If Jim Rutherford and the Carolina Hurricanes needed a reason to increase their payroll, they just got it.
Last Monday night, the NHL Board of Governors announced a radical realignment plan that will split teams into four conferences. The Hurricanes will be joined by the Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Devils and Capitals.
This realignment is a definite game-changer for Carolina — their new conference is a sharp contrast from the Southeast. No longer will they have the luxury of playing in a perpetually weak division.
The Flyers, Penguins, Rangers and Capitals are all financial powerhouses; the Devils, while not a “big market franchise,” always find a way to remain competitive.
There’s a clear chasm in this group of seven, and it doesn’t take an expert to identify it — five teams have a winning model in place, two don’t. The Islanders and the Hurricanes comprise the bottom tier, as they currently occupy the last two positions in the Eastern Conference. Not coincidentally, the Isles and ‘Canes are far and away the lowest spenders of the bunch.
Under this new system, four teams from each conference will make the postseason. While this poses a much more difficult task for Carolina than the current setup, Rutherford told the media that he likes the change.
“This is a good conference for us,” he said to the News & Observer. “We are with teams who have historically done well with our fans in terms of attendance.
“From the Hurricanes’ point of view, it makes a lot of sense. Obviously we’re in a conference with very good teams. This business goes in cycles, and we’re having a very down year, but if we stick with it we can build our team back up and compete against the top teams.”
Rutherford may act like he’s optimistic, but I don’t buy it. The Hurricanes’ future schedules just changed drastically for the worse, and their path towards future playoffs got a lot harder. The only positive Carolina fans can take out of the realignment is that management is pressured even more to improve the product on the ice.
The solution? Spend, and spend wisely.
Money isn’t everything, but when there’s a significant difference in payroll — like $65 million (Pittsburgh) to $50 million (Carolina) — finances play a major role in how the season is going to play out. The Hurricanes are poised to miss the playoffs for the second straight year, and unless they want that streak to continue, they’re going to have to change their economic structure. It’s that simple.
The upcoming offseason just got a lot more interesting. If the Hurricanes want to see the locals pack the RBC Center like they used to, new, productive and expensive faces are going to have to be brought in. As of December 6, Carolina’s payroll is at least $10 million less than five of their six future conference-mates. Even if their money was spent wisely — which it hasn’t been as of late — that kind of handicap would most likely prevent them from clinching a spot in next year’s playoffs.
Rutherford now has two choices: up the ante, or watch his team fall into oblivion.
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