Whether chatting with local Canes fans or reading articles from the broader hockey world, Ron Francis receives nearly unanimous approval ratings for what he has done position the Carolina Hurricanes for future success.
He inherited a team that was near the bottom of the NHL, really was not that young and had a prospect pool that ranked near the bottom of the league. That is to say that the present was not good, and the future did not look much better.
Fast forward today and at least the future part has improved significantly. One can see it by reading my recent top 15 rankings for Hurricanes prospects and the articles that led up to those rankings. One can also measure it by counting up the seven extra prospects added since Francis became general manager. (Seven is five extra draft picks, mostly in the top three rounds, plus the addition of Aleksi Saarela and Valentin Zykov via trade.)
No matter how you measure it, the future is arguably as bright as it has been in nearly 10 years.
But at the same time, the Hurricanes are also now eight years from their last playoff berth, and for those not counting chickens before they are hatched, Francis and Peters have significant work to do to push up high enough in the NHL’s toughest division to at least make the playoffs.
And therein lies the challenge currently sitting in front of Ron Francis.
The case for patience
The stable of young players seems destined to generate the couple more good players need to boost the level of the team and make the playoffs. In today’s NHL which is a young man’s game, it is not at all inconceivable that a couple prospects make the same ‘ahead of schedule’ jump that Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Sebastian have already made and in the process push the Hurricanes over the top.
In such a scenario, adding another expensive veteran has the potential to be a negative. First, doing so could block the rising young stars from NHL ice time. Second, adding another high salary contract would make it harder to make the salary cap and budget math work when good young players come off entry-level contracts and require significant raises.
Especially if time was not of the essence, one could make a strong case for just riding out the current trajectory of the prospect pool. And there is even a reasonable chance that the patience required is actually not that much if the young players rise up quickly.
The case for a sense of urgency
The issue is that the next wave of prospects who could push the team over the top is just not reaching the AHL level. Pair that with the fact that the Hurricanes are now eight years removed from their last playoff appearance (which ranks longest in the entire NHL), and patience with the core of the fan base is wearing thing.
If the next wave of young players progress in a more step-wise fashion and do not pull a Slavin/Pesce/Aho, their help could still be 2-3 years away. Even if that proves true, the addition of Scott Darling, Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger and Trevor van Riemsdyk could be enough to push over the top, but I had it pegged as a dog fight at best in my early look at the Metropolitan Division.
Could one more forward or a single depth defenseman decide which side of the playoff cut line the Hurricanes find themselves on come next April? Or does the team have enough options between improved depth and a pack of good young players?
With the aim of leaving as little to chance as possible with regard to putting an end to the long playoff drought, one could make a good case for leaning forward a bit and making one more addition.
The rumblings and possibilities are there
Matt Duchene is still anchored in Colorado despite being traded many times over in speculation, maybes and rumors starting all the way back in the middle of the 2016-17 season. Alex Galchenyuk still seems to be an odd many out in Montreal and could be a available. And maybe at the top of the list is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins whose long-term future in Edmonton became more tenuous when Oilers committed a combined $21 million annually to lock of centerpieces Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. I wrote about the Oilers’ situation when Draisaitl was extended last week, and Lyle Richardson from Spector’s Hockey also pegged the Oilers and Hurricanes as potential trade partners.