Though the Carolina Hurricanes are not expected to announce whether Jim Rutherford will return as general manager until next week, it’s never too early to take a peek at the summer ahead. While the fate of Kirk Muller and potential trades may dominate conversation this offseason, it’s simply managing the cap that will be the most important item on the (new) GM’s to-do list.

Based on current contracts, the ‘Canes have already committed $50.375 million in actual salary — $52.7 million against the cap — to next year. Not long ago, that was the maximum the team was willing to spend. Now it’s somewhere between $15-18 million below 2014-15’s projected salary cap. But will the Hurricanes push the envelope, or will they continue to retain their internal budget?

Even when it was affordable, Rutherford has elected to spend a shade less than the cap ceiling, allowing him some wiggle-room at the trade deadline. When coupled with owner Peter Karmanos’ recent interview where he admitted to season ticket renewals “aren’t good”, and implored the fans for even more patience, it stands to reason that the team’s budget may not rise with the cap.

But what the magic number is is impossible to say.

(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

(James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

With 11 expiring contracts, the ‘Canes have decisions to make. Manny Malhotra, Radek Dvorak, Ron Hainsey, Mike Komisarek, Brett Bellemore, and Justin Peters are all unrestricted free agents. Some, like Dvorak, who signed a pro-tryout contract just before training camp and only contributed a handful of goals, seem easy decisions. Others are more difficult.

Should Malhotra be brought back? He fought his way to an NHL return, earned an “A” on his chest, and taught the finer points of faceoffs to the Staals, improving the team as a whole. On the other hand, his defense wilted towards the end of the season, leading him to be trapped in his own zone more often than not.

How much is Hainsey worth? Bellemore? The duo provided a solid middle-pairing at times, but were unable to compensate when the top pairing faltered. Both could stand to earn a lot of money if they hit are allowed to hit the shallow defensive market.

All of their UFAs provide value, but at what price?

On the restricted free agent side, Jiri Tlusty highlights an intriguing list. On the heels of a highly unsustainable 19.7 shooting percentage, he scored 23 goals in the post-lockout season, but just 16 in 2013-14, though he came on strong late. He battled injuries all year, including an appendectomy around the holidays. His true value probably lies somewhere in the middle, but what is that worth in dollars? And is he willing to compromise?

Andrei Loktionov and Nathan Gerbe were both pleasant surprises, and seem like no-brainers to be brought back. Gerbe has now hit 16 goals twice in his career, displaying some deft hands a time or two, and Loktionov proved a boon to the woeful powerplay. Neither should be too expensive.

At one point, Drayson Bowman was looking like a 3rd round steal, hitting 40-plus goals twice in his final to Junior seasons. But the scoring touch hasn’t translated to the pro level, where his career high is 17 with Albany in 2009-10. This year, he found himself in and out of the lineup and recorded just 12 points in 70 games. Can the Hurricanes continue to wait for him to finish finding his game?

And then there’s unrestricted free agent Joni Pitkanen, who missed all of 2013-14 with a frightening heel injury that paved the way for hybrid icing in the NHL. Little has been made public about his progress, but if he’s capable of returning to hockey in six months, he could provide an intriguing option for Carolina, long known as the land of opportunity.

Though Karmanos promised tweaks, even major ones, keeping almost everyone on a losing team won’t suddenly transform them into a winning one. And given how expected raises have become in the NHL, why pay more for the same players who couldn’t get the job done? It prevents them from going after potential top tier free agents, like defenseman Matt Niskanen, who could truly improve their outlook.

The ‘Canes cap situation is a two-year project. If they want change, it has to happen this offseason. Next year offers little room for movement with just three expiring contracts: Riley Nash, Patrick Dwyer, and Andrej Sekera. There are other avenues to free up space, such as trading away one of their core high-dollar players, but that just leads to another hole to fill.

With 11 expiring contracts, it figures to be a busy couple of months. No matter who’s calling the shots in Carolina, they will have their hands full this summer.

Read part 2 here.

About The Author

Andrew Luistro graduated from Appalachian State University. An avid sports fan, he began beat writing for the Sunbelt Hockey Journal, part of The Hockey Writers Network, with a focus on the Carolina Hurricanes. Andrew also actively follows the Boston Red Sox and Carolina Panthers, among other teams. Follow him on Twitter @ndrewL7