The pressure on major league athletes is tremendous. For most, roster spots are never secure. Younger players are always gunning for their jobs, and the threat of injury looms in every contest. And in today’s NHL, fringe players and veterans can easily fall victim to the salary cap, which is often driven more by issues of circumstance, rather than talent. General Manager Jim Rutherford’s recent roster moves are no exception, where the disparity between those over the hill, and those still climbing, has never been greater.
With the return of Goalkeeper Cam Ward, Rutherford was forced to make a decision about the ‘Canes goaltending future. Since a healthy Ward will see most of the action, Rutherford had been carrying both Manny Legace and Michael Leighton on the big league roster. Goalie Justin Peters is having a brilliant year in the American Hockey League, and figures to be in the ‘Canes plans next year behind Ward. Betting that Legace provides a better option in goal until Peters is ready, Rutherford waived Leighton, who was eventually picked up by Philadelphia on re-entry waivers. In Philly, Leighton will take the roster spot of starter Ray Emery, who has been recently sidelined with an injury. The ‘Canes will be responsible for roughly half of Leighton’s $600,000 salary, while the Flyers will pick up the rest. Leighton has been a career backup, and he was never intended to backstop Carolina over the long term. Leighton was drafted by Chicago in the 6th round (165th overall) in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, and has played in the league for parts of 6 seasons. Although Leighton has seen action in 76 NHL games, he has only played in 29 contests over the last three years in Carolina. When Emery returns in a few weeks, Leighton will be forced to compete with Brian Boucher for the backup job in Philadelphia. In 2006-07, Leighton appeared in four games for the Flyers, and played for Coach Peter Laviolette while he was behind the bench in Raleigh, which may assist in his efforts to extend his career. Although his ultimate fate in the NHL remains unclear, Leighton is only 28 and still may have a chance.
Rutherford has also recently given up on veteran defenseman Aaron Ward, who cleared waivers this week. Although he remains with the team for now, his days in Carolina may be numbered. Ward, who is being paid $2.5 million this year, has posted only 6 assists, and is -15 through 31 contests. This has clearly been a disappointing season for Ward, who may be reaching the end of his career, a career that first began in a Detroit Red Wing uniform in 1993. Ward has had a nice run, playing in 793 games over 15 seasons for the Red Wings, New York Rangers, Boston and two stints in Carolina. He won Stanley Cups with Detroit in 1996-1997, and with Carolina in 2005-2006. If this is not the end for Ward, he may benefit from a change of scenery. The ‘Canes have little to offer Ward at this point, and perhaps a return to Boston would provide the Bruins with a strong locker-room presence down the stretch. Regardless if he gets picked up by another club, Ward’s days are likely numbered.
Recently, Rutherford has recalled forward Patrick Dwyer and defenseman Bryan Rodney from Albany. Both players have shown signs of promise and have lodged significant ice time in all situations in the minor leagues. Unlike Leighton, their talent has not been fully evaluated or tested against NHL caliber players. And as opposed to Ward, they both have the luxury of youth. While the house cleaning will undoubtedly continue, look for marginal talent and older players to lose out to more ambitious prospects as Rutherford continues to move this team into 2010.
Dan Canavan is an attorney in Hartford, Connecticut. Dan regularly covers business and legal issues facing the hockey industry for ctsportslaw.com. He has appeared as an on-air guest with regard to the NHL and the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy proceedings on CBC Radio’s World Report. His analysis and commentary have also been published in various media outlets including The National Post, The Windsor Star, The Star Phoenix, The Montreal Gazette, The Edmonton Journal, The Ottawa Citizen, The Vancouver Sun, The Province, Faceoff.com, and the Sports Litigation Alert. You can follow Dan on Twitter at twitter.com/DanielRCanavan. Dan can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.