RALEIGH — For just about any other organization, Monday’s end-of-season availability for the Carolina Hurricanes would have been a coronation of Sebastian Aho as the face of the franchise. When owner Tom Dundon met with the media after the press’ time with the players was over, he said as much.
“I can tell you, we’re not finding better players than Sebastian Aho,” Dundon said. “We’re just not. We’re not finding hard workers and we’re not finding more committed hockey players.”
Dundon’s praise of Aho, however, was a postscript to his larger message: No one is safe, and everyone — management, players, coaches, and maybe even concession workers and parking attendants — should be on full alert.
“It’s our job to find players better than you, and it’s your job to make that hard,” was the message Dundon said he delivered to players during exit interviews — meetings he held without a figure from the front office or coach Bill Peters. “But there’s none of them I’m not trying to replace. Every one of them I want a better player than every one of them. That’s our job.”
It was clear that Dundon sees the entire organization in such a light, saying several times “everything that we did was wrong” since the end result wasn’t more wins and an end to the team’s playoff drought, now at nine seasons.
“Utter disappointment is what my thoughts are,” said forward Justin Williams, added in the offseason to infuse a winning attitude to a losing franchise. “[I] came into this season assuming we were going to take the next step and make the playoffs. We didn’t. It’s a failure. Enough said.”
Williams, barring an unforeseen trade, will be back to try again next season. That may not be the case for several players, including goaltender Cam Ward, the one true holdover from the Hurricanes’ 2006 Stanley Cup team.
With Dundon promising a “major shakeup” and underperforming goaltending a major reason for Carolina’s prolonged playoff absence, Ward — who was actually the more successful netminder of the tandem that included big-ticket acquisition Scott Darling — may have played his final game with the Hurricanes.
“Yeah, it crossed my mind that this could potentially be my last game as a Hurricane,” Ward said of his emotions in the season finale at home against Tampa Bay. “I was nervous before playing that game, to be honest, just knowing that. I’m emotionally invested in this organization, I have been for the last 13 years. And I want to continue that, but there’s a lot of uncertainty throughout the organization.”
Part of that uncertainty is the future of Peters, who has coached the team to four of those nine years outside the playoffs. Dundon confirmed that Peters has “options” — a previously reported clause that would allow him out of the final year of his contract — and that he and the coach would meet to discuss the future soon.
“Right now, it’s just one of the many things we need to do as we consider our future,” Dundon said, alluding to the ongoing GM search.
When further pressed, Dundon simply reiterated that, as of now, Peters is the team’s coach. While his answers were seemingly evasive, it was clear Dundon wasn’t going to play his hand while Peters holds the option to walk away. If Peters were to leave on his own, Dundon and the Hurricanes are off the hook for his salary. If Dundon fires Peters, the coach would be owed his reported $1.6 million payout.
Or Peters could be back for a fifth season, something sources from the team have said is a possibility.
“I wish I could give an answer that it’s the goalie or the coach or the toughness or goal scoring, but it’s like everything — there’s no silver bullet here,” Dundon said. “There are a number of things. I think there are a lot of positive things about Bill, and there are things that Bill needs to work on.”
Dundon made it clear there was plenty of improvements needed throughout the organization, something both Williams and Ward echoed.
“We have a bunch of good guys in the room — they’re almost too good of guys,” Ward said. “There’s got to be that snarl, that competitive drive. You’ve got to hate to lose.”
It was why Williams — with his three Stanley Cups and reputation as “Mr. Game 7” for his clutch playoff performances — was brought in last offseason. His addition alone wasn’t enough.
“Mediocrity is a very, very slippery slope,” Williams said. “You need to be going one way or the other. This team is just kind of mired in mediocrity right now. That’s not acceptable for anybody.”