The Carolina Hurricanes have been a strange
franchise since the team moved from Hartford. In 16 seasons, they have only
managed five appearances in the NHL playoffs, but they have made the most of those
trips reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, winning it all in 2006 and
reaching the conference finals in 2009.
Despite that success, fans have been
deprived of a consistently competitive team. The Hurricanes have missed the
playoffs in five straight seasons and in seven of the last eight. An
organization that has traditionally favored stability over an “overhaul”
finally broke a habit at the end of a fifth successive failure removing Jim
Rutherford and Kirk Muller from their respective positions as GM and head coach
in April last year.
Ron Francis was appointed as the team’s new
GM and he hired former AHL coach and Detroit Red Wings assistant Bill Peter as
his bench boss. It hasn’t necessarily resulted in immediate progress – Carolina
holds the sixth worst record in the NHL and are set to miss the playoffs for a
sixth straight year and eighth time in last eight years – but there are signs
of hope for this franchise’s future.
It starts with Francis, a man who
rightfully commands tremendous respect in the NHL The Hall-of-Famer was the
type of player that every team wanted in its locker-room, and also out on the
ice, intuitively it feels like Francis is a man who can bring a fresh and clear
vision to Carolina.
It should be noted that the previous regime
didn’t do a bad job of drafting and recruiting young talent. Francis inherits a
roster that includes: Elias Lindholm, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Riley Nash,
Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy to name just a few. The prospect cupboards aren’t
completely bare either, Haydn Fleury promises to be an excellent NHL defender,
while forward Brock McGinn and goaltender Alex Nedelikovic are among other
notable recent draft picks.
Peters is the man charged with bringing the
“Red Wings way” to this talented, but extremely young group of players. Known
as a defensive specialist, Peters also has a history of coaching in the AHL
where player development is a key part of the job description. His task isn’t
too dissimilar here and he has spent the best part of this season learning more
about what the organization possesses talent wise.
In December, a month where they went
3-10-1, the Hurricanes moved into contender status for one of the first two
picks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, many fans welcomed and even hoped for an
opportunity to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. However, Peters was
determined that his team would not tank and that posting a miserable record
over the last three and a half months of the season would not be tolerated,
even with playoff aspirations already spoiled.
The result has been a relatively
competitive 18-13-7 record in 2015. A losing run at the beginning of March
spoiled a combined 14-7-3 marker posted across Jan and Feb, but nonetheless,
the young Canes are adapting to Peters’ system and there are reasons to be
hopeful that the team’s absence from the postseason needn’t last forever.
A key piece in that turnaround will be
leading scorer, captain and face of the franchise Eric Staal. The now 30-year
old had struggled for production in the month of March, until he registered six
points in a three-game stretch last week. 2014-15 looks set to be Staal’s worst
campaign productivity wise since he scored 31 points in 2003-04 – his rookie
Peters has done just about everything to
jump start his superstar’s production, including moving him to play on the wing
last November. That decision has stuck with Staal spending most of his time
paired with his brother – Jordan.
Staal didn’t have a great season in 2013-14
either. He scored just 21 goals and 61 points in 79 games. Some of it is
undoubtedly talent, previous teams have been deeper and Staal has probably had
wingers that better compliment his skill set. It can be challenging to retain
focus and intensity on a team that doesn’t have the opportunity to seriously
compete for a playoff spot.
It’ll be a challenge for Peters next season
to spark his captain at the beginning of the season. Carolina are likely to
start the year as a more experienced, but still exceedingly young roster, and
the core of their success will still need to be regular scoring from more
experienced players like Staal, his brother and Jeff Skinner (who is still only
The other significant area for Peters and
Francis to dissect is in net. There may be some temptation to stick with a
two-man set up in 2015-16, but both have expiring contracts after next year
presumably forcing a decision on a definite starter.
Neither player has had an easy time of it
playing behind an inexperienced blue line (even more so since Andrej Sekera was
Ward is the player with a Stanley Cup on
his resume and the most experience as a heavily used starter. However, he has
been plagued with injuries in recent seasons and there are signs that a heavy
workload might have started to take its toll on his body. He’s also always been
slightly erratic between the pipes, though he backstopped both of Carolina’s
recent playoff appearances impressively. Meanwhile, Khudobin has hinted at
being that “lights out” starting goaltender. However, he’s never actually
managed to put a full season together at that level. He doesn’t have the same
wear and tear as Ward, but he’s only three years younger.
Whichever route Francis and Peters go,
there is a clear vision. Expect Francis to have a busy offseason with a good
stockpile of draft picks to utilize. This Hurricanes roster – with a few select
additions – could have the potential to be very competitive in 2015-16. A new
regime has brought new hope to this franchise.
Labels: Written by Sebastian Egerton-Read - @Seb_Read