This is a very dangerous game the Carolina Hurricanes are playing.
They have almost no chance of making the playoffs – no realistic chance, anyway – and yet their moderate success since Jordan Staal returned from injury has created a rather large gap between the Hurricanes and the NHL’s two bottom dwellers, who will have the best shot at one of two potential franchise players in this June’s draft.
In other words, as the All-Star break arrives, the Canes are dangerously close to going on the kind of winning run that would doom the franchise to another five years of mediocrity.
In the NHL, if you’re not going to be good, it’s far better to be very, very bad, especially in a year when there’s a generational prospect available with the No. 1 pick in the draft, which happens every three or four years or so. Connor McDavid may not be a household name yet for casual American hockey fans, but there’s a pretty good chance he will be for the next 15 years or so.
Since McDavid is available, with Jack Eichel not far behind in the No. 2 spot, it’s a really good time to be really bad, a far better season to be much worse than usual.
The Hurricanes were well on their way to battling with the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres for the best odds at the No. 1 pick before Jordan Staal returned from a broken leg and the Hurricanes started to see results.
Make no mistake, this is a good thing: First-year coach Bill Peters has installed a system and mentality that has the potential to bring the Hurricanes considerable success, and the team’s play with both Staal brothers validates that.
But this roster has also proved over the past five years it doesn’t have the talent to make the playoffs no matter who the coach is. To have even a 50-50 shot at making the playoffs, the Hurricanes would have to go 27-6-3 over their final 36 games. Astronomically unlikely.
Even if they can maintain their frenetic 6-2-1 January pace, they’d finish with a grand total of 89 points – just enough to miss the playoffs by five or six points and get stuck drafting in the middle of the first round, exactly where they have been most years since 2006 and every year since 2009. Not good enough to compete, not bad enough to rebuild.
Other than the owner, almost no one believed this team was capable of doing anything other than barely scraping into the playoffs at its very best. Ron Francis has stayed largely positive and upbeat in public, but he knows why he sits in the general manager’s office and not Jim Rutherford. He’s in for the long haul, trying to build a team and an organization that’s capable of competing for Stanley Cups on a regular basis, not slapping duct tape on a flawed roster.
To think otherwise is pure folly. It’s what put the Hurricanes in this fix in the first place, the perpetual misdiagnosis that the Hurricanes are “close” when in reality they’ve slipped farther away with each passing season, leaving an empty building and a market no longer paying attention.
No matter how competitive the Hurricanes are the rest of the way, they’re not going to sell enough tickets to put a dent in the bottom line. Better to bottom out completely, dump what contracts you can for draft picks and prospects and give yourself your best possible shot at McDavid, who will sell tickets by himself. And that may happen if Francis starts making trades with an eye to the future.
No one enjoys losing, and no one should, but a little short-term pain could pay huge long-term dividends for the Hurricanes. Anything else only leads to more of the same.