Jim Rutherford is using Carolina Hurricanes owner Pete Karmanos's bankroll to make them one of the NHL's most intriguing teams for next season.
The latest move by the Hurricanes general manager came Wednesday when he locked up burgeoning star forward Jeff Skinner with a six-year contract extension. Skinner, 20, is entering the final year of his entry-level contract and when his extension takes effect in the 2013-14 season, his salary will jump to $4.35-million (all currency U.S.) and then to $6-million for the next five years with a salary-cap hit of $5.725-million.
It was just one more move by Rutherford aimed at boosting the Hurricanes' offensive output, not only for next season but for several years beyond that. Skinner was the NHL's rookie-of-the-year in 2010-11 when he had 31 goals and 63 points and became the youngest player in league history to play in the all-star game at the age of 18.
So far this summer, Rutherford made a monster trade for centre Jordan Staal and then signed him to a 10-year contract at $6-million per year, signed winger Alexander Semin to a one-year deal for $7-million and brought offensive defenceman Joe Corvo back to the Hurricanes.
If they all play to their potential and Skinner bounces back from an injury-troubled season, the Hurricanes could produce a lot more offence in 2012-13 and become and Eastern Conference contender.
"It's exciting to see ownership and management making those kinds of moves," Skinner said Wednesday. "Hopefully it's a sign we can step up next season. I think it's exciting. I don't know any other word you can use to describe it."
Last season, Skinner missed 16 games with a concussion but still managed 20 goals. He played in the world championships last spring after the Hurricanes missed the playoffs with a 33-33-16 record.
"Coming off my injury, it's always tough to come back during the season," Skinner said. "I felt like I played with more confidence [at the worlds]. I hope I can build on that for next season."
Ever since the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006 and then averaged 17,386 fans per game the following season to move into the top 15 of the NHL's 30 teams in attendance, their ticket sales declined. They sank to an average of 16,042 last season, 22nd in the league, their lowest average since 2006.
Boosting sales is one reason Rutherford has been one of the most aggressive GMs in the NHL this summer. Another could be Karmanos's interest in selling the team. He has been trying without success for the last few years to find someone to buy at least half the team or all of it outright.
If the Hurricanes can get better on the ice after an up-and-down record since winning the Stanley Cup six years ago, Karmanos may find it easier to land an investor.
Rutherford's moves are encouraging but risky. In signing Semin, for example, Rutherford is gambling he will get the dynamic player who produced 84 points for the Washington Capitals three years ago, not the sporadic performer who alienated the Caps last season with a desultory 54 points. But a one-year contract is a safe bet if Semin, who is still in his prime years at 28, does not work out.
Getting Jordan Staal to either be a one-two punch at centre with his older brother Eric or have Eric play on the wing with him was a master stroke. But it did cost the Hurricanes centre Brandon Sutter, a rising young star.
Rutherford is also hoping Corvo, 35, will be the power-play boost he was in his previous tour with the Hurricanes and not the fellow who flopped with the Boston Bruins in that role last season. Corvo had 40 points in 2010-11 with the Hurricanes but dipped to 25 in his unhappy season in Boston.
The expectation is the new additions will goose the offence by 30 or more goals in 2012-13, if the labour negotiations allow for the full season. If Cam Ward, 28, maintains his form as one of the league's better goaltenders then the Hurricanes could be one of the NHL's most improved teams.