Hurricanes Francis says team headed in right direction

Despite an eighth-straight season out of the playoffs, GM believes in Carolinas rebuild

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward goes to the ice to stop the puck from an attack by Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews at PNC Arena on Feb. 19.

RALEIGH — Temperatures hovered near 80 degrees and 20-mph gusts came through Raleigh on Wednesday, but the blasts of air that rippled and snapped the flags in front of PNC Arena did not bring with them more trade winds on the final day NHL teams could swap players during the 2016-17 season.Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis had a busy but ultimately quiet 54th birthday on March 1, opting to stand pat after previously trading away two players in anticipation of an eighth-straight season out of the postseason after Carolina stumbled in the weeks leading up to deadline day.”It’s very frustrating, very disheartening because, as I said, we win the game five weeks ago or five-and-a-half weeks ago we’re in that wild card spot and things are going in a different direction,” Francis told the media following Wednesday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. “I do have to pause and still look at the big picture, and there’s a lot of positives in what we’re doing and the direction we’re going.”So while Francis and the Hurricanes hold out hope for a miracle run that will push them back into the playoff picture this year, his actions ahead of the deadline — trading veterans Ron Hainsey and Viktor Stalberg to Pittsburgh and Ottawa, respectively — served as a reluctant white flag on the season.Francis pointed to the team’s youth (just four players on the current roster are on the wrong side of 30, and two have expiring contracts), the number of draft picks (11 this summer, including seven in the first three rounds) and the salary cap space (more than $30 million, though the team is not likely to spend to the limit) as reasons the Hurricanes will enter the offseason with more momentum.”We’re growing, we’re growing in the right direction and I would ask them to continue to grow with us,” said Francis when asked what his message is to playoff-starved fans. “You talk to other people and stuff and they say, ‘Stick to the plan, stick to the plan,’ and all of a sudden one day you’re going to wake up and these kids have turned the corner and there you go, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”The plan, it seems, for this offseason is to use those assets — draft picks, a surplus of young prospects — to improve the team’s NHL roster. And the needs are many.Francis talked about how every NHL team is looking for a franchise center to “drive your team,” mentioning what Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews have done for Edmonton and Toronto, respectively.Of course, those players were the first overall picks in the last two drafts, and the 2017 draft doesn’t appear to have a player on that level — and Carolina would need to get some ping pong help to land the No. 1 selection.So while Francis said he would check the free agent market on July 1, he also said contracts “can get a little crazy” when 31 teams — Las Vegas joins the fray this summer — are jockeying for players.”But if there’s a guy there that we think is worthy — and I’ve said this all along — and we get him at the right term and the right number, then absolutely we would certainly look to fill a void that way,” Francis said of tipping his toe in the free agent waters.On top of the need for a game-changing player, Francis didn’t give a ringing endorsement to his goaltending tandem when asked if the team would look to improve that position.”I think there’s a lot of areas we look at,” he said. “Certainly [goaltending is] one we would look at again. There is a risk that we lose one of those guys in the expansion draft as well.”Francis said the expansion draft, like the entry draft, could also provide an opportunity to strike a deal with a team trying to best position itself.”There’s a lot of things that I think will play out between the end of the season and the expansion draft with a lot of teams, whether they need guys to exposed or they’re worried about losing guy they expose,” Francis added. “So there may be some moves that happen in that time frame.”While Francis continues to look for ways to end the Hurricanes’ playoff drought while not drifting off course of his greater plan, he has questions about the coaching staff, team leadership and the team’s spending budget to consider — all things he said would be weighed following the season.”So there’s a lot of positives and we’ve got to continue to build it the right way and hopefully we can get over that hump sooner rather than later,” he said. “But it’s frustrating to be selling again when I was hoping to be in a different position.”