Luke DeCock

Hurricanes enter most critical summer of Francis’ tenure – DeCock

Canes talk off-season goals including goaltending, draft picks and trades

Video: The Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis and head coach Bill Peters hold their end-of-season press conference at PNC Arena on Wednesday, April 12, 2017.
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Video: The Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis and head coach Bill Peters hold their end-of-season press conference at PNC Arena on Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

As Ron Francis last month catalogued all the draft picks his team might have in June, his coach sat next to him, quietly (and good-naturedly) steaming. To Bill Peters, every draft pick used to draft a player will merely be one not used to make a trade to upgrade the NHL roster.

“I hope we maybe use three of them – two?” Peters said. “You know which direction Ronnie and I will be talking about.”

After three years of stockpiling prospects and dumping contracts under Francis, the Carolina Hurricanes have built a solid foundation for the future, but none of that will mean much if that eight-year playoff drought doesn’t end, and after falling short again this season, there will be no excuse next season.

So Peters is not only right, he inadvertently ratcheted up the pressure on his boss in the most important offseason of his tenure. For all the nip-and-tuck trades Francis has made, he has yet to swing a big deal to obtain a truly elite player, although they hope Scott Darling can be that guy in goal. The Hurricanes need a couple of them, in desperate need of a center capable of playing on the top two lines and a winger with goal-scoring ability. Neither of those grow on trees, even in Alberta. They also need a third-pairing defenseman or two, but those are easier to find.

With all those draft picks, and teams facing not only salary-cap pressure but at risk of losing players for nothing to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft next month, there’s never been a better time to turn those picks into impact players, maybe even parting with the 12th overall pick or a defensive prospect like Haydn Fleury or Ryan Murphy, if the latter is still even considered a prospect at this point.

“I think we’re in a good position this year,” Francis said, “to do some things.”

Francis has steadfastly taken a long-term view, which is how he ended up with all these picks and plenty of cap space – the Hurricanes spent $8 million less than the next-lowest payroll last season – not only to add contracts but eventually re-sign the talented young defensive core the Hurricanes already have. Can he, now, make the kind of short-term moves needed to get the Hurricanes over the hump next season in the NHL’s toughest division?

“Pieces need to come in, in order to close that gap,” Peters said. “The reality is, if we think guys from Charlotte are going to come in and close that gap? It’s not happening, in my opinion as the coach.”

The Hurricanes already used the last of their seven picks in the first three rounds Friday to obtain the rights to Darling, the Chicago Blackhawks goalie trapped behind Corey Crawford in Chicago and ready to claim a starting job of his own. Ideally, Darling will follow the path of Cam Talbot, who emerged from Henrik Lundqvist’s shadow with the New York Rangers to help the young Edmonton Oilers to their first playoff berth since 2006. At the worst, he figures to be an improvement on the tandem of Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, the latter’s numbers flattered by a strong March after the pressure was off.

With a system starting to fill with prospects and getting closer to the NHL maximum of 50 players under contract, the Hurricanes only need a handful of those early picks to sustain the flow. The rest are better used to pursue an immediate upgrade of the NHL roster, since there will be teams that would rather get a pick for a player than risk losing them to Vegas for nothing. Right now, it looks like barely a handful of players worth acquiring will potentially be exposed, but that could change when the protected lists come out June 18.

There will never be a summer more ripe for making moves than this one. Francis has spent three years laying the groundwork for this. It’s time for his vision to come to fruition.

Video: Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis and head coach Bill Peters hold their end-of-season press conference at PNC Arena on Wednesday, April 12, 2017.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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