Hurricanes’ youth infusion too little, too late

Valentin Zykov, Warren Foegele impress in recalls, further raising questions why flourishing AHL players weren’t promoted sooner

Hurricanes forward Valentin Zykov, the AHL’s leading goal scorer, had three goals and five points in his first four games since being recalled to Carolina. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

RALEIGH — “Well, there’s guys coming.”

After Bill Peters saw Warren Foegele, in his first NHL game on Monday, score and later assist on fellow call-up Valentin Zykov’s eventual game-winning goal, the Carolina Hurricanes coach had nothing but praise for the depth the organization has built since he arrived nearly four years ago.

“Ronnie, I think, has done a great job through the draft,” Peters said of Ron Francis, who was relieved of his GM duties earlier this month by new owner Tom Dundon. “I think his staff did a great job.”

Peters was quick to mention the team’s recent high draft picks.

“You look at (Martin) Necas, you look at (Jake) Bean and those types of players that are coming,” he exclaimed.

“And Ned’s, I believe, leading the American Hockey League in wins, which is obviously an important stat,” he said of second-year goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. “Everyone looks at save percentage, goals against, but wins are important.

“There’s lots coming.”

The Hurricanes have been in a youth movement since Francis took over as general manager in 2014, and his fingerprints are all over the current roster and the next wave of players. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce — though drafted by Jim Rutherford — quickly earned NHL jobs in their first professional season.

Sebastian Aho is another homegrown talent — an emerging star — and additions like Teuvo Teravainen, along with a commitment to stockpiling draft picks and assets, left the franchise in a much better place than when Francis took over.

Those efforts, however, weren’t enough to save Francis from his fate, one that was probably sealed by an offseason of modest — but not insignificant — talent acquisition that largely flopped. Goalie Scott Darling and center Marcus Kruger are players the team would take a mulligan on in an instant. And while Justin Williams and Trevor van Riemsdyk are both having serviceable seasons, neither was able to instill the championship mindset Francis and Peters touted on an otherwise inexperienced team.

Which leads us to perhaps the biggest failure of all: The decision by the tandem to hold off on recalling players like Zykov and Foegele despite their overwhelming success in the AHL.

Zykov has been with the Hurricanes for only a week, but in four games (heading into Tuesday night’s game in New Jersey) he has three goals and two assists playing with Aho and Teravainen.

He still leads the AHL by a three-goal margin with 32 goals after Monday’s games, and concerns about his two-way play (he’s minus-13 with the Checkers) and that he’s simply a power play specialist (half his goals there came with the man advantage) have been proven wrong by his performance: He’s plus-5 in Carolina and all five of his points have come at even strength.

Roland McKeown hasn’t looked overwhelmed playing 15-plus minutes on defense. Foegele, being a first-year pro, has been more of a surprise. But the fact remains that he was tearing up the AHL with 26 goals as a rookie — while killing penalties and not getting power play time — yet didn’t get a shot with the Hurricanes until the team was out of the playoff race.

Peters is right: Carolina’s youth is coming. But if they had come earlier, it might have saved Francis’ job. Peters may wind up wondering the same about his fate.