RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes’ approaching offseason is brought to you by one word: Uncertainty.
The biggest question mark is finding the team’s next general manager, with Ron Francis essentially demoted upstairs in late February. There have been hiccups in that search, with the team’s early transparency leading to many candidates publicly removing their name from consideration.
The quest for Francis’ replacement has since gone underground, with outside candidates being evaluated and in-house options — assistant GM Mike Vellucci and team president Don Waddell have both notably taken on bigger roles since Francis was relocated to president of hockey operations — a possibility.
Until new owner Tom Dundon chooses the franchise’s next general manager, there won’t be many answers.
“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty in the whole organization in terms of what’s going on, especially in the offseason, for next season,” said center Derek Ryan, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, when asked if he had discussions with the team regarding a new contract. “Yeah, I don’t know. I hadn’t heard anything about it.”
The same holds true for goaltender Cam Ward, who was drafted by the organization in 2002 and is finishing his 13th season with the team.
“Obviously I take pride in being a Hurricane for as long as I have and I certainly would like, if I had my way, to play my whole career as a Hurricane,” he said following Thursday practice at PNC Arena. “But we’ll wait to see what happens here at the end of the season.
“I’m going to try to end on a positive note this last week, go into my exit meetings and hopefully have a little more guidance one way or the other what the plan is,” he added.
Ryan also said he wanted to return to the Hurricanes.
“We love it here. We love Raleigh, we love the organization, believe in what’s going on here,” he said. “But at this time last year, I didn’t know anything either. It’s more wait until the season’s over until we’re back in Spokane (Washington, his hometown), and my agent will start talking to the team and kind of move from there.”
And the biggest speculation surrounds the future of coach Bill Peters, who will be completing his fourth season in Carolina and will again come short of leading the Hurricanes back to the postseason.
Peters is already in exclusive company. Since 2000, only three other NHL coaches have missed the playoffs four straight years to start their tenure with a team.
Wayne Gretzky coached the Phoenix Coyotes from 2005-09, never reaching the postseason. Gretzky had a long leash because: a) He is Wayne Gretzky; b) He was a part-owner of the team. Gretzky both resigned and relinquished his ownership stake of the team that offseason when the team went bankrupt.
Ron Wilson — coaching under Providence College teammate and longtime friend Brian Burke — was fired by the Maple Leafs after Game 64 in 2011-12 in his fourth season with Toronto’s fate outside the playoffs already sealed.
Finally, Barry Trotz missed the playoffs five consecutive seasons while guiding the expansion Predators. Nashville GM David Poile’s patience paid off, however, with the Preds making the postseason in seven of the next eight campaigns. Trotz left Nashville after the 2013-14 season, having missed the playoffs his final two years.
Trotz, as one can see, was the only coach to get a fifth season. Dundon, in an interview with North State Journal about two weeks ago, said a decision on Peters’ future with the team wouldn’t happen until a new GM was in place.
It seems, however, the decision could be Peters’ to make. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported Wednesday that “several sources” told him Peters has a clause in his contract that would allow him to opt out of the final year of his deal, and “he has approximately one week after their season ends to activate it.” Friedman said Peters’ salary for next season, the second year of a two-year extension signed in the summer of 2016 when the coach still had a year left on his initial three-year deal, is $1.6 million.
When asked Thursday about the clause, Peters said he hadn’t read the report and was unaware of the parameters of his deal.
“I’d have to look at it, to be honest with you,” he said. “We did that contract at the draft in Buffalo, whatever year that was, a couple years ago, and I haven’t looked at my contract since. No need to.”
Peters added that he and Dundon “talk about next year all the time,” then said the team’s post-draft development camp was already set, and he was awaiting information on September’s Traverse City prospects tournament.
Peters sounded like a coach who was already making plans for 2018-19 for what would be a nearly unprecedented fifth chance at returning the Hurricanes to the playoffs.
With management changes in the works and questions about the coaching staff, there have also been assurances from both Dundon and Waddle that the on-ice personnel needs to be changed.
Ward, Ryan and Lee Stempniak are all unrestricted free agents, and RFAs Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin will be among those the team needs to make decisions on this offseason.
Furthermore, Jeff Skinner enters the final year of his six-year, $34.35 million contract and could be shopped if he’s not in the team’s long-term plans. Co-captain Justin Faulk, with two years left on his contract, has often been mentioned as a target of other teams as well.
And then there’s Scott Darling, who has floundered in the first season of a four-year, $16.6 million contract and is likely one of the reasons Francis was “reassigned.”
Decisions on all above the above players are set to begin when the team names its next GM, though Peters could conceivably leave the team and Dundon searching for a new coach as well.
“We haven’t talked about,” Peters responded when asked if Dundon had given him assurances he’d be back next season. “There’s lots of time for that. Lots of time.
“It’ll all come due at the end of the year, right?”