There was a different feel to this particular Carolina Hurricanes post-mortem, with the optimism surrounding the young defensemen and the tectonic shift that occurred with the departure of Eric Staal. One way or another, the Hurricanes are lurching toward the future.
Still, seven of these April postmortems is too many, and even if the Hurricanes were always unlikely to make the playoffs this season, another whiff – especially one attributable in part to yet another sluggish start to the season – chips away at the foundation that much more.
General manager Ron Francis is right that this team, in two seasons under Bill Peters, works harder and shows more initiative than its predecessors, but it has achieved no more success.
One single playoff series, summoning all that emotion and atmosphere from memory like some sort of spell, would do more to assure the franchise’s future here than any number of assurances from owner Peter Karmanos or the NHL. (But not as much as a smooth transition of ownership, an absence for which the blame lies with Karmanos alone.)
Francis has been careful to focus exclusively on the long term, and for good reason. But enough progress has been made over the past two seasons that the needle can move toward the middle without hurting the franchise’s future. He hinted at both sides of that Tuesday, noting that the Hurricanes’ stockpiled draft picks create opportunities to add talent via trades, while also making it clear the rebuilding process is a long way from finished.
“Does it make sense for me to run out and sign a guy to a six- or seven-year contract at a lot of money when I have a young team and we’re building in that direction? Probably not,” Francis said. “It may be different if we’re at a different stage and we think that’s the one piece we need.”
While no one thinks spending $40 million makes any sense, there’s a more cautious middle that does. Even if one or more of the Hurricanes’ young defensemen regresses – and that’s a real possibility – the Hurricanes were still in playoff contention at the trade deadline thanks to their relentlessly efficient style of play, despite a fatal lack of goal-scoring prowess and some of the NHL’s worst goaltending. Address those two crucial areas, and the 10-point gap, slightly inflated by the postdeadline swoon, might be closed more easily than it looks.
OK, that’s easier said than done. The Hurricanes might have to spend exorbitantly to land a legitimate playoff goaltender, which leaves them in the same boat they were in with Ward if things don’t work out. Or they could go the bargain-basement route, which would again leave them in the same boat they’re already in with Eddie Lack. Or they could look only at Ward’s second-half numbers and bring him back, which may make sense at the right price but is also a road the Hurricanes have been down many times before, only to end up back here.
Francis passed his first real test as general manager getting decent value for Staal – if not what he might have been able to get last summer – but solving the situation in goal looms as his second.
Then there’s goal-scoring. Free agency is unlikely to yield any hope. The Hurricanes will add top prospect Sebastian Aho from Finland, but this is where those draft picks come into play. Francis will have cap space and picks to move, which could pry loose a talented, youngish forward or two from cap-strapped teams.
Peters showed he can put together a competitive team. With the right ingredients, he should be able to do better. Francis remains focused on the future, and rightly so, but given the circumstances, it’s time to start putting a higher priority on next season as well.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock