Nothin’ could be finer than free agents from Carolina

AL STRACHAN

, Last Updated: 1:00 AM ET

At this time of the year, when the hockey spotlight shines on only one place, opportunities are created. To be specific, a general manager who looks closely might see a way to help his team.

At the moment, Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson could do worse than scrutinize the Carolina Hurricanes, a team that may win the Stanley Cup tonight, and one that is brimming with unconditional free agents.

At the top of that nine-player list is goaltender Martin Gerber, who has been relegated to a backup role.

He had an excellent season but, for reasons that are irrelevant here, has been eclipsed by the superb rookie, Cam Ward.

Gerber shouldn’t be overly expensive. Because he has a limited track record, he earned only $1.064 million US last year. And because he has seen limited work in the playoffs, he can’t command a huge salary.

But he is seen by hockey insiders as a goalie with a phenomenal upside and very little risk. Taking all the factors into consideration, no one could solve the Leafs’ goaltending problems better.

Three of the Carolina free agents, Mark Recchi, Doug Weight and Glen Wesley, would hold virtually no interest for the Leafs.

But that still leaves defencemen Frantisek Kaberle, Niclas Wallin and Aaron Ward.

Kaberle was sent to the Hurricanes because Atlanta Thrashers coach Bob Hartley couldn’t get him to be more physical. But he seems to be effective nevertheless, and would probably be better still on the same team as his brother.

Wallin, too has opened a lot of eyes in the post-season, and Ward is the type of warrior that every goalie loves to have in front of him.

The price for the three-man package? Last year, their cumulative salary was less than $3.7 million. At $1.5 million, Ward was the most expensive.

By virtue of their impressive post-season play, they’ll probably get raises. But even so, these are effective defencemen at prices that would fit well into the Leafs’ salary structure — one that sees a few players get big numbers and the rest filling the gaps at lower prices.

The other Carolina free agent of interest is Matt Cullen, a versatile forward whose career was slowed by abdominal injuries. He started as a third-line centre in Carolina but was so impressive that when Erik Cole went down in early March, coach Peter Laviolette moved him to the wing and promoted him to the top line.

Cullen earned a whopping $668,000 last year. In addition to his obvious on-ice skills, he’s intelligent, college-educated, and highly personable. In a dressing room full of likable people, he’s near the top of the list.

And just in case Ferguson were to decide that he wants to make a trade, rather than merely soak up the Carolina free agents, he could go after Oleg Tverdovsky.

This is one of those instances where coach and player don’t mix and though neither side will expand on it, it seems to be the reverse of the Hartley-Kaberle saga. Laviolette wanted a scorer, but Tverdovsky has evolved into a solid defensive defencemen and the Hurricanes already had their share.

“He was a great defenceman for us this year,” Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said. “He was actually a different type of player than what we thought we were getting. A lot of people were worried about his defensive game, and as it turned out that wasn’t the thing to worry about.”

With three quality young defencemen in the wings, the Hurricanes would move Tverdovsky to anyone who wants to pick up two more years at $2.5 million.

Could be a bargain — especially if Bryan McCabe leaves.


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