Coming from Justin Williams, it wasn’t so much a promise as a rallying cry.
Soon after signing a free-agent contract with the Carolina Hurricanes in July, the forward said, “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and be relevant.”
Williams won a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006. Traded away in March 2009, he later won two Cups with Los Angeles Kings. He knows about relevancy in the National Hockey League and what it takes, in the structure and makeup of a team, to be relevant.
“They’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years here to get this team to where it is today, and it’s time to take the next step,” Williams said this week. “That’s what that comment was about. It’s time to make the playoffs and be a relevant team in the conversation of the best hockey teams in the NHL.”
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As the Hurricanes celebrate their 20th year in North Carolina, there is a demarcation line in that 20-year period. In the first 12 years, the Canes won a Cup, advanced to two Stanley Cup finals (2002, 2006), reached the Eastern Conference finals three times (2002, 2006, 2009) and had five playoff teams (1999, 2001, 2002, 2006, 2009).
The last eight years: no playoff teams.
That’s now the longest playoff drought in the NHL after the Edmonton Oilers, the team the Canes beat in the 2006 Stanley Cup final, qualified last season for the first time since ’06. And, yes, being able to draft Connor McDavid was a big part of that.
Former Canes coach Paul Maurice once likened it to a slugger in baseball, either hitting a home run or whiffing. The good years were very good, bringing Raleigh to life, energizing the community.
“I think we might have spoiled some people in the first few years,” Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis said. “We had the Stanley Cup finals, the conference championship, the Stanley Cup. There were a lot of things happening.”
But the past eight years have strained the patience of Canes fans. Attendance has suffered, and the Canes have been last in the NHL the past two years.
“It’s been a problem the past seven or eight years because we did not make the playoffs,” Canes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. said. “In 2008 and 2009 the economy wasn’t great. Even though we made the (2009) conference finals, Raleigh was suffering probably more than anywhere else from the ‘Great Recession.’ Then as we came out of the Great Recession we had a team that has not been very good.”
As for the lagging attendance, Karmanos said, “It has nothing to do with the market. We need to win. We need to earn those tickets, and we will.”
That may happen under new ownership. Karmanos, who has owned the team since 1994, has been negotiating a sale with an investor group headed by Texas-based sports attorney Chuck Greenberg – a $500 million transaction that could be completed before the end of the season.
The Canes have long been called a “budget team” and annually have had among the lowest payrolls in the league. That will continue this season with a young team with an average age of 24.9 on its 23-man roster. Carolina’s projected cap hit of $60.43 million tops only the Arizona Coyotes, according to CapFriendly.com, which tracks league salaries.
The Canes generally have been loathe to hand out big contracts to free agents. It didn’t help when they signed forward Alex Semin to a one-year, $7 million deal in 2012-13, then gave him a five-year, $35 million extension, only to have him turn out to be a bust that resulted in a costly contract buyout.
Francis, entering his fourth season as general manager, said he has been given enough financial resources by Karmanos. Williams’ two-year deal is worth $9 million. Defensemen Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce were signed to long-term contracts in the offseason. Goaltender Scott Darling’s four-year contract will pay him $16.6 million.
“Pete has been good to me,” Francis said. “My job is to put the best team on the ice possible. There have been times when I’ve needed to call him and asked to do things and he’s been fine with it. I don’t use that as an excuse at all.”
Francis was the captain of the Canes’ 2002 Eastern Conference champions and is a Hockey Hall of Famer. He believes he has molded and assembled a team with the speed and the skill to put the Canes in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Williams adds grit. The Canes have used the Chicago Blackhawks’ salary-cap squeeze to add Darling and other players – center Marcus Kruger, defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk – with Stanley Cup pedigrees.
“We played well last year despite below-average goaltending,” Karmanos said. “If we had average goaltending last year we’d have made the playoffs by six or eight points according to our analytics.
“But we’ve built a team now that’s going to be a very good team for quite a few years. Ronnie (Francis) has built something that’s going to last.”
It’s a team that has the attention of NHL analysts as the Canes’ 2017-18 season begins Saturday against the Minnesota Wild. Some see similarities with the Nashville Predators, who went through a rebuild and made it to the Stanley Cup final last season before being beaten by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“They have checked off the two boxes we talked about with Nashville in terms of goaltending and defense,” NBC analyst Mike Milbury, a former NHL general manager, said of the Canes. “The defense is more emerging than polished just yet, and the question for me will be can they score often enough to get the job done. But they’re clearly headed in the right direction.”
Hurricanes president Don Waddell, hired in July 2014, said that has been reflected on the business side. Waddell said in the 2006-07 season, with the impetus of winning a Cup, the Canes sold about 10,000 season tickets.
“We have under 7,000 right now,” Waddell said. “When I got here it was under 5,400, so we’re making progress.”
The Canes were in the black financially last year, the first for the Carolina franchise in a non-playoff year. Waddell said the Canes made about $2 million, which he said did not include the lucrative cut NHL teams received from the expansion fee paid by the Vegas Golden Knights entering the league as the 31st team.
Waddell said despite finishing 30th in home attendance (11,776), the Canes were not last in revenue from home games.
“If the team continues to go the way we think they will, that will be a big uptick for us from a financial standpoint,” Waddell said.
In looking back at the past eight years, Francis said poor starts have been a common thread. That, he said, needs to change this season, and the Hurricanes do have a more favorable October schedule with five home games and five on the road.
In a loaded Metropolitan Division, the NHL’s best, it’s imperative to keep pace.
“You just never knows how it goes,” Francis said. “There’s bad bounces, bad calls, injuries, you name it, there’s all kind of different scenarios. I can honestly say this is the best team we feel we’re putting on the ice since we took over as a management group, and we’re excited to see what they can do.”
Williams, for one, is ready to drop the puck and get started.
“This is time you want to bring it all together,” he said. “Now’s the time.”
Minnesota Wild at Hurricanes
When: 7 p.m.
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh