It’s decision time on defense for the Hurricanes, and it won’t be an easy one -- for them, anyway. For anyone who has watched this team this season, the choice is simple.
Joni Pitkanen, who has been out for two weeks with a lower-body injury, is close to returning, perhaps as soon as tomorrow’s game at the Ottawa Senators. When he does, someone is going to have to come out of the lineup.
Will it be the little-used Derek Joslin, who has only played in five games this season?
Or will it be the astronomically compensated Tomas Kaberle, who has only generated five points this season?
If this were strictly a hockey decision, there’d be no debate at all. Kaberle, who signed a three-year, $12.75 million free-agent deal in the offseason, has been a train wreck. In Friday night’s 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, he accounted for a two-goal swing entirely on his own: Outfought at one end by Andrew Ladd for a rebound in the crease, fluffing an open net at the other with less than two minutes left in a one-goal game.
On the season, he’s minus-10 with no goals and five assists, not exactly the kind of production the Canes were expecting from the veteran defenseman. And the poise he was supposed to bring to Carolina’s power play? Kaberle has three power-play assists on a man-advantage unit that is converting at an NHL-next-to-worst 12.2 percent.
For purposes of comparison, 24 games into his short-lived Carolina career, the comparably disappointing and overpaid Sandis Ozolinsh at least had 14 points (and was plus-1). When you can’t clear that bar, something is seriously wrong.
In other words, he’s delivering zero bang for beaucoup bucks.
But those beaucoup bucks mean this isn’t strictly a hockey decision, even if it should be. Admitting he made a mistake giving a three-year deal to a 33-year-old defenseman whose best days are apparently behind him is not the kind of thing Jim Rutherford is wont to do. There’s also the bizarre loyalty Paul Maurice seems to have for anyone who played for him on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
By anyone’s objective measurement, Kaberle has been Carolina’s seventh defenseman at best. When Pitkanen and Harrison are both healthy, there’s no way Kaberle should play over either (or Justin Faulk, or Tim Gleason, or Jamie McBain, or Bryan Allen). It’s an open debate whether he’s doing anything right now Joslin can’t do better at a sixth of the price.
So the question tonight -- or whenever Pitkanen is ready to return -- comes down to pride. Are the Hurricanes willing to sit him in the press box, where his play would dictate, and admit their $12.75 million investment has been, so far at least, a bust? Or will their emotional and financial investment in him trump hockey logic?