After the past two days, after the trades of Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles, the Carolina Hurricanes’ focus is on next year and beyond.
There are still 18 games to be played this season, and the Canes were four points out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference before Monday’s NHL games. But dealing away the team captain and two veteran players – along with the injury last week to forward Andrej Nestrasil and a lingering injury to defenseman Justin Faulk – probably will be too big of an obstacle for the Canes to overcome down the stretch.
Staal’s trade Sunday to the New York Rangers was the big one, a league headliner. It came before the Canes took the ice to play the St. Louis Blues in what would be a 5-2 loss.
Late Sunday night, Canes general manager Ron Francis shipped Versteeg to the Los Angeles Kings. On Monday, just before the 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline, Liles was sent to the Boston Bruins.
The total return on those trades: five draft picks, three prospects.
Francis said Monday he realizes some Canes fans will not be pleased with the decision to make the trades. The Canes have not been in the playoffs since 2009, and this year’s team had generated some buzz and excitement as Jordan Staal became a more forceful, productive center and there was improvement in other areas in Bill Peters’ second season as coach.
“For the first time in a while we were legitimately in a playoff run in February, which hasn’t happened around here in a long time,” Francis said. “But you run the risk of chasing that. And when you look, do we really have a legitimate odds to get in or not? Yeah, it certainly can happen, and I wouldn’t rule it out (for) our guys, but if you chase that and you don’t get there, we’ve almost taken the progress we’ve made to this point and gone backwards. I don’t think we can afford to do that as an organization or a team, and that’s the reason we went in the direction we went in.”
I still believe in the guys in the locker room, and I know they’re not going to quit.
Canes general manager Ron Francis
Staal, Versteeg and Liles all are in the final years of contracts and due to become unrestricted free agents after the season. So is goalie Cam Ward, now is the only remaining member of Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup champions after Staal’s departure.
Francis was not asked about his plans for Ward, whose $6.3 million salary cap hit may have been too pricey for potential buyers. Ward is represented by Rick Curran, the agent for Eric Staal (and other Canes) who could not work out a contract extension for Staal.
The Staal trade may have pulled in the most promising prospect. Finnish forward Aleksi Saarela, 19, won a gold medal as a member of Finland’s 2016 World Junior Championship team, where a teammate was forward Sebastian Aho, another Canes prospect.
“He’s playing in the men’s league in Finland and is the second-leading scorer and leads the team in goals,” Francis said.
In dealing Versteeg the Canes obtained forward Valentin Zykov, a 20-year-old Russian who has been playing in the American Hockey League this season and was considered one of the Kings’ top players in their minor-league pipeline.
“He looked early like he was going to be a ‘can’t-miss’ and struggled a little bit,” Francis said. “We’ve got to find a way to get him back on track.”
Liles, a veteran defenseman, was traded Monday for a third-round draft pick for 2016, a fifth-rounder for 2017 and forward Anthony Camara, 22, who is with the Providence Bruins, Boston’s AHL affiliate.
Carolina made one other trade Monday, sending minor-league goalie Drew MacIntyre to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Dennis Robertson. The Canes dealt Robertson to the Blackhawks on Sept. 11, 2015, in the deal that brought Versteeg and forward Joakim Nordstrom to Carolina.
The Hurricanes will have two first-round picks in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft after acquiring a first-rounder from the Kings last year in the Andrej Sekera trade. They’ll have two second-rounders and three third-rounders – 11 picks in all in the 2016 draft, and 10 in 2017.
“We know we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Francis said. “We turn the page and get on to the next step now.”
As for completing this season, the Canes (28-26-10) play seven of the first eight games in March on the road, beginning with a Tuesday game against the New Jersey Devils.
“I still believe in the guys in the locker room, and I know they’re not going to quit,” Francis said. “I wouldn’t put it past them to continue to surprise people down the stretch.”
The Carolina Hurricanes have a total of 21 draft picks in the next two drafts. The breakdown by round:
2016 (11): 2 first, 2 second, 3 third, 1 fourth, 2 fifth, 1 sixth
2017 (10): 1 first, 2 second, 3 third, 1 fourth, 1 fifth, 1 sixth, 1 seventh.