CHRIS SEWARD - firstname.lastname@example.org
RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford confirmed today that Paul Maurice would remain as head coach next season and that Ron Francis would return to the front office.
Maurice has a year left on his contract with the Canes. Francis served as assistant general manager before Maurice was named coach in December 2008, replacing Peter Laviolette. Francis then became associate head coach on Maurice's staff while retaining his duties as director of player personnel.
"It's something that had been planned for over the last couple of years," Rutherford said of Francis' move back to assistant GM. "It's really what he wants to do."
Of retaining Maurice, Rutherford said: "I think he has done a very good job of coaching the Hurricanes two out of the last three years. The first year he came back, he did a good job when the team was going in the wrong direction. He did not have as good a year the second year. But I think with the team we had and what we were trying to do this past season he did a very good job."
Rutherford said he wanted former Canes captain Rod Brind'Amour to play a "bigger role" on the team next season. Brind'Amour served as Carolina's director of forwards development in his first year following retirement from the NHL.
Rutherford said several options were being considered for replacing Francis behind the bench but did not mention Brind'Amour as a possibility.
Rutherford called last season disappointing and frustrating, in that the Canes failed to reach the playoffs for the second straight year. But he said it still was successful in that it was a transition year and that several young players received valuable experience.
Rutherford gave Maurice a vote of confidence, saying he did a good job handling the team this past season and in two of past three years. The Canes reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2009 but had a losing record in 2010 and fell one victory short of making the playoffs this past season.
"I think the coaching staff did a very good job with dealing with so many players who hadn't played a full season in the league," Rutherford said.
In assessing the season, Rutherford said: "Very frustrating and disappointing, but when you step back and look at the overall season the Hurricanes have made great strides forward. The key will be can we make that big stride forward next year and get into the 95, 96 points by fixing some of the areas I talked about and re-signing some of the free agents that are key for us."
Rutherford said re-signing forward Erik Cole was a top priority, and noted the Canes hoped to re-sign forward Chad LaRose. Both are due to become unrestricted free agents July 1.
Rutherford said Cole had a special season. He said LaRose did not have a great season but that "the key to Chad LaRose is he is the guy who drives this team. When you come to practices, and there are off-days and things aren't going right, he's the guy who's chattering and getting the guys to get going and leading by example."
Reaching an agreement with defenseman Joni Pitkanen and forward Jussi Jokinen may be more difficult, Rutherford said, adding that it's probable both will test the free-agent market and that it's "a maybe" they'll both be back. He indicated the Canes likely would re-sign either Jokinen or Cory Stillman, but not both.
Pitkanen made $4.5 million last season and could fetch more as a free agent.
"My guess is he will go into free agency and see what's out there," Rutherford said. "We may still have the door open if he doesn't get the kind of contract he's looking for, or we may make a move before that."
Rutherford said majority owner Peter Karmanos is continuing to talk with potential local investors and that "it seems to have picked up more momentum the last couple of months." He said he believed five or six people had made a commitment to buy into the team and would help "take this franchise to another level."
Looking to next season, Rutherford said forward Zac Dalpe was the leading candidate to make the jump from the Charlotte Checkers (AHL) to the Canes' roster. He said Dalpe could play the wing opposite Jeff Skinner on Tuomo Ruutu's line.
With the Canes looking to upgrade their backup goaltender behind Cam Ward, Rutherford said Justin Peters likely would play in Charlotte next season. Peters and Mike Murphy would compete for the No. 1 job with the Checkers.