Two weeks before the NHL Entry Draft, Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis and his staff have completed much of their due diligence.
Scouting meetings have been held and analytics studied. The NHL prospects combine was held and 73 player interviews conducted by the Canes. Phone calls have been exchanged with other general managers, Francis said Thursday, and he has firm trade offers to consider that might involve moving some of the Canes’ 10 picks – two in the first round – in this year’s draft in Buffalo, N.Y.
The Canes have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs the past seven seasons and need scoring help. But Francis said the team would maintain its big-picture approach in decision-making.
“We came up with a plan and we’re sticking to that plan,” Francis said. “We think we’re moving in the right direction.
“We have accumulated 10 picks in this draft and 10 picks in the next draft. If there’s an opportunity to parlay that into something that makes our team better, absolutely we’re going to do that. But our goal every year is to get into the playoffs. I know it’s been tough and a struggle but I certainly think we’re making strides toward that.”
One pressing bit of business continues to be what to do about Cam Ward, long the franchise goaltender. Ward, the only member of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup champions still playing for the team, will become an unrestricted free agent July 1 if not re-signed by Carolina.
Francis said he met with his pro scouts to assess what goalies might be available in free agency, as well as talking to other general managers about possible trades. The Canes traded for goalie Eddie Lack during last year’s draft.
“As I sit here today, do I want to give up a first-round pick for a goaltender that may have a year or two left in his deal, then we lose him?” Francis said. “That’s not really the plan I’m looking for.”
Francis said that from December to the end of last season, Ward was one of the top five goalies in the league in terms of goals-against average and save percentage. After an uneven start to the season that mirrored the team’s, Ward finished with a 23-17-10 record, 2.41 GAA and .909 save percentage.
“There’s some merit to revisiting that,” said Francis, who said a decision on Ward would be made “fairly soon.”
With seven picks in the first 75 selections in the draft, the Canes are in the position of stockpiling prospects. Carolina has the No. 13 pick, and acquired the Los Angeles Kings’ first-round selection – No. 21 – in the 2015 trade that sent defenseman Andrej Sekera to the Kings.
Add in two second-round picks and three in the third round and that’s the flexibility of packaging the picks to possibly move up in the first round or use in trades.
“It will be real interesting to see how things go,” Francis said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say we felt we need to add some skill. At the end of the year we did a lot of things good but struggled to score goals at the right time.”
The top two picks appear set for the draft, set June 24-25 and hosted by the Buffalo Sabres: forwards Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine.
Matthews, an American who played pro hockey this season in Switzerland, is expected to be taken first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Winnipeg Jets then should take Laine, who starred for Finland in the 2016 World Junior Championship and was named MVP in the recent IIHF World Championship.
And after the top two?
“It’s a good year to have the extra picks because it’s a little deeper at the top,” said Tony MacDonald, the Canes’ director of amateur scouting. “As you get down into the draft it’s not one of the deeper drafts we’ve ever had, but in terms of where we are and where we’re picking it’s going to be helpful.”
A year ago, the Canes made defenseman Noah Hanifin the fifth pick of the draft – that after taking defenseman Haydn Fleury with the No. 7 pick in 2014. Hanifin was a regular for the Canes last season, joining rookie defensemen Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce in the lineup.
Fleury played his final year of junior hockey with Red Deer of the Western Hockey League and was a member of Canada’s World Junior team. He could make a push to be on the Canes’ roster next season.
The slew of young defenseman likely will have Carolina focusing on forwards high in the draft. Among the names mentioned for the 13th pick are 6-foot-6 center Logan Brown, who was born in Raleigh when his father, Jeff, played for the Canes; center Tyson Jost (Penticton, British Columbia Hockey League); and Kieffer Bellows and Clayton Keller of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.
“We’re probably in better shape than we have been in a long time in that area (defensemen) and now it’s a matter of putting the right pieces in place up front and adding the right players,” MacDonald said. “Hopefully we can draft some players who can contribute offensively.”