On the day the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs began, Ron Francis sat on a raised platform at a press conference explaining why the Carolina Hurricanes won’t be in them.
Francis, completing his first year as general manager, was joined Wednesday by Canes coach Bill Peters at PNC Arena in fielding the “what-went-wrong” questions that have become so common the past six years.
The Canes finished 30-41-11 in Peters’ first year as coach, going 0-6-2 in October and 10-23-4 before Jan. 1. They played marginally better with a healthier lineup, but spent nearly the entire season in the lower reaches of the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference.
“I know it didn’t go as we had hoped from the start,” Francis said. “It’s a little disappointing obviously to be here. No offense to (the media) but I’d rather be preparing for a game tonight rather than be talking to you today.
“I do think there were a lot of positives in our season. I think we are trending in the right way.”
‘We never quit’
The Hurricanes were 36-35-11 and had 83 points in the 2013-2014 season, leading to the resignation of Jim Rutherford as general manager, the promotion of Francis and the firing of Kirk Muller as coach. Francis hired Peters, who had spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings but had no experience as an NHL head coach.
Francis said he believed Peters brought needed structure to the team, improved the special teams and was able to produce a more consistent competitive level from his team throughout the season. Rod Brind’Amour and Steve Smith were Peters’ two assistant coaches and David Marcoux was brought in as goaltending coach, and Francis said he did not expect any changes to the staff for next season.
“I thought the coaching staff did a great job,” Francis said. “You start off 0-6-2 and there’s a real potential at that time for things to go south in a hurry. But I thought Bill (Peters) never changed his message. We came into this with a message about what we wanted our team to do, and compete and have accountability in moving forward and they continued to do that even through a tough stretch.
“You look at our team and down the stretch we never quit. We continued to work and play hard. There was improvement.”
The slow start, Francis said, can be attributed in part to Peters installing a new system and having the players slowly come to trust it. The goaltending, Francis said, was spotty at times early in the season. Then there were the early injuries, and none more damaging than Jordan Staal’s broken leg in preseason.
Winger Jeff Skinner, coming off a 33-goal season, suffered a concussion. Team captain Eric Staal played with a painful foot injury after being hit by a shot.
“We’re there when everybody’s healthy and in the lineup,” Peters said.
But even with Jordan Staal, Skinner and the others back, the Canes couldn’t score enough, squandering the good goaltending of Cam Ward and at times Anton Khudobin. The Hurricanes finished 27th in the NHL in scoring at 2.23 goals a game and also were 27th in five-on-five scoring.
Francis said by his count the Canes lost 27 one-goal games – 16 in regulation, four in overtime, seven in shootouts – and another seven games where the Canes allowed a late empty-net score.
“We’ve got to find the answer for why we couldn’t score goals,” Francis said. “Was that because we just weren’t good enough, is that because we had off-years, is that because we weren’t gritty enough to get to the tough areas? We’ll try to correct that moving forward.”
The Canes dealt defenseman Andrej Sekera and Tim Gleason before the NHL trade deadline and Peters noted an immediate need was to “go out and get some D-men.” That may be done through free agency, but the Canes may have to look to trades to restructure the back end.
Eric Staal will be entering the final year of his contract in 2015-2016. Francis said he would have contract discussions this summer with Staal, noting Staal has indicated he would like to stay beyond next season and help the Canes get back to the playoffs.
Francis said the budget for next season has not been set but would be soon, adding. “We’re going to look at all angles, to fix what we need to fix.”