It’s tough to believe in the Carolina Hurricanes this season. Their faint optimism for the new year was swept away in a flurry of injuries in the pre-season, after Jordan Staal went down with a broken leg and Jeff Skinner sustained his third concussion before age 23. To add insult to injury, most people – including THN – have the Canes pegged to finish dead last in the Metropolitan Division.
The Canes certainly looked headed that way Friday night in dropping the first of back-to-back games against the New York Islanders, 5-3. They fell behind 3-0 by the middle of the second period and couldn’t get back in the game, despite a valiant effort led by captain Eric Staal. If that’s how they play this season, they’re going to have problems.
But an awful 2014-15 might be just what the Hurricanes need, and not just because it would give them a shot at Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the draft. New general manager Ron Francis will have plenty of freedom to make moves in his first year on the job in Carolina, and if he sees himself out of a playoff race early, he’ll have lots of time to deal some of the dead weight left over from Jim Rutherford’s tenure.
Rutherford was king of reclamation projects, and he showed a particular fondness for trying to redeem castoff Toronto Maple Leafs. (Seriously, go back and count them all.) But Francis has the chance now to take a different road – one more reliant on young, homegrown talent over aging, unwanted veterans.
Many will point to Eric Staal as the most desirable and moveable piece on the roster, but 6-foot-4 first-line centers that can score are hard to find. Staal’s contract is up after next season, but with little brother Jordan locked in until 2022-23, it shouldn’t be too hard to get Eric’s name on a contract extension in the next year or so. Eric Staal turns 30 on Oct. 29, and he likely has a few more 60-point seasons left in him.
Goaltender Cam Ward’s contract also expires after next season, and that’s a contract Francis should be looking to dump or say goodbye to. Ward had 10 wins in 30 games last season and posted an awful .898 save percentage and 3.06 goals-against average. He also ceded the starting job to newcomer Anton Khudobin.
But it’ll be tough to find a taker for Ward, and Francis might be wise just to sit tight with his expensive backup until the contract runs out. Carolina has the 16th highest payroll this year, with nearly $16 million in cap space available. New coach Bill Peters might also stand a chance of turning Ward around, making him more palatable on the trade market.
As for the other veterans on the roster, Ron Hainsey, Tim Gleason, Andrej Sekera and Jay McClement are all useful pieces who could be moved easily enough, perhaps at the trade deadline. Don’t count on Francis dealing Alexander Semin, though. His contract will keep him in Carolina for a long time.
Assuming most of those vets are gone in a few years, Francis has some decent young players on this team who could become the Hurricanes’ core when they return to the playoffs down the road. Former 2011 second-rounder Victor Rask made his debut as the Canes’ second-line center Friday night, joining other young guns on the roster like 19-year-old Elias Lindholm, 22-year-old Justin Faulk and 21-year-old Ryan Murphy.
If the Hurricanes start badly – as most people expect – then Lindholm, Rask, Faulk and Murphy could get a chance to play more. They’re certainly not ready to take over the team yet, but they’re surrounded by solid veterans who will show them the way all season. And don’t forget about Jeff Skinner, who can score like nobody’s business when he’s not hurt.
This is not to say the Hurricanes should tank, but it’s tough to see them finishing outside the bottom five. Calgary will probably be terrible this year, and the Winnipeg Jets could be worse than expected if Evander Kane’s injury Thursday night turns out to be a long-term problem. Buffalo will also surely be there for the lottery, so it’s tough to see Carolina being worse than all three of those teams.
But it’s still a lottery, and this draft is projected to be one of the deepest in years. Even if they don’t get McDavid or Eichel, Carolina can pick up a strong prospect to take into next season.
Most general managers start a new job with a five-year plan. Ron Francis may start at rock-bottom in Year One of that plan, but he’s got some good young pieces to start with and a possible franchise player to look forward to in the summer.
In five years, Cam Ward will almost assuredly be gone, Eric Staal will be 35 and Jordan Staal will be 31. Is it so tough to picture the Staal brothers adding veteran leadership to a core made up of Murphy, Skinner, Lindholm Rask, Faulk and – just maybe – Connor McDavid?