As the 2013 trade deadline steadily approaches, the NHL's most enigmatic franchise has a decision to make.
The Carolina Hurricanes, losers of seven of their last eight games yet arguably still the odds-on favorite for the Southeast Division title, must determine their status as either trade market sellers or buyers.
Having lost seven consecutive games by a combined 26-10 score entering this past weekend, many assumed the 'Canes and general manager Jim Rutherford would soon being looking toward next season. After all, the Hurricanes had—and still have—a league-high nine players with three or more years remaining on their contracts; a few gaps and holes filled, and the team could become a bone-fide elite club in 2013-14.
But, Saturday afternoon, the 'Canes pulled off a shocking and crucial 3-1 win in Winnipeg, drawing within four points of the Jets for the division lead with a whopping three games in hand.
And then the outlook changed. A lot.
With a full month of 15 games remaining on the schedule, Carolina lies right in the thick of both the Southeast Division turtle race as well as the Eastern Conference at-large bubble.
After a tremendous test Monday night in Montreal, the 'Canes will enter a three-game homestand that may well define their season. The PNC Arena will host matches against the Capitals, Lightning and Rangers on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, respectively, in a vital set of contests that should set the tone for the final stretch of the Hurricanes' campaign.
If the 'Canes can pickup three or four critical victories in the coming week, they'll almost certainly be right back in the playoff window.
That possibility leaves Rutherford in a tough spot as Wednesday's 3 p.m. deadline approaches. Yes, the past three weeks have been overwhelmingly disappointing for anyone remotely invested in the Hurricanes. However, this skid could just as quickly be erased from memory if the 'Canes soon climb back into postseason position.
If the 'Canes are Sellers...
...Rutherford will need to get creative with his sales pitches.
The Hurricanes have just six pending UFAs—Chad LaRose, Tim Brent, Adam Hall, Joe Corvo, Bobby Sanguinetti and Dan Ellis—who could be shopped as rentals, and opposing GMs would hardly be flooding the phone lines to land any of them, anyhow. Of them, Sanguinetti and Ellis are almost guaranteed re-signings, as well.
Meanwhile, shootout specialist and versatile mid-line forward Jussi Jokinen has been the subject of plenty of rumors over the past month, but, after clearing waivers unclaimed last week, it's unlikely he and his $3 million salary would hold much value in a trade.
Jamie McBain, only 25 and already playing first-pairing minutes, could fetch a much more decent price. The young defenseman has had an extremely poor season, though, and would be hard for the 'Canes to give up while Justin Faulk stays stuck on IR.
Young forward Drayson Bowman, who hasn't nearly lived up to expectations on the first year of his one-way contract, and journeyman rearguard Marc-Andre Gragnani, currently recovering from an injury in the AHL, might be worth a little on the market.
If the 'Canes are Buyers...
...Rutherford will need to consider his many options carefully and negotiate highly-inflated prices with extreme caution.
The 'Canes defense ranks 22nd in goals against and 25th in shots against. The 'Canes power play ranks 29th in scoring rate. Justin Faulk is projected to miss another week or two with a lower body injury. So, naturally, Rutherford would love to add a defenseman who could help the team out in all three of those areas.
Phoenix's Keith Yandle, Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester, Buffalo's Robyn Regehr and Edmonton's Ryan Whitney have monopolized much of the attention this season on the defensive side of the market. The Islanders' Mark Streit and the Capitals' Mike Green could be thrown into that group, too.
The Fourth Period reports that the 'Canes may be inquiring about Yandle and Whitney specifically.
Both would be dynamic, top-four additions. Yandle, 26, has recorded 19 points (including seven on the power play), 27 blocked shots and a Coyotes-leading 19 takeaways in 35 appearances; Whitney, 30, has registered 10 points (including six on the power play) and 36 blocked shots in 26 games played.
Which defenseman would you most like to see in a Hurricanes jersey?
While Yandle is the more appealing target between the two of them, he would require a hefty exchange of first-round picks and prospects, and his $5.25 million cap hit through 2016 may be out of Carolina's range regardless.
Whitney, however—or his cheaper, slightly lower-profile Oilers teammate Ladislav Smid—would be more reasonable. He's a free agent in the summer, wouldn't cost half as much as Yandle on the market and would bring eight years of NHL experience to an incredibly young 'Canes roster.
Rutherford could also seek to give the 'Canes more depth at the goaltending position, where both No. 1 and No. 2 netminders Cam Ward and Dan Ellis continue to sit out with ailments. Acquiring Los Angeles's Jonathan Bernier would be a drastic move; more likely candidates could be Chicago's Ray Emery, Ottawa's Ben Bishop or St. Louis's Brian Elliot.
Mark Jones has been a Bleacher Report featured columnist since 2009, receiving almost one million views on his 450-plus articles to date.