Whenever you are a team that is out of playoff contention near the trade deadline, most people consider said team to be in "sell mode" and the "logical" thing to do is to trade all of their players with expiring contracts for pieces they can use to rebuild with. Being last place in the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes are one of these teams in "sell mode" and have a few players with deals that expire at the end of the season but the one everyone is talking about is the physical forward Tuomo Ruutu.
GM Jim Rutherford has already re-signed defenseman Tim Gleason for four more years at a moderately high cost and has said that he wants to re-sign Ruutu, as well. We know where Rutherford stands on this issue but there are a still a few things standing in the way. How much money does Ruutu want and will Rutherford be willing to give him that much? Another factor is how much are other GM's be willing to give up to acquire Ruutu. Most teams are going to want at least two solid scoring lines for a playoff push and Ruutu can help them with that. You have to weigh both sides of the situation with issues like this, so we're going to look at both the positives and negatives that come with either re-signing or trading Ruutu. I think JR has to do one or the other here because the worst thing he can do is let Ruutu walk away for nothing like he did with Erik Cole and Ray Whitney.
Positives of re-signing Ruutu:
Ruutu is one of the team's best forwards and he's been a solid possession player for most of his career. He currently leads the team in scoring and has scored at a pretty consistent rate at even strength for the last four years. It's seen a jump in the last two but not so much that it is unsustainable. Plus, if Ruutu is willing to re-sign with the Canes on a resonable contract, then that means there is one less thing for management to worry about in the off-season. Carolina's top-six is very weak right now and it's only going to get worse if Ruutu leaves, so re-signing him might be the right call. I still think that he is replaceable in the grand scheme of things but so is Erik Cole and look at how that's worked out so far. At 28 years old, Ruutu will hopefully be able to stay consistent with his production and he hasn't shown many signs of slowing down this year. He's good for at least 15-20 goals per season and his willingness to get involved physically will help the Canes a lot going forward. He should also serve as a good mentor/place-holder for their younger forwards because not many of them appear to be ready yet. Plus, a big thing for a team like Carolina is attracting fans and getting to the cap floor. Ruutu will help accomplish both needs.
Negatives of re-signing Ruutu
This is where we look for things called "red flags" that GM's should be aware of when they are going to re-sign a player to a fairly expensive contract. With Ruutu, there's a few causes for concern. One of which is his health. When you play a physical game like he does, injuries are going to happen and he was banged up a lot during the early part of his career but has stayed off the shelf for the last few years, thankfully. Still, injury history is something a GM has to be aware of and Ruutu has that.
Another thing is related to how I mentioned that Ruutu's scoring rate jumped over the last two seasons. It took a huge leap from 1.98 ESP/60 to 2.28 ESP/60 from 2010 to 2011 and if you look at his Behind The Net player card, you will see that his on-ice shooting percentage spiked up to around 10.5% and that number actually increased this year. That's unlikely to sustain in the long run. Ruutu's possession metrics have also been on the downturn for the last two years and that's a big cause for concern when you factor in that he's been playing easier zone starts against weaker competition. Ruutu used to be a tough-minute player but that hasn't been the case for the last two years.
If Ruutu is re-signed, the verdict of whether it is a good or bad move will depend on how much money he gets and how long the contract is. My personal opinion is that keeping Ruutu around for 3-4 years at a cap hit of around $4 mil. will be fine for the Canes. $4-4.5 mil. isn't too big of an overpayment and the contract is long enough for him to stay in Carolina for the remainder of his best years. If Rutherford extends Ruutu for 5-6 years at a cap hit of over $4.5 mil., then that's going to be viewed as a bad move. Let's say that Ruutu's play declines drastically, that will leave Carolina stuck with a big cap hit for 5-6 years and that's not something a team in rebuild mode needs right now. Just look at the contracts given to Brooks Laich and RJ Umberger over the summer. Not much was thought of them at first but they look pretty bad now. The point is, whenever you give a player a long-term contract, it's a huge gamble and I don't know if the Canes can afford to take that risk. The money isn't as big of an issue for me as much as the length of the contract is, which is why I would be fine with a three year deal with a somewhat high cap hit. The Canes do operate under a budget and Rutherford might be reluctant to sign someone to a big cap hit, but I think more money/cap hit for less term is the right way to go here.
Positives of trading Ruutu
The goal for a team in rebuild mode is to make things better for the future in the long run and one way you can do that is by trading assets at the deadline for future assets. The trade deadline is the perfect time to get teams to overpay and there are supposedly nine teams interested in Ruutu according to The Fourth Period. Things like secondary scoring are valued among playoff teams and players like Ruutu could possibly be traded for a big package. Just look at what Mike Fisher netted the Senators last year.
The question here is how much is Ruutu worth? I examined how much Ruutu is worth to this team not too long ago, and determined that Rutherford would have to get at least a pick and a forward prospect/player that can make the team and contribute in the next two years. Whether or not another GM is willing to give up that much is still up in the air but I think that's what it will take to trade Ruutu. It helps that Ruutu is having a good season and his value is high right now so Rutherford isn't going to be trading him for pennies on the dollar. If management and Ruutu can't come to an agreement on a contract, trading him for a good return will help the Hurricanes continue their rebuild.
Negatives of trading Ruutu
Let's say Ruutu is traded and it's for a decent return involving a pick, an expiring contract and a prospect. The Canes have improved their future but the next couple of years will be rough. Ruutu being gone would leave a huge hole in the top-six and I am not sure who is going to fill that void. One could argue that this will be Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk or Drayson Bowman's chance to finally make the team but any one of those three would be an automatic downgrade from Ruutu on the first line. Then again, some say that shipping out veterans and replacing them with younger players is what you're "supposed" to do with rebuilding. It's still going to be tough to replace him in the short-term and there will be some rough years ahead if Ruutu leaves and we can't find a suitable replacement. Speaking of which, this will leave Carolina in a similar situation that they had with Cole last off-season. The only difference is that we will have gotten something in return for a departing player, which obviously softens the blow. Still, we know that replacing him via free agency is going to be tough with the Canes being on a budget and there not being many big names out there this summer. This could be a moot point if Dalpe takes a step to the next level and if Victor Rask develops well.
You also have to remember that Ruutu's value to the Canes is different than what it might be to other teams so Carolina may not get as big of a return as we hope.
My take? I think that a decision needs to be made before the end of the month and I'm not sure which side I am on with this. If I were in Rutherford's shoes, I would offer Ruutu a contract that's 3-4 years with a cap hit ranging from $4-4.75 million. That is enough to keep Ruutu around long enough for a short-term rebuild and we keep him for the remainder of his best years. However, if he wants something more than that AND a long-term deal, I think looking for trade suitors is the best option. The Canes really can't afford to have a big cap hit on the books for 5-6 years that expires when Ruutu is 33-34 when they are trying to rebuild. Plus, they need to worry about extending Skinner within the next year, as well. Whatever the Canes do, they can't let Ruutu leave for nothing. That's the worst-case scenario in all of this.