Trades likely loom in the eye of the Hurricane


The Carolina Hurricanes lost their fourth straight game on Sunday, falling 4-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins at PNC Arena. The loss widened the separation between the two teams to 13 points in the standings, as well as 12 points back of the Detroit Red Wings, who currently hold the final playoff spot in the Lemieux Conference. It is why with less than four weeks remaining until the May 27 Trade Deadline, the faint glimmer of playoff hope pales to the shimmering spotlight looming towards some of Carolina's veteran players.

The Athletic's Pierre LeBrun has reported since late-January that general manager Kevin Lacy has wanted to shake up Carolina's struggling forward core. More than three months later, that has yet to be rectified and the team's problems persist. Andrew Copp has come down to Earth after a dream 2021-22 season. Viktor Arvidsson, a former 50-goal scorer, has only four this season. Free agent signee Reilly Smith has just seven goals after scoring at least 29 in each of the last four seasons. Nicklas Backstrom, coming off off-season hip surgery, is on pace for 20 fewer points than his average. Youngsters Alex Formenton, Taylor Raddysh, and Morgan Geekie have combined for only nine goals. Two years after a 22-goal rookie season, Oskar Lindblom has just three.

"We certainly have the talent. It's been proven," Lacy said after Saturday's overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. "For whatever reason, the results just aren't coming together this year."

That sounds like a GM facing the mirror and recognizing that problems have presented themselves beyond the challenge of playing in a powerful division. The Hurricanes rank 23rd in the EHE, averaging 2.67 goals per game, despite ranking 13th in shots for.

The player whom the eye of the spotlight has honed in on for most of the season has been right wing Bryan Rust, one of the few forwards who continues to produce for head coach Sheldon Keefe. Rust set up both Hurricanes goals on Sunday and leads the team in assists with 29. He also has 12 goals in 54 games this season. As an impending unrestricted free agent, Rust seems the most logical to be moved.

However, can Lacy trade possibly the most-rounded forward on the club (aside from captain Joe Pavelski) and expect the team to be better for it? He may have no choice if he wants a culture change — especially when winger Kevin Fiala returned after Lacy declared the Canes were parting ways last summer. Fiala has finally shown some worth, on the brink of setting a new career high in goals, leaving Rust potentially as the only moveable option for now.

Whether he stays or goes, Rust would provide tremendous value in all situations. The 30-year-old Michigan native scored a career-high 35 goals last season and was a plus-26.

According to LeBrun, as many as a dozen teams have inquired about Rust and several have made offers that are "in the ballpark." It seems to be a matter of when, not if, the top-six right wing will be moved. Sportsnet 590's Nick Kypreos also reported last week that the Toronto Maple Leafs are "definitely in the mix."

Johnson, Stone On The Move?

The Leafs may also have their sightlines on bringing back defenseman Erik Johnson, according to Kypreos. The 35-year-old has been pressed into a far larger role than expected with the Hurricanes, after the retirement of Duncan Keith last summer and the brutal start of the season for Brady Skjei and Rasmus Ristolainen. Once Skjei found better chemistry with Johnson, Coach Keefe has relied heavily on the pair, playing Johnson four minutes more per-game than in 2021-22. Johnson is one of the few players who have actually improved their offensive output. His nine goals are his best since 2019-20 and 25 points have already surpassed all of last season. He is also tops in game-tying goals among all EHE defensemen.

Johnson spent seven seasons in Toronto prior to signing with the Hurricanes in 2021.

This situation is different from Rust's in that Johnson still has another year left on his contract. However, Johnson has indicated that he may soon be hanging up the skates. If history is any indication, GM Lacy will try to find Johnson another opportunity to raise the Stanley Cup elsewhere as he has done with other long-time veterans.

This may also be the case for fellow defenseman Michael Stone. The seldom-used defenseman has only appeared in 11 games this season despite playing well. Stone has not been in the lineup since April 2 against the Vancouver Canucks. He has signed one-year contracts with the Hurricanes each of the past two summers.

According to Coach Keefe, Stone may soon return to Carolina's blue line this week. The Canes may want to get him back into game condition in advance of a future trade for a team seeking affordable depth on the back end.

Kypreos has not made a comment about Stone but we can safely assume that he believes the Maple Leafs are the frontrunners to acquire his services.