The Carolina Hurricanes play their final home game of the season Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens, a last chance for fans to see the team play.
And, in some cases, perhaps a last glimpse at some of the players.
The Canes, missing the playoffs for the seventh straight year, should have a different makeup when the 2016-17 season begins. There could be trades. Some unrestricted free agents may not be re-signed.
A decision on goalie Cam Ward, due to become a UFA on July 1, must be made. Could Thursday’s game be the last at PNC Arena for the Canes’ No. 30?
Coaches and management often talk of moving or adding “pieces” – an impersonal way to refer to players – and Canes general manager Ron Francis may do some reshuffling after the season, possibly using the team’s 11 picks in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft to make moves and change pieces.
The Canes dealt away center Eric Staal before the NHL trade deadline, parting ways with the former star and team captain. Should Carolina not re-sign Staal in free agency – a distinct possibility – and fail to pick up another top-line center through a trade or signing, the Canes could go into next season leaning heavily on Jordan Staal and Victor Rask up the middle.
Elias Lindholm, 21, may finally get a longer look at center. Drafted as a center in 2013, the Swede has been used primarily on the wing in his first three seasons in the NHL.
Rask, who turned 23 last month, will be beginning his third NHL season and fourth professional season. He has 21 goals this season, scoring five in the past seven games, and has given the Canes responsible two-way play and is reliable on draws.
“Obviously I wanted to do better than I did last year, points-wise,” Rask said. “I didn’t set a goal or anything but I think I’ve done pretty good. It’s been a fun year for me.”
Rask admits he was “banged up” midway through the season, but offered no specifics. Canes coach Bill Peters also asked more from the Swede in February, not long after the NHL All-Star break.
“He’s been a little inconsistent,” Peters said at the time. “He’s a big piece of what we’re doing. He had a real good year last year when there were no expectations, so everyone loved his game. Now there’s a little more expectations on a nightly basis.”
Rask said he had the same conversation with Peters. Rask listened and responded.
“He knows what I can do and I know what I can do, myself,” Rask said. “I just needed to get back to my game.”
Staal, traded Feb. 28 to the New York Rangers, returned to PNC Arena on March 31 for an emotional, energy-filled game, and Rask’s power-play goal won it for the Canes, 4-3.
It was Rask’s fifth game-winner of the season. Only Jeff Skinner has more (seven) for the Canes.
“I haven’t changed anything,” Rask said of his recent offensive binge. “I just do the things I always do. Put pucks to the net and good things will happen.”
Good things have happened with Rask and Skinner on a line. Phil Di Giuseppe gave the line a physical right winger, but hehas been slowed by injuries.
Skinner, who has played some of his best hockey of the season since the trade deadline, scored his 28th goal of the season Saturday, off a Rask pass, in the Canes’ 5-1 loss to Columbus. Skinner has a team-high 50 points, and Rask is second with 47 with three games left in the Canes’ season.
“He’s stepped up another level,” Skinner said.
Rask was thrust into an unexpected role last season when Jordan Staal suffered a broken leg in preseason, playing 80 games and finishing with 11 goals and 33 points. He’s now a 20-goal scorer, even though he’s often kidded about his lack of emotion after goals – in most cases, a thin smile will do it for him.
“Pretty flat line, that guy,” Peters said, smiling. “You don’t know what’s going on in his world.”
Rask competed for Sweden in the 2015 World Championships, often centering a line with Lindholm. He isn’t sure about participating in the Worlds this year in Russia but has set some offseason goals, again with an emphasis on added quickness.
“I’m always working on my first two, three steps,” Rask said. “I think I’ve come a long way since I started doing that, and I just want to get better and better every year.”
Headed to free agency
Carolina Hurricanes players due to become unrestricted free agents on July 1: goalie Cam Ward; forwards Nathan Gerbe, Riley Nash, Brad Malone, Chris Terry.