When Ray Whitney wasn't moved at the March 3 trade deadline, it was implied there was mutual interest in him staying in Carolina.
But as both sides got to brass tacks early in the offseason, it was clear there wasn't a fit where it mattered most: $$$.
"We would like to bring him back and I think he would like to stay here, but at the end of the day, I think it'll be a financial decision," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "It's probably going to be his last contract ... ideally there's a way to work it out for him to finish his career here, but as of today, that doesn't look like that's going to happen."
So, it's almost 100 percent Whitney is going to hit the free-agent market on July 1. No hard feelings, though.
"It's exciting," Whitney told us Tuesday. "I wish I had finished my career in Carolina, but I understand the direction they're going in. They're getting younger and I totally get it. I have a lot of respect for Jimmy and have nothing but good things to say about the five years I spent in Carolina."
"I like Ray a lot as a person, I really do like him," Rutherford said. "Whatever happens, I wish him the best."
As has always been the case during Whitney's underrated career, the forward will enter free agency somewhat under the radar. But there isn't a deep forward free-agent class this year, especially if Patrick Marleau and Tomas Plekanec stay put, something which has yet to be determined. Even if they don't, once Ilya Kovalchuk goes, and potentially Marleau and Plekanec, some team will be looking at Whitney in a hurry.
"Ray has been an incredibly consistent and durable offensive threat for his entire career," his agent, J.P. Barry, told ESPN.com. "Wherever he plays, he produces. When you actually analyze his production, you get a better perspective of how elite his accomplishments are in this league. 'Underrated' is truly an understatement when you actually see where he ranks offensively. While his peers' production have declined in their 30s, his production has actually increased the past five years."
Agents are always enthused about their clients, that's their job; so we'll take that statement for what it's worth. But Barry is right about Whitney's late-career production. He's averaged 24 goals and 67 points over the past five seasons, better numbers than his 10-year average of 20 goals and 60 points. Like a fine wine?
"Since the lockout, the game seems to have suited my game, and I think that's reflected in my numbers," Whitney said.
More interesting: Whitney's point production over the five seasons since the lockout (334 points) is better than the likes of Shane Doan, Rick Nash, Mike Ribeiro, Mike Cammalleri, Thomas Vanek, Teemu Selanne, Jason Arnott, Danny Briere and Patrik Elias, among others. But one would rarely lump Whitney with those players.
On the down side, Whitney turned 38 last month. You can't ignore that, especially given the 35-and-over rule in the CBA, which calls for the entirety of contracts signed by those players to count against the cap regardless of whether a player retires before the end of the deal.
That reality will make it difficult for Whitney and Barry to get more than a one-year deal on the open market. But given the scarcity among elite UFA forwards this year, Whitney's consistency and the fact he played 80 or more games the past two seasons, he may be able to squeeze out two years from a team.
And which will that be? Pittsburgh would be a decent fit; Whitney could play with either Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby. What about Los Angeles? The Kings inquired about Whitney before the trade deadline. If the Kings strike out on either Kovalchuk or Marleau, Whitney could be a nice consolation prize.
Bottom line: Any contending team that wants to improve its power play should take a good look at Whitney.
More to ponder
• There's been speculation here and there about the Columbus Blue Jackets shopping their fourth overall pick, the theory being they want to get back into the playoffs picture ASAP and acquire a player to help them now. But Jackets GM Scott Howson squashed the theory Tuesday.
"That's not a goal of mine. I want to keep the pick," Howson told ESPN.com. "I'm not actively calling teams about the pick. But obviously, like anything, we're always open to discussion."
The Jackets are hoping to beef up at center this offseason, so if they were offered a decent player for the pick, I would think they might look at it. But I believe Howson when he says he's not shopping the pick just for the sake of it.
• On the Plekanec front, his agent, Rick Curran, has talked to Habs GM Pierre Gauthier a few times since Montreal's season ended, picking up where the two sides left off during the season.
"We've had a couple of discussions and they've been very productive," Curran told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "I'm always optimistic that we can get a deal, but we'll see."
Plekanec led the Canadiens with 70 points (24-45) in 82 games this past regular season. His production dropped off a little in the postseason with 11 points (4-7) in 19 games. How does Montreal replace that production next season if it can't sign him?