Luke DeCock

DeCock: Time has come for Canes to make deals

The Canes Eric Staal (12) drives against the New York Islanders' Nick Leddy (2) during the first period of an NHL game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Islanders at the PNC Arena on Saturday.
The Canes Eric Staal (12) drives against the New York Islanders' Nick Leddy (2) during the first period of an NHL game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Islanders at the PNC Arena on Saturday. cseward@newsobserver.com

With the good vibes of the 2006 reunion just starting to fade, it’s still time for the Carolina Hurricanes to address the harsh reality of the present when it comes to Eric Staal and Cam Ward, two good and loyal servants to the franchise.

It’s hard to imagine Staal and the Hurricanes finding common ground on a new contract that makes sense for both sides, which would inevitably require a severe pay cut for the Hurricanes’ captain. A similar equation holds true for Ward, whose trade availability is complicated by the left leg injury he suffered Saturday night.

The deadline is Feb. 29. While the Hurricanes are only a few points outside of the playoff picture heading into Tuesday’s game against Paul Maurice, Andrew Ladd and the Winnipeg Jets, there’s no guarantee they can close that gap even if they hold on to everyone.

Saturday’s dominant performance against the New York Islanders showed the Hurricanes at their best, but their offensive inefficiency in Friday’s shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins was crippling and in the big picture extremely damaging, allowing the Penguins to maintain their lead in the standings when the Hurricanes had a chance to pull two points closer.

Even if the market isn’t great for the impending free agents, even if the Hurricanes have to retain some of their salary through the end of the season, something is better than nothing.

General manager Ron Francis has been biding his time to see where the Hurricanes fit in the playoff picture, but it’s time for Francis to get what he can from contenders for Staal, and Ward and John-Michael Liles and Kris Versteeg – and maybe even Jeff Skinner (who has played quite well of late) or Jordan Staal (whose long-term contract appears untradeable, but several giant contracts have somehow moved lately) or Ryan Murphy (a onetime first-round pick who has slid way down the organizational pecking order on defense).

Even if the market isn’t great for the impending free agents, even if the Hurricanes have to retain some of their salary through the end of the season, something is better than nothing. Francis has to keep the long-term picture in mind, and a 40 percent chance at a playoff spot – odds that won’t change dramatically between now and the deadline – doesn’t outweigh the value of whatever prospects and draft picks he can obtain for these players who can unquestionably help a playoff team.

There’s also this to consider about these Hurricanes and the way they play under coach Bill Peters: Trading does not necessarily equate to tanking.

The compact, efficient, up-and-down style the Hurricanes are playing places less of a premium on individual skill and more on speed, hustle and grit. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a place for skill – the Hurricanes could use a lot more of it to finish the chances they generate, a source of perpetual frustration for Peters – only that the drop-off might not be as steep without some high-minute players as would normally be the case.

Even if some veterans do depart, it doesn’t mean the younger players will be deprived of the experience of fighting for a playoff spot. It may even intensify as they assume bigger roles.

There would certainly be some issues with the power play, with how the Hurricanes match up at center and with Eddie Lack’s inconsistency in goal, but the Hurricanes could potentially lose some talented veteran players and still remain postseason contenders.

What Francis cannot do is split the middle. He can’t hang on to Staal or Ward or anyone else at the deadline, only to let them walk away for nothing this summer. There’s no marginal return in letting them finish out the season for competitive reasons. If they’re going then, it is incumbent upon Francis to get something, anything, for them now.

And the way the Hurricanes have played lately, they might not even miss a beat.

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

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