RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes already had plenty of potential holes to fill on their roster. But now that veteran defenseman Joni Pitkanen’s status for this year is up in the air, defense has become the priority for Hurricanes’ GM Jim Rutherford.
“We have to keep an eye on how much cap room we have. So there’s a little more priority for a defenseman,” Rutherford said. “Our preference at this time would be to have invitees and see where we’re at once we get partway through camp or at the end of camp. But certainly we’re open to inviting more NHL-experienced guys.”
Pitkanen broke his heel in April against the Washington Capitals, and the original expectation was that he could be able to start skating again in three months.
After his surgery (which was a few weeks after the injury), the doctor who performed it was very serious.
“At the time after he had the operation, the doctor said that this was more like a car accident impact than a sports impact,” Rutherford said. “So when he said that, there was pretty good damage there.”
Still, as recently as a few weeks ago all indications were that his rehab was going fine. Then Rutherford got a call from Pitkanen’s agent, who said that the nine-year defenseman was going to come to Raleigh this week to have a CT scan on Thursday.
“We just have to walk through this,” Rutherford said. “The CT scan, when it goes to the doctor that did the operation and he gives his feedback, it’ll give us a better idea of how long this is going to be. But I’m getting prepared for the worst at this point.”
And the worst could be pretty bad. The injury could be serious enough to end Pitkanen’s career, according to Rutherford, who emphasized that was obviously the very worst-case scenario.
Pitkanen has 57 goals and 225 assists in nine NHL seasons, and he has spent his last five seasons in Carolina. He’s been hurt a lot the last few years. He had one goal last year, a season-low for him in his NHL career, as were his nine points. But his 22 games played were also his fewest, and he saw action in just 30 games in the 2011-12 season because of head and knee injuries.
Despite the injuries, Rutherford said that Pitkanen’s value could not be underestimated.
“People have different views about Joni but the fact of the matter is he played a lot of minutes. When you take a guy out of the lineup that played that many minutes you really have to look at your defense,” Rutherford said.
“What (head coach Kirk Muller) may have to do is balance it out more, which I do think we have a better chance of doing with the addition of (Andrej) Sekera and (Mike) Komisarek, is balance out the minutes more instead of leaning on (Justin) Faulk and Pitkanen to play 24, 25 minutes.”
There’s a young player in the system that Rutherford thinks highly of – Ryan Murphy. The 20-year-old defenseman was the 12th overall pick by the Hurricanes in the 2001 Draft, and he spent last year in the Ontario Hockey League. He’s played in four games as a Hurricane, but if Pitkanen is out for an extended period, he could have a longer stint with the team this year.
“Yeah, it certainly opens the door wider for him without question. One of the things that we were real happy about was from the time Murphy came to development camp to when he came in here a couple of weeks ago, his conditioning and everything had really improved, so we were excited about that,” Rutherford said.
And on the offensive side, Rutherford said this year’s first-round pick Elias Lindholm might not be sent down to the minor leagues. He hopes to keep Lindholm with the Hurricanes. Certainly, he has the ability to be there. “But if this injury sets him back and he has to go to Charlotte for a little bit, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Lindholm is nursing a bruised shoulder, but Rutherford said that the team wants to be cautious with the young center. “Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a jump in the big camp which for a young guy, you like to see a guy get. So that may set him back a little bit but right now, we want to make sure he’s healthy,” Rutherford said.
If there’s good news on the injury front, it’s that captain Eric Staal appears to be a full go after suffering a knee injury in May while competing for Canada in the IIHF world championships. Sweden’s Alex Elder initiated a knee-to-knee collision with Staal that many – even Staal himself – “wouldn’t classify as a clean hit.”
Staal told NHL.com that doctors told him he came very close to breaking his leg. But after a summer of rehab, it’s been so far, so good for Staal since the Hurricanes have come back to the ice.
“I feel as good now and I feel as normal as I have in years past and as strong. There should be no issues,” Staal said. “A few of the exercises, I’m still being aware of some of the twisting motions and stuff. But to be honest, I feel as normal as I ever have so I’m really not worried about it. It’s more precautionary.”