be a physical defenseman, a puck-moving defenseman, two puck-moving defensemen, whatever it is, those are things the management team and the coaching staff will discuss at the end of the year,” he said. “That’s an area it’s clear we need to make stronger.”
The ‘Canes are locked into five defensemen next year — Pitkanen, Tim Gleason, Jamie McBain, Justin Faulk, Jay Harrison — and it’s expected Ryan Murphy, the 12th overall pick at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft — will have a legit shot of making the roster.
As for who might be available?
Sergei Gonchar and Mark Streit are probably the best puck-movers available, but they’re 39 and 35 respectively and might not even make it to market, assuming Ottawa and the Islanders try to re-sign them.
Pittsburgh’s Douglas Murray, LA’s Robyn Regehr and Toronto’s Ryan O’Byrne are all in the NHL’s top-30 for hits among defensemen, and could be viable candidates to fill the physical role.
Or, Rutherford could try and complete his collection of Staals by trying to get Marc out of New York.