Hurricanes making push for key players

For the past three seasons, the Carolina Hurricanes have wandered in the postseason wilderness.

This offseason general manager Jim Rutherford looks like he’s not only trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen again, but he also looks like he wants to return the Hurricanes to being a serious player in the East.

Having already pulled off the trade with Pittsburgh for center Jordan Staal and then signed him to a 10-year, $60 million contract extension on Sunday, the Hurricanes are likely to appear on many prognosticators’ lists to find their way back to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since the Canes reached the Eastern Conference Final in 2009. They also could challenge for the Southeast Division.

Rutherford, whose team has appeared in the Stanley Cup Final twice since 2002, winning it in ’06, is showing that he is not content with having the Staal brothers as bookends.

“If this is the team we start with, I think we’re going to be more competitive,” he told reporters Sunday in an audio clip posted on a team Web site, “but, at the same time, to get to that level we really want to get to — to be a contender — I feel adding one more player is an important piece.”

He bid for the top free agent defenseman available, Nashville’s Ryan Suter, and also pursued the top forward on the market, New Jersey’s Zach Parise. (Among those the Canes enlisted in Parise’s recruitment was former Devils assistant coach John MacLean, now on the Canes’ bench.) Late on Sunday, Rutherford learned that the Canes were out of the Parise sweepstakes and on Monday TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that the Canes were out of the race for Suter.

However, one of the most intriguing possibilities is that the Hurricanes are said to be making a big push for Columbus forward Rick Nash, who has reached the 30-goal plateau in seven of the past eight seasons and led the NHL in goals in 2003-04 with a career-high 41. According to the Columbus Dispatch, the Canes are making “a heck of a push” to acquire Nash, who asked out of Columbus prior to last season’s trade deadline but has not moved as general manager Scott Howson has yet to get the package he wants. Nash has a list of teams he would like to play for, according to the Dispatch, and the Canes are not among them.

If the Canes could add the likes of Nash, their top six forwards would arguably rival any in the NHL. Captain Eric Staal is a four-time All-Star and has hit the 70-point mark for seven straight seasons. Jeff Skinner, the 2011 Calder Trophy winner (rookie of the year), is only 20 and has 51 goals in 146 career games. Jordan Staal is a four-time 20-goal scorer who has reached 40 points four times and also is a top defensive forward. Left wing Jussi Jokinen has averaged 54 points the past three season and Tuomo Ruutu is a proven 20-goal scorer if he stays healthy for the entire season. A line of the two Staals and Nash, each of them 6-foot-4, could dominate opponents, not to mention what it could do on the power play.

On Sunday, Rutherford was tight-lipped about a potential trade out of fear of violating the league’s tampering rules.

“All I can say is we’re in the trade market and we’re active,” he said.

He added that he has not received permission from other teams to speak to their players directly. (Nashville recently granted such permission to the other 29 teams to seek a potential contract agreement and trade for disgruntled forward Alex Radulov, who reportedly returned to the KHL on Monday.)

Last season was a disappointment for the Canes, who narrowly missed the playoffs in 2010-11. They were forced to fire coach Paul Maurice after a bad start, but new coach Kirk Muller turned things around in a big way in the second half. Defenseman Justin Faulk made the all-rookie team and is only 20, and top defenseman Joni Pitkanen is healthy after playing just 30 games last season. On Sunday the Canes bolstered their defense by signing veteran free-agent defenseman Joe Corvo for his third tour with the team. Plus, stalwart Cam Ward remains in goal.

Rutherford said he will still pursue some free agents and trades no matter how long it takes — a week, a month or longer —but likes his roster.

“I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “Joni’s healthy. We’ve added Jordan Staal. Justin Faulk’s going to be a year older. We brought Corvo back. I think we have more balance and depth on our defense. Kirk’s going to coach the team right out of training camp.”

The small-market Canes might not be a heavy favorite, but they could be a trendy dark horse — unless they pull off the trade for Nash. Then they could become a favorite to win the East, much in the way Los Angeles just won the Stanley Cup: with a big, bruising front line and balanced scoring.