For the Carolina Hurricanes, it will be the last time.
The last morning skate. The last game. The last trip. The last time together this season.
The Canes close out the 2015-16 season Saturday against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. The Panthers, winners of the Atlantic Division, will be moving on to the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Canes will just be moving on.
One question the Canes likely won’t be asked Saturday: is the franchise moving to Quebec City?
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The Montreal media, in Raleigh on Thursday, peppered the Carolina players about the Canada-based speculation that Canes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. might sell the team to someone looking to relocate it to Quebec City.
What could the Canes say to that?
“It’s completely out of our control, besides trying to win games and get fans in the building,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “We know it’s a business and different things like that. But I’m really excited about our group and the young players we have. You can see the potential in where our team is headed.
“We’re right on the cusp. Hopefully we can make a move next year and get more fans in the building.”
Soon after the Canes and Montreal Canadiens went through their morning skates at PNC Arena, the Centennial Authority held its board meeting at the arena. The authority is the landlord of the building operated by Gale Force, the parent company of the Hurricanes.
The reports to the authority members on Thursday included that of the finance committee. There was no mention of any scuttlebutt about the Hurricanes.
Tom McCormick, the authority chairman, said after the meeting that he had no concerns about the Canes leaving Raleigh. The Gale Force arena lease runs through 2024.
With the NHL looking to expand, many believe Las Vegas will land an expansion franchise. Quebec City also put in an expansion bid and the speculation has been if ruled out of expansion, the ownership group in Quebec City could look to buy a struggling franchise and move it.
Karmanos has consistently said the Hurricanes, while up for sale, will not be moving and has cited a favorable lease, PNC Arena and the growing Triangle market as reasons for staying put. He said it again Thursday in an interview with the Journal de Quebec, saying, “I promise this team isn’t going to Quebec.”
The Canes are last in home attendance in the NHL at 12,203 for their 41 home games – 65.3 percent of capacity at PNC Arena. The Arizona Coyotes are 29th at 13,433.
“We start winning and people start coming. That’s how it works in this market,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “We have to win.”
With a 35-30-16 record, the Canes will finish above “NHL-.500” for the season and a victory over the Panthers (46-26-9) would assure them a winning road record — Carolina is 16-15-9. The Canes, despite the 4-2 loss Thursday to the Canadiens, finished 19-15-7 at home.
The Canes were 30-41-11 a year ago in Peters’ first season as coach, going 12-25-4 on the road. Carolina was 8-13-4 in early December this season, but has gone 27-17-12 in the past 55 games.
The Hurricanes began the season on the road against the Nashville Predators. Veteran defenseman James Wisniewski suffered a knee injury in the 2-1 loss that abruptly ended his season, and the Canes soon had three rookie defenseman — Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce — in the lineup and each playing well.
“When you look at the team, the thing that sticks out is the young D-men who have come in and played big minutes and had a positive impact for us,” forward Jeff Skinner said. “That’s been a huge step for the organization and the team.
“But I also think as a team we’re more mentally tough. Last year it seemed like if we gave up that first goal it was going to be too tough of a challenge to come back. Or late in games, if it was tied, we weren’t real comfortable and were sort of looking for that one thing to go wrong instead of going after a win. I think it has been that maturity and mental toughness that we have built up as we’ve gone along that we can continue to improve on moving forward.”