The only free-agent shopping the Hurricanes planned to do was in their own backyard, attempting to re-sign Erik Cole and Chad LaRose before they hit the open market. That didn't happen.
When the free-agent balloon goes up at noon today, both of those players will no longer be Hurricanes -- temporarily, and in the case of Cole, most likely permanently.
Let's deal with his case first. The Hurricanes should be commended for taking a hard line on a player who scored only two goals in 35 games after he arrived in March. At this point in Cole's career, playing hurt is no excuse. Given the way he plays, there's always going to be something bugging him. The fact is, he didn't produce in the playoffs -- and that carries a lot of weight in contract negotiations.
I don't know what the Hurricanes offered him, but anything in the $2.5 million-$3 million range would have been fair, despite being a significant pay cut. Cole's one adventure playing elsewhere did not go particularly well, so that pay cut would have been balanced by the opportunity to stay in a place where he has had success.
At the same time, Cole also has the right to shop his services on the open market. If he thinks he's still a $4 million player, and that's what's most important to him, then by all means he made the right decision. Perhaps Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford is being a little abrupt with his take-it-or-leave-it position, but he was up front about it. Cole knew what his options were, and choosing to leave was just as valid as choosing to stay.
Whether that money is out there for him, nobody knows. I suspect the Montreal Canadiens will strike out in their pursuit of one of the top wingers on the market and end up looking strongly at Cole -- if for no other reason than to keep him off the ice against them.
LaRose's situation is a little more complicated. Going into negotiations, I would have thought LaRose could fetch as much as $2.5 million a year on the open market and that somewhere near $2 million would have kept him here. With Cole's salary slot freed up, I'm surprised the team and LaRose couldn't find some common ground. Then again, maybe my numbers are way off.
So LaRose will be an interesting situation to follow. Maybe he'll benefit from the usual free-agent frenzy and get $2.5 million. Maybe teams will be less willing to spend freely in the face of what could be a declining cap next season (the Hurricanes are counting on that, given their plan to bargain-hunt in August). And maybe LaRose and the Hurricanes will realize that there's a compromise out there that serves both sides. I think that's still a possibility.
Either way, this isn't what the Hurricanes expected to happen today. Perhaps Rutherford overestimated the desire of Cole and LaRose to remain in Carolina. Perhaps he assigned a greater financial value to that desire than they did. And perhaps they intended to test the open market all along (for a player, the chase for that one big free-agent payday can be a strong lure).
What we know now is that the plan to bring back this team largely intact is out the window, and without Cole and possibly LaRose, the Hurricanes are in desperate need of two scoring wingers. That could come from within, although the plan -- a good one -- is to leave Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman in the AHL for a full season. So help will likely have to come from outside, where the Hurricanes will once again attempt to unearth a bargain on a budget.