Starting with a change at the top
Last summer, Hurricanes GM Ron Francis put a stake in the ground when he somewhat surprisingly decided not to re-sign long-time Hurricanes company man Jeff Daniels and instead looked outside the organization to bring in veteran AHL bench boss Mark Morris. Put simply, the organization had not had enough success converting good AHL players to at least serviceable NHLers. Francis also added veteran journeyman Derek Ryan to the mix. Ryan would go on to be the team’s captain and provide a veteran presence at the top of the roster.
From there, the 2015-16 season rolled forward through both ups and downs but with the team playing at the edge of the playoff cut line heading into the last couple months of the season. Then Canes GM Ron Francis made another big move to shake up the languishing roster and bring in new blood. At the AHL trade deadline, Francis parted ways with 3 of the 5 oldest players on the roster in Zach Boychuk, Drew McIntyre and T.J. Hensick and brought in a bunch of fresh faces to try to push for the playoffs. I think it is likely that the injection of new veterans in John Muse, Dennis Robertson, Anthony Camara, Andrew Miller, Dane Fox and Blair Jones was a short-lived push to make the 2015-16 AHL playoffs. With the need to back fill slots vacated by Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg who were traded at the NHL level, the organization needed more players, especially at forward. It was very much Ron Francis making a play for the here and now at the AHL level.
But getting back to the plan
Ron Francis’ consistent mantra since becoming general manager has been that the goal is to build a better and deeper system such that the next time the Canes make the playoffs it comes from a repeatable formula that can bring consistent success. The path to doing this is to build depth throughout the system such that the AHL team gets both younger and better at the same time just like the NHL team did in 2015-16. The Hurricanes organization is making progress but is still a couple years away from reaching this goal. On defense, the Canes at times iced 5 player at the NHL level who were 23 years old or younger. Even with the number of players who skipped or moved quickly past the AHL level, the 2016-17 Checkers blue line is likely to include 20-year olds Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury (possibly paired together) in a significant role (if they do not improbably make the jump straight to the NHL) and 22-year old Trevor Carrick as its leader. In goal, the Canes could also transition from an average age of late 20s for the 2015-16 season to an average age of just 21 next fall if Alex Nedeljkovic and Daniel Altshuller win the 2 AHL jobs. The youth makeover at forward will take a bit longer but has been expedited a bit by Ron Francis’ trade deadline work this season that saw the Canes add 20-year old Valentin Zykov in the Kris Versteeg trade and 19-year old Aleksi Saarela in the Eric Staal trade.
A harbinger of things to come
On the heels of the batch of deals during the season that saw veteran Checkers leave, today it was announced that soon to be 25-year old Checker and Canes blue line prospect Rasmus Rissanen had signed a contract to play in the KHL next season. With Fleury, McKeown and possibly Josh Wesley (not yet signed) on the way to Charlotte, a couple veterans (Rissanen being 1 of them now) would have to depart. While there will always be room for a few veteran leaders and producers to help boost a good AHL team, this trend of older players departing and being replaced by younger prospects will be a regular theme over the next couple years as Francis continues to build the depth of the system. Expect the average age of the Checkers roster to continue to trend downward.
Possible unscheduled change
Though a bit of a mixed bag with the late collapse and playoff miss, I would call Morris’ first year in Charlotte a success on the whole because it did include a stream of players jumping from the AHL to the NHL reasonably successfully. Though the sample size is small and Morris’ credit unclear for some players that he coached only briefly, the trend is definitely positive after many years of difficulty successfully transitioning AHL performance to the NHL level. All in all, I would rate the Checkers as heading in the right direction.
So it represented a potential setback for the Hurricanes organization when it was announced in mid-April that Checkers’ coach Mark Morris was 1 of the coaches being considered for the St. Lawrence University job. That position would be a return to home to where his wife still lives. Though obviously not part of Francis’ original plan, it looks to be 1 of those unavoidable and legitimate “for personal reasons” type of moves. I have yet to hear see an official announcement or find a timeline for the decision on this, but it would obviously add another task to Ron Francis’ summer work list if Mark Morris does depart.