Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters says he was eating at a local Buffalo Wild Wings this year when approached by a Canes fan with some advice. It wasn’t about sauces.
As Peters recalls, it went something like, “You’ve got to fix the power play.”
Peters smiles in telling the story now, and the encounter told him a couple of things about his new job and place of business: while Raleigh isn’t Detroit or Toronto, it’s a good enough hockey market where a first-year hockey coach – even one who could pass for a state worker or tax accountant – can be recognized in public. It also reinforced, albeit in a small way, the idea that people care about the Canes, want to see the team improve and want to support it.
General manager Ron Francis is charged with improving the team Peters will coach next season. Team president Don Waddell is charged with getting more people into PNC Arena to see them play – the Canes’ home attendance was down almost 19 percent this season – while increasing corporate support and revenue.
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The Hurricanes were hoping to win the NHL draft lottery Saturday and secure the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, but the Edmonton Oilers won the lottery and the Canes retained the No. 5 overall pick. But luck aside, the Canes have much work to be done to contend for their first playoff spot since 2009.
Here’s a look at part of Francis’ and Waddell’s checklist as they look to next season:
The two biggest contract issues facing Francis involve Eric Staal and Alexander Semin.
Staal, the team captain and member of the 2006 Stanley Cup champions, has one year remaining on a seven-year extension he signed in September 2008. Staal, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, has said he wants to remain a part of the Canes’ future. He also indicated he wouldn’t stand in the way of a trade – depending on the destination – if Francis wanted a major team remake.
Term and price could be sticking points, as in any contract negotiation. Staal, who led the Canes in goals and points, realistically may not be able to demand $9 million a year, but what would he take to stay? And how high will Francis, with the blessing of team owner Peter Karmanos, be willing to go?
Odds are, Staal and the Canes will come to an agreement. As for Semin …
Francis said he would look at “all the options” on how to handle the high-priced, unproductive forward, whose contract has three years – at $7 million a year – left on it. A contract buyout would cost the Hurricanes $14 million, but Francis said Carolina would make a decision that’s “best for the organization.”
Goaltender Cam Ward also is entering the last year of his contract, but the Staal and Semin situations might have Francis’ immediate attention.
The NHL has myriad statistics, but simply put the Canes were 27th in scoring (2.23 goals a game) and were outscored 169-127 five-on-five (27th in NHL).
Carolina scored two or fewer goals in 48 games. In an 18-game stretch from Nov. 29 to Jan. 6, the Canes were 5-12-1 and had two or fewer goals 17 times.
The Canes improved to 15th in the league on the power play (18.8 percent) after finishing 28th (14.6) in 2013-14. It wasn’t enough to offset the five-on-five struggles.
“We’ve got to find the answer to why we couldn’t score goals,” Francis said. “Is 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?”
Although Semin’s dramatic dropoff remains a riddle, Jeff Skinner had an off-year. The 2011 Calder Trophy winner suffered a concussion in the preseason and had 18 goals after a career-high 33 in 2013-14.
“I don’t think the injury helped,” Peters said. “Then you struggle in the shootout, probably lose a little confidence. And then he just became snakebit to a degree.”
The Canes need a bounce-back season from Skinner and continued offensive improvement from players such as forwards Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask. Semin and Jordan Staal need to score more and have done so in the past in their careers.
Then again, Francis may have trades and free agents in mind. As Skinner said, “Teams that don't make the playoffs rarely stay together.”
Help on defense
Defenseman Justin Faulk is a rising star in the league, and Ron Hainsey a savvy veteran. After that, the blue line could be in flux.
Francis and Peters seem to want a new look. The Canes auditioned younger defensemen Danny Biega and Rasmus Rissanen late in the season and Ryan Murphy is capable on the power play, but changes could be made to bring in more experience and possibly size.
The Canes dealt defensemen Andrej Sekera and Tim Gleason before the trade deadline, and Peters said the Canes would like to obtain “two similar players” and then add depth.
Sekera and Gleason are pending unrestricted free agents and if they’re unsigned on July 1 the Canes might re-open negoitations. The NHL’s free-agent market also could include defensemen Cody Franson, Matt Irwin, Jeff Petry, Andrej Meszaros and Francois Beauchemin.
Don Waddell was hired as president by Karmanos in July and soon faced a season-ticket dilemma he later likened to a train about to run off the rails.
The Canes had lost 23 percent of their season-ticket base from the 2013-14 season, Waddell said. The decision was made to severely restrict complimentary and discounted tickets this season, putting added value in season tickets, even though it would mean fewer bodies in seats at games.
The Canes averaged 12,594 fans at home this season, 29th in the NHL and ahead of only the Florida Panthers (11,265). That was 67.4 percent of capacity and represented a drop of 2,890 fans (18.7 percent) from 2013-2014.
In March, Waddell announced a ticket price increase for next season. Part of the increase, he said, was to help recoup season-ticket discounts offered during the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season for future ticket purchases. There also has been a change in the state’s sales tax on admission tickets.
“We’ve got to run a business here,” Waddell said. “It doesn’t matter if we had made the playoffs and gone to the Stanley Cup, this is what we were going to do this year.”
The Canes also made a season-ticket push, adding sales staff and beginning such promotions as “30 prizes in 30 days” that included road trips with the team and a meal with Francis.
Waddell said the average ticket price for Canes games this season was $52, although higher on the secondary market. He said Carolina would remain in the bottom five of NHL ticket prices after the increase.
“I think it’s important from a business model to have slight increases instead of trying to guess when you’re going to be good and have big jumps,” he said. “We’ve got to slowly get that average ticket price up.”
Waddell said the Canes are financially stable but would lose money this year.
How much? The Canes keep that number to themselves.
But the Hurricanes are making more in total revenue than a few years ago. Financial information provided by the Centennial Authority, the PNC Arena landlord, shows the Hurricanes hockey income was about $97.5 million in fiscal 2014. That was an increase from $84.6 million in fiscal 2012, a comparable figure in that 2011-2012 was an 82-game season.
NHL revenue increased to $40 million from $31.6 million in the two years, and the Canes’ television income increased to $14.4 million from $10.7 million in 2012.
Gale Force Holdings, the parent company that owns the Hurricanes, operates and schedules events in PNC Arena, which the Canes share with N.C. State. Based on its total income for fiscal 2014, Gale Force paid an overage of more than $55,000 -- a percentage of income specified in the lease agreement -- to the authority, which was said to be a first in a nonplayoff year for the Hurricanes.
As for the revenue generated in fiscal 2015, Waddell said, “We’ll have an increase. Unfortunately expenses have gone up just as fast.”
Karmanos, who has owned the franchise since 1994, is looking to sell some or all of his interest in the team and to set in place a “succession plan.” That is ongoing.