RALEIGH To a man, Carolina Hurricanes players, coaches and staff all say it’s time for the team to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Coach Bill Peters, armed with a two-year contract extension that will kick in next season, has asserted his team is deeper and more talented and therefore up to the task.”I know we haven’t made the playoffs, but Bill’s goals are similar to ours,” general manager Ron Francis said back in July when he gave Peters the new contract. “We think we’re right there, and we want to get in the playoffs and we want to have success around here, and we think he’ll be a big part of that moving forward.”By giving Peters a contract through the 2018-19 season, Francis has entrusted his rebuilding efforts to a third-year NHL coach still looking to crack the postseason for the first time. And that third year is a tipping point for many NHL bench bosses.In recent history, most coaches who have received more than a three-year grace period to make the playoffs have come from expansion franchises: Ron Wilson in Anaheim, Barry Trotz in Nashville, Terry Crisp in Tampa Bay, Rick Bowness in Ottawa.One of the few who went to an established NHL team and made it to Year 4 without reaching the postseason just happens to be the greatest player of all time, Wayne Gretzky. His four-year run with the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes from 2005 to 2009 ended when Gretzky, also a part owner, resigned after the team filed for bankruptcy.Francis who has Gretzky-like credibility given his Hall of Fame playing career and ambassadorship of the game and Peters are both in their first go at their current positions, and the duo is undoubtedly linked to the franchise’s attempted reboot.Through two years of their collaboration, Peters has integrated the young stockpile of players Francis has assembled seamlessly. The 50-year-old coach guided Carolina to a 15-point improvement in the standings in 2015-16 (from 71 in his first year to 86 last season), all while coaching one of the NHL’s youngest, most inexperienced teams.Francis tweaked that during the offseason, adding veterans Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell to bolster the team’s bottom six forwards, and signing Lee Stempniak to add more scoring punch at even strength and on the power play. Throw in Teuvo Teravainen, still 22 and brought to Carolina in the same deal that landed Bickell, and top prospect Sebastian Aho, and Peters is correct in feeling he has more size and skill.”Unreal. … It’s going to be really good. It’s exciting,” Peters said of the upcoming season, which opens with a six-game road trip starting in Winnipeg Oct. 13. “We’ve got a deeper team, a more skilled team and a tough task to get off to a good start. We know what our challenges are. We’ve got to address them from now to the end of the preseason and be ready to start when we get into Winnipeg.”The optimism coming from Peters and Francis has trickled down to the room, with the returning players hoping the team takes another step forward to snap a seven-year playoff drought.”Even the results show we’re heading in the right direction,” forward Andrej Nestrasil said of the team’s 15-point improvement last season. “I feel like we have a good enough team to make the playoffs this year. We have a bunch of new guys that I think are a great addition to this team.”Stempniak, one of those “new guys,” was drawn to the team because of it’s combination of youth and potential.”It’s a team that was very close to the playoffs last year, and that was appealing to me coming as a free agent,” Stempniak said. “Hopefully we can collectively make the difference and be in the playoffs this year. We have the ability to do that.”The GM, coaches and players both new and old expect to make that leap.”Quite frankly, as a group we’ve got to realize we didn’t make the playoffs last year,” assistant coach Steve Smith said. “We did a lot of good things, but we didn’t make the playoffs and that is certainly our end goal.”If they don’t, Peters and Francis would enter a playoff-less realm explored by few coach-GM tandems. Or they won’t.
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