It took almost two years, but Ron Francis has finally given himself as much of a blank slate as he’s probably ever going to have to rebuild the Carolina Hurricanes.
What happened over the past few days was equivalent to hitting the reset button, something that became unavoidable given Eric Staal’s contract situation and the team’s inability to make a move in the standings after the All-Star break.
So Staal and Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles exit, leaving the Hurricanes with cap space and draft picks and a handful of young players, especially on defense, who look like keepers.
But even if the Hurricanes can make the playoffs next season – and based on this season’s results and the players coming back, that still seems possible with an upgrade in net and some sort of replacement for Staal at center – they’re also probably still two or three years at best from even having a chance to become a legitimate contender, a reality which will not come easy to fans angry about Staal’s departure Sunday.
Francis acknowledged Monday the grim necessity of pulling the trigger on these deals even as the Hurricanes maintained a mathematical possibility of making the playoffs that was not insignificant, probably about 1-in-8 or so given the ground they’d need to make up and having played more games than the competition.
And despite trading away the Hurricanes’ captain, Francis didn’t go as far as he perhaps could have over the past few days. Jeff Skinner is still here, despite a hefty contract and persistent questions about how well he fits in coach Bill Peters’ system. So is Jordan Staal, who has played his best hockey for the Hurricanes this season but is signed through 2023, an onerous long-term obligation for a rebuilding franchise. So is impending free agent Cam Ward, since Carolina’s inability to retain salary on Ward’s $6.3 million contract, having already reached the maximum of three retained salaries, made the goalie impossible to move.
Nor did Francis close a deal for any of the younger players rumored to have been possibly available, Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk or any of the Oilers’ glut of forwards. Then again, none of them went anywhere else Monday, either.
Expect more sweeping changes over the summer, when the Hurricanes will have a wealth of both draft picks – seven in the first three rounds in June – and cap space, conditions ripe for making a move if the right player becomes available.
The Hurricanes now have only 13 NHL players under contract for next season. Expect top prospect Sebastian Aho to arrive from Finland and challenge for a spot on the top two lines, but even if Brock McGinn makes the jump from the AHL to NHL on a permanent basis, the Hurricanes are going to need to add four or five forwards.
The defense is relatively solidified, with Justin Faulk, Ron Hainsey and James Wisniewski along with the three kids who have played so well this year – Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – but Francis acknowledged their transition has come so smoothly it’s realistic to expect one or all of them to experience some sort of sophomore slump next season.
And then there’s goaltending, where Eddie Lack has been erratic and both Ward and the Hurricanes would probably benefit from a change of scenery. Top goaltending prospect Alex Nedeljkovic is two or three years away at the minimum, will probably spend all of next season in the AHL, and there’s no guarantee he develops into an NHL starter anyway.
That’s an area that will have to be addressed sooner rather than later, one of many now for the trimmed-down Hurricanes, still with something to play for this season but very much pointed now toward the future.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock