RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes approached Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline three points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second and final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
While the rest of the Metropolitan Division made moves to sell off assets (the New York Rangers) or add talent for the stretch run (everyone else), Hurricanes GM Ron Francis decided to essentially stand pat. The one move the team made — sending journeyman Josh Jooris to Pittsburgh for fellow fringe NHLer Greg McKegg — was so inconsequential that Francis didn’t wait for the move to be finalized to meet with the media, ending his quarter hour of availability before the deal was officially announced.
Of the teams Carolina is battling for the last playoff slot, the Blue Jackets bolstered their forward corps (Thomas Vanek, Mark Letetsu) and defense (Ian Cole), while the Islanders (Brandon Davidson, Chris Wagner) and the Atlantic Division’s Panthers (Frank Vatrano) — both, like Carolina, on the wrong side of the postseason cutoff line — made depth additions.
Francis and the Hurricanes, however, seemed to take Carolina’s recent 0-4-1 skid as a sign this year’s team was not worth mortgaging any of its future assets.
“I think the prices were pretty steep this time around, in our eyes,” Francis said.
Without saying the word — like previous owner Peter Karmanos Jr. had infamously done — Francis called on the frustrated fan base to remain patient, saying the cost for rentals often included a first round pick.
So it will be on the team’s current cast — and fourth year coach Bill Peters — to try and navigate itself into a playoff spot or face an ninth consecutive season out of the postseason.
While Francis said the offseason would offer more opportunities to improve the team at more reasonable costs — “This is an opportunity today,” he said Monday, “but it’s not necessarily a big opportunity compared to the offseason and doing some of those things that we’ve talked about and what [new owner] Tom [Dundon] has mentioned.” — that may not be enough time for Peters if the team fails to reach the playoffs this year.
While Peters’ preparation and analytics-friendly style of play have earned him praise, results in the standings haven’t followed. When confronted with the fact few, if any, NHL coaches have failed to make the playoffs in their first three seasons with a team and go on to be successful with that franchise, Francis said Peters — now facing a fourth year outside the playoffs — would not have his future hinge on whether or not the team earned a postseason berth.
“No, I don’t get that sense from Tom or myself,” he said, again mentioning the new owner who has taken a hands-on approach unfamiliar in Raleigh under Karmanos.
Francis was instead focused on the balance of the season and the opportunity to assess his team and see what, if any, changes would be needed in the offseason.
“We’re in a playoff hunt,” Francis said. “We haven’t been in that; this is a legitimate one. And for the next 20 games we’ll get a pretty good read on our players moving forward.”
The futures of several people, however, likely hang in the balance.
Jeff Skinner will enter the final season of his contract next fall, presenting the opportunity to perhaps deal him over the summer if he is not in the team’s long-term plans.
Carolina’s lauded defense corps, featuring Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk, will be the targets of any team the Hurricanes might approach in trade talks in the offseason.
And there’s Peters, who Francis said was “on the same page” with him despite the coach’s repeated proclamations that he wanted to add talent at the last two trade deadlines.
“I think our relationship is good,” Francis said. “I think, at times, Bill wears his heart on his sleeve and sometimes when he gets in front of (the media) he gets a little emotional and gets wound up and says some things, and then the next day or later we talk about it and he realizes maybe he shouldn’t say what he said and we work through that stuff.”
While Peters hasn’t gotten everything he has wanted from Francis, the roster has its fingerprints all over it — whether it is his former junior player Derek Ryan or acquisitions from the Blackhawks, for whom Peters was an AHL coach from 2008-11.
Francis’ tenure as GM is thus far firmly tied to Peters, and without any reinforcements coming it will be up to the coach to prove he deserves a fifth year in Raleigh.
If Carolina misses the playoffs and Peters is retained, the call for change from fans may be aimed higher than the coach.