Core-focused ‘Canes shaping up well for offseason

Could the Hurricanes be a team that spends to the NHL’s salary-cap maximum next season?

With the league’s salary cap set to drop by almost 10 percent to $64.3 million in 2013-14, the ‘Canes, generally a team with a smaller payroll in years past, are moving closer toward a four-year dry spell without a postseason appearance.

Next season, gone will be the former Southeast Division, populated mostly by budget-minded, nontraditional markets, and the Hurricanes will join a division with big-spending powerhouses like the Rangers, Flyers and Penguins.

According to the website, which compiles NHL salary data, the Hurricanes have $56.65 million committed to 17 players next season. A good portion of the cap room was eaten up when the team awarded an extension to wing Alexander Semin on March 25 worth $35 million over five years.

Semin had an impressive season, finishing second on the team in points (44 in 44 games), tying for 21st in the NHL, while ranking slightly higher in terms of points per game. Semin also finished second on the team in plus/minus at plus-14.

The Hurricanes were able to afford Semin, at least in the short term, because of the production they received from Jiri Tlusty. The 25-year-old bargain led the Canes in goals (23 — tied for fifth-best in the NHL) and plus/minus (plus-15) but remains under contract at $1.6 million for next season. He’s eligible for restricted free agency the following season.

With the NHL draft set for June 30 and the start of free agency a day later, the ‘Canes have almost two months to craft their plan for filling only a few roster spots. Among the NHL’s 30 teams, the ‘Canes are likely to have among the fewest issues in terms of their roster going into the offseason. The highest priorities will be backup goalie, depth defense/power play specialist and third-line forwards — not exactly critical issues.

Locked up are so many of the core players: captain Eric Staal, Semin, Tlusty, second-line center Jordan Staal, goalie Cam Ward, former rookie of the year Jeff Skinner and the top five defensemen — Joni Pitkanen, Justin Faulk, Jay Harrison, Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain.

In terms of backup goalie, Dan Ellis was stellar in that role, faltering only when Ward suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss essentially the second half of the season, as Ellis was forced to assume the No. 1 job.

On defense, 35-year-old Joe Corvo completed his third stint with the club and will be an unrestricted free agent. It could be a surprise if he returns, as the Canes will need an economical option. During the season, the ‘Canes traded for Marc-Andre Bergeron, a player who fills a similar role, but his production was not great.

One option would be to allow 20-year-old Ryan Murphy, the former 12th overall draft pick, to take on that spot. Murphy is an offensive-type defenseman and got his first taste of NHL hockey last season, playing four games, mostly on an emergency basis.

In terms of the third-line forwards, one of the most interesting cases will be that of Chad LaRose, one of the few players left from the ’06 Stanley Cup team. LaRose’s average time on ice dwindled to 12:50 per game, by far his lowest since his first two seasons in the league.

One of the most intriguing personnel decisions (or non-decisions) could revolve around Skinner, one of the team’s top offensive players since entering the league in 2010-11.

Recently, News & Observer columnist Luke DeCock raised the prospect of trading Skinner, who is set to begin the first year of a six-year deal that will pay him $34.35 million over the duration starting next season. However, Skinner is starting to have a troubling issue with concussions.

While Skinner no doubt was considered one of the Hurricanes’ foundational players as recently as a year ago, now that they have committed large sums to Semin and Jordan Staal over lengthy terms that could change. In the past, GM Jim Rutherford has not hesitated to trade first-round picks like Andrew Ladd and Jack Johnson.

Whatever Rutherford elects to do there, he no doubt likes his team. If the ‘Canes had remained healthy, they likely would have been a playoff team. In a longer, more normal season, he seems to have bet that the same group, under coach Kirk Muller, will finally return to the postseason.