Homestand will be pivotal to Hurricanes trade deadline plans

Carolina looks to enter playoff fray with stretch of games at PNC Arena

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
Hurricanes right wing Lee Stempniak tries to hook an airborne puck in Carolina's 5-3 win over Columbus on Jan. 10.

RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes returned from their NHL-mandated five-day “bye week” Thursday with an afternoon practice. Goaltender Eddie Lack returned with a sunburn — one he loudly proclaimed in the locker room would be “golden” in a couple days — while Jeff Skinner spoke of shoveling snow in Toronto.In all, the group seemed pretty loose despite what’s ahead of them: a homestand that should determine what direction general manager Ron Francis goes before the March 1 trade deadline.The Hurricanes currently have five pending unrestricted free agents on their roster: forwards Jay McClement, Derek Ryan and Viktor Stalberg; and defensemen Ron Hainsey and Matt Tennyson. All could be trade fodder if Carolina — eight points behind Toronto for the final wild card spot prior to Friday’s home page against Colorado — falter ahead of the deadline.”Our next five are at home — we’re a good team at home and you can win those games,” winger Lee Stempniak said after the bye week. “You don’t know where that puts you, but I think we need to just focus on more the short term than look at the end. You have an idea how many points it takes to make the playoffs and how many games we have left and how many points we need to get to that, so it’s certainly realistic.”The Hurricanes have been sellers at the deadline the last two years, and had some of the most-coveted players available in defenseman Andrej Sekera in 2015 and captain Eric Staal last year.That duo netted Carolina a lot of assets. Sekera landed Carolina defensive prospect Roland McKeown and a first round pick, which became 2016 21st overall choice Julien Gauthier, from the Kings. Staal’s trade to the Rangers netted forward prospect Aleksi Saarela, who is playing the Finland this season, and two second round picks. The 2016 second-rounder was sent, along with Carolina third in 2017, to Chicago for Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell. The Hurricanes also have the Rangers second round pick in this summer’s draft.The players Carolina has on expiring contracts are more complementary pieces to potential suitors — McClement, Stalberg and Hainsey all could have value as bottom line/pairing players who are good at killing penalties — and won’t fetch anything near the return the Hurricanes received for their assets the last two years.That makes a push during the homestand and avoiding another fire sale a priority. Their coach even thinks the Hurricanes, with a solid run the rest of February, can convince the front office to add reinforcements at the deadline.”The group, as it is, is very capable,” coach Bill Peters said. “I’d love to add. I really would. I’d love to make it hard on management and go on a good run here in the next two weeks and be right there knocking on the door, and then they’ve got a hard decision to make. And if they ask my opinion, it’s going to be to add; add to the group.”Stempniak, 34, is on his 10th NHL team in 12 seasons, having signed a two-year contract with Carolina this offseason. If anyone knows life at the trade deadline, it’s him: he was dealt to Boston from New Jersey on Feb. 29 last year, and was traded on March 1 each of the two prior seasons.”I think a lot of times you sort of know it’s coming,” Stempniak said. “If you’re on an expiring contract and you’re going to miss the playoffs, I think you talk with the team and see if there’s going to be a fit to sign an extension. If not, I think you’d be naive to not realize there’s a strong chance you’re going to get traded if you’re out of it.”It’s hard with a family,” he added. “You’re away from your family and there’s a transition period. That part’s difficult. But I’ve been through it a few times and you certainly get used to it to an extent. But it’s always a surprise when you actually get the phone call.”The homestand, which includes three Eastern Conference playoff teams, will likely be the determining factor in what direction Francis goes on March 1.”You see the standings and everything’s tight,” Stempniak said, glancing at the standings board in the locker room that showed Carolina second to last in the conference but with more games left to play than any other team. “We’re not in an ideal spot, but I think we’re in a spot where we’re pretty confident and comfortable as a group.”