Commentary

DeCock: In face of NHL inactivity, Canes' pick offers reason for optimism

ldecock@newsobserver.comJune 27, 2014 

— On what is shaping up to be a very quiet draft weekend for the Carolina Hurricanes, at least their first-round pick offered hope for the future.

The Hurricanes broke with past practice with their first-round pick Friday night, taking 6-foot-2 defenseman Haydn Fleury with the seventh overall pick, the first big defenseman they’ve taken in the first round in almost a decade.

That’s something they’ve desperately needed, from anyone’s perspective. Depending on one’s perspective, some changes to an NHL roster that has missed the playoffs five years in a row might also be on that list.

Hurricanes General Manager Ron Francis said when he hired Bill Peters as the team’s new coach last week that he didn’t think the team needed a shake-up, and even if he wanted to, he said Friday night he hasn’t had the opportunity.

“Right from Day 1, I said I’m not opposed to moving anybody if it’s a deal that makes sense,” Francis said. “I explored some things in the market, but it wasn’t going to make our team better. … We looked at some things, but nothing really materialized.”

Francis this week handed out multi-year contracts to Ron Hainsey and Nathan Gerbe, and there was too much of that under the old regime, but given the lack of free-agent defensemen available, Hainsey had bargaining power and the Hurricanes did not. And no one’s going to criticize Francis for the fact Cam Ward is still on the roster. The market for goalies making $6.3 million is slack, to say the least.

The landscape changed Friday, though. The salary cap didn’t go up by quite as much as expected, to $69 million instead of $71 million or more, so teams at the upper limit are facing a $2 million squeeze. The Hurricanes, with 16 players signed for $57.2 million and not many big numbers left to sign, may have the chance to pluck a useful player or two off a bloated roster.

“It’ll be interesting,” Francis said. “A lot of teams were thinking that number might be higher, a million or two higher. That might spur some activity going forward. We’ll sit back and see what happens.”

While the lack of activity may be frustrating, Friday’s first-round pick offers more reason for optimism. Fleury plays junior hockey for Red Deer of the Western Hockey League, the same team that produced Carolina first-round picks Ward and Brandon Sutter in recent years, but other than that, the pick was a step in a new direction.

The Hurricanes hadn’t taken a big defenseman in the first round since 2004, when they took Jack Johnson third overall (trading him two years later). There were a lot of small forwards and one very small defenseman in the first round since then under the Rutherford regime.

Rutherford disliked drafting defensemen because of their longer development curve, and Fleury isn’t likely to offer immediate help like Jeff Skinner or Elias Lindholm did, but he’s a building block for the future and helps fill what is very much a position of need for the Hurricanes. Take it as a sign Francis is looking long term.

“Certainly we don’t want to rush him at this point,” Francis said. “If he needs time in Red Deer, that’s a good program with good coaching. He can develop there. We want to do what’s right for him and the organization in the long term.”

After too many years of short-term fixes, this draft pick offers reason to be less concerned about the lack of movement at the NHL level – if not quite enough to ignore it entirely.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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