Barring a disaster in Edmonton or a miracle in Carolina, the Hurricanes will inherit a dubious title from the Oilers on April 9: Longest active playoff drought in the National Hockey League.
Along with that dishonour, the Hurricanes would be wise to steal something else from Peter Chiarelli & Co. — a bold approach to the trade market.
That means trading, however painfully, from an area of great depth to remedy a position of desperate need.
“These next five games will give us a better understanding of where we are,” Carolina GM Ron Francis told Chip Alexander of The News & Observer last week as his Canes wrapped their bye week.
Carolina went out and dropped the first two of those five games over the weekend, mustering a grand total of one goal versus the last-place Colorado Avalanche and Toronto Maple Leafs (whose backup goalie, Curtis McElhinney, got his first shutout in about three years).
Where the Hurricanes are is lottery bound, dead last in the Eastern Conference, with a minus-21 goal differential, a four-game losing skid, staring up at eight teams they’ll need to pole-vault in order to quench their post-season drought.
Yep. This will mark the eighth consecutive season Carolina is not invited to the spring dance
, breaking the record I set in high school.
Ownership is open to selling, home attendance ranks as the NHL’s worst (11,925 fans on average, down for the fourth straight year), and television ratings were not provided in a recent SportsBusiness Journal survey. We take that as a bad sign.
All of this despite having the healthiest non-playoff team in the NHL.
“I’m always open to anything that will make our team better,” Francis said, eyeing the league’s March 1 deadline and pointing out that his club has four games in hand over some playoff teams.
Thing is, Carolina is not altogether awful.
Its penalty kill is the toast of the league, its 5-on-5 possession in close games ranks sixth overall, and head coach Bill Peters has the right temperament and approach for a rebuilding club with the lowest payroll in the NHL.
But, boy, do the Hurricanes lack finish up front.
Of the top 78 scorers in the NHL this season, the Hurricanes have zero.
Jeff Skinner is among a group of NHLers tied at 79th with 38 points, and he’s having a good season. We love rookie Sebastian Aho (17 goals) as much as the next guy, but there simply aren’t enough weapons on this roster.
Also: there is no captain. Since the necessary departure of Eric Staal, who is the face of this franchise? Skinner? Jordan Staal? Goalie Cam Ward? “Long-tenured” 24-year-old defenceman Justin Faulk?
(The Maple Leafs, the NHL’s other captain-free club, at least have an it’s-only-a-matter-of-time candidate in Auston Matthews.)
On the flip side, Francis has the tools to pull off a significant move (or two or three) in order to balance this group.
• Carolina has more salary cap space than anybody (roughly $15.5 million). Francis smartly used that to his advantage last June when he scooped Teuvo Teravainen from Chicago, allowing the Blackhawks to unload Bryan Bickell’s expensive contract.
• Carolina has draft picks it could use as currency. Not only does Francis hold an extra second-rounder (Rangers) and third-rounder (Devils) in the upcoming draft, his own picks could be quite valuable if the Hurricanes continue to increase their lottery odds.
• Carolina boasts an enviable crop of emerging defencemen. Call them Anaheim East.
Placing a premium on blue-liners in their draft strategy, Carolina is overflowing with capable D-men aged 25 and under: Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce, Ryan Murphy, Klas Dahlbeck, Jaccob Slavin, Haydn Fleury, et al.
They’re affordable and in demand. The list of opponents interested in young, controllable defenders is long. Let’s throw out a few: Tampa Bay, Colorado, Dallas, Boston, Toronto, Edmonton, New York, Detroit.
Saying all of this, Francis may be best served by waiting until June to make noise, the way Chiarelli did with the controversial Taylor Hall trade.
In the next nine days, Carolina should look to move impending UFAs Jay McClement, Viktor Stalberg and Ron Hainsey.
All three veterans are solid defensive players and penalty killers with cap hits contenders can afford. Sell them off and further stock the cupboard for a bigger move in the future. (Looking to buy, the Blackhawks, Islanders and Penguins have all struggled on the PK.)
To keep interest from waning even further in Raleigh, something must be done to boost the Hurricanes’ offence and up the entertainment value.
Simply put: Carolina needs a dynamic scorer, and it has the pieces to swap for one.
“If that’s an area of strength and you can address an area of weakness, we’d certainly look at those possibilities,” Francis told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun last week.
“Our philosophy has always been the same: if we’re looking at something at this point, it’s something that has to make us better now, but also has to make us better in the long haul.”
Eight years is already a long haul.