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 year.
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 22 himself).
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 traded).
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.