Where the Carolina Hurricanes sit in the standings, there’s no point in pretending anymore. This season is not turning around. Jordan Staal will not return from a broken leg and lead the Hurricanes to the playoffs.
All of that was unlikely anyway, a fingers-crossed, best-case scenario – despite the “good enough to win the whole damn thing” offseason rhetoric from owner Peter Karmanos – but the reality two months into the season is the opposite. It is the worst-case scenario.
At 8-16-3, last in the Eastern Conference and a tiebreaker away from being last in the entire NHL, the Hurricanes are indeed as bad as anyone feared they might be. It’s not for lack of effort most nights, the goaltending has actually been pretty good for the most part and first-year coach Bill Peters has done his utmost to find a spark.
While the Hurricanes have kept it close lately, there just isn’t enough talent here to beat better teams – a pathetic seven goals over the past five games drives the point home nicely – and while Peters and general manager Ron Francis would never admit it publicly, because they have players to motivate and tickets to sell, the future of the Hurricanes is now better served by losing games than winning them.
“Obviously the 1-4 homestand doesn’t help,” Francis said Wednesday from Tampa, where the Hurricanes play the Lightning on Thursday. “The frustrating part is, you look at our record but nine of the last 10 losses have been by one goal if you don’t count the empty-netters. Still, at the end of the day, we didn’t get it done. We’re sitting 11 points out, and that’s a tough uphill climb.”
So stick a fork in this season. It’s time to move on. That’s going to make for a long four months, but when there’s a chance to get a player like Connor McDavid, you can’t mess around.
McDavid is the best draft prospect in years, a franchise center from the moment he walks in the door. There aren’t always guys like this in the draft – Crosby, Ovechkin, Tavares, Stamkos – but when they’re there, it can be a franchise-changer for the team with the No. 1 pick.
That will come down to a lottery, but even the loser will be a winner. American center Jack Eichel isn’t far behind McDavid, and American defenseman Noah Hanifin isn’t far behind them. There’s a lot to gain by losing a lot.
That, combined with the Hurricanes’ position in the standings, should lend some clarity and focus to Francis’ thinking. Players whose contracts expire after the season are easily dealt – Andrej Sekera, Jiri Tlusty, Tim Gleason – but the tougher decisions involve the bigger names, and nothing should be considered out of bounds.
“We’ve already had conversations in those regards, looking at things,” Francis said. “Can we get certain guys signed for the right term and right money? And if not can we get something for them? We’re constantly having those discussions.”
Eric Staal’s name has been prominent in trade rumors; if there’s a considerable return to be had for the captain, whose contract expires in 2016, it makes more sense to trade him now. If there are takers for Cam Ward’s salary, that’s great, but he’s played well enough that it may be worthwhile to trade Anton Khudobin instead.
Alexander Semin – undeniably talented and equally frustrating to everyone outside the cultish following that sees him as some sort of misunderstood warrior poet – has no trade value, but what kind of return might Jeff Skinner fetch? This is the beginning of a long-term process for the Hurricanes, and Skinner may be more valuable to the team’s future as a trade asset than he is on the ice.
With a third of the season in the books, there’s no miracle around the corner. It’s time to pull the trigger on some trades, make a bottoming-out run at McDavid and start thinking about the future. The present has nothing left to offer.