The Carolina Hurricanes are caught in a unique position between past and future. The present will be spent sorting out which players belong to which era.
Whether the Hurricanes compete for a playoff spot or not, whether they overachieve or underachieve, whether they’re exciting and surprising or dull and predictable, no matter the results or the process, this season probably has more to say about the seasons to come than this season itself.
There are big decisions to be made about what this team will look like going forward. How the team fares, and how certain players perform, could lead those decisions in any number of directions.
Topping the list are the separate but unavoidably conjoined futures of Eric Staal and Cam Ward. It’s unusual for a captain in the prime of his career or a No. 1 goalie to enter the final year of their contracts, possibly unprecedented for both to be in that situation.
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Staal isn’t the only player of his caliber in this limbo – Anze Kopitar and Stephen Stamkos are both potential unrestricted free agents as well, and arguably even more important to their respective teams – but after being the unquestioned face of the franchise for more than a decade, it’s somewhat jarring how unresolved his future is.
Negotiations over a potential contract extension are complicated by many variables, from the uncertain ownership situation (a factor for both sides), to his overall performance (generally not what is expected from the ninth-highest paid player in the NHL), to his position (centers are worth more than wingers, where Staal appears likely to play).
How this season plays out will have much to say about whether the Hurricanes want to commit more millions to Staal, and whether Staal wants to commit his future to the franchise. With Staal controlling any potential trade, it truly is a two-way street.
The dynamic is simpler with the other remaining player from 2006. Ward and Eddie Lack will both become unrestricted free agents after the season. Most likely, one will be the future here and one will help the future here in a trade for draft picks and prospects.
Staal and Ward top the list, but there are so many others whose futures hang in the balance, perhaps none more than Jeff Skinner, another player the Hurricanes have promoted heavily who has failed to deliver on his initial promise. Staal and Ward have contracts to play for, but Skinner’s stakes are even higher this season. Either he’s going to play at least some measure of a two-way game and score 30-plus goals or he’s not, and if it’s the latter, a change of scenery would be obligated for the former Calder Trophy winner.
If the Hurricanes aren’t competitive, the house-cleaning that began with Alex Semin’s offseason buyout could extend to other high-priced players like Skinner, John-Michael Liles and Kris Versteeg, the latter both free agents after the season and therefore potential trade assets at the deadline. Jordan Staal could fall into that category as well, if he were to want out and a team were willing to take on his contract.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes expect Victor Rask and Elias Lindholm to make the leap into impact players. They have shown flashes, and there’s no reason they cannot continue to develop, but there are no guarantees. Then there are less-heralded players like Chris Terry and Michal Jordan, who will have no better chance to prove they are NHL regulars, their careers potentially at a crossroads.
The Hurricanes are committed to Bill Peters and his coaching philosophy, to core players like Noah Hanifin, Justin Faulk, Lindholm and Jordan Staal. But with only nine players signed beyond this season, what this team looks like in the future depends entirely on what happens in the present.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
Fourteen signed for 2016-17
The Hurricanes have nine NHL players under contract for the 2015-16 season at a total payroll of about $33 million, as well as five restricted free agents.
Jordan Staal, $6 million
Jeff Skinner, $5.75 million
James Wisniewski, $5.5 million
Justin Faulk, $4.83 million
Ron Hainsey, $2.83 million
Elias Lindholm, $2.7 mllion
Jay McClement, $1.2 million
Noah Hanifin, $925,000
Andrej Nestrasil, $912,500
Michal Jordan, RFA
Brad Malone, RFA
Ryan Murphy, RFA
Joakim Nordstrom, RFA
Victor Rask, RFA