Another year, another late season run of success that comes too late to make the playoffs, but ultimately puts the Carolina Hurricanes out of lottery range. Such is the life of a Canes fan. It’s especially frustrating this year, given the prizes that are awarded to the worst teams this year. Make no mistake, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are going to be franchise-changing players for whichever team acquires them. Even Ron Francis, in a rare bit of transparency, stated that, should the Canes win the lottery, “that changes our perspective moving forward.”
With grand prizes like “McEichel” for the worst teams in the league, Carolina fans must be a bit conflicted with their team’s recent play. Since the return of Jordan Staal in early January, the team has gone 15-9-3. Not a great record, but certainly better than the 10-23-4 record they boasted before the big center’s return from injury. The improvement in play shouldn’t have come as any surprise, and in fact, was easily predictable back in December. Unfortunately for those with McDavid on the mind, the improved play comes at a cost.
Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The Canes recent success, combined with the lackluster play of other teams, has them moving up in the standings. In mid-December, the Hurricanes were tied for dead last in the league, with only the Edmonton Oilers coming close to their level of ineptitude. Since then, the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes hit a free fall, and the Columbus Blue Jackets finally succumbed to the overwhelming number of injuries they’ve suffered this year. None, however, hold a candle to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Hurricanes can pull within two points of Leafs with regulation win tonight; On Dec. 18 they were 22 points behind
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 20, 2015
If they win tonight’s game, the Hurricanes will pass the Leafs and the Blue Jackets in the standings, putting them in the 6th spot in the lottery standings, which has a 7.5% chance to win a shot at drafting McDavid. The good news is, barring a big run by Carolina and/or an extremely bad run by the New Jersey Devils or Dallas Stars, 6th is about as high as the Hurricanes can go if they continue to win games.
Head coach Bill Peters is doing everything possible to ensure the Canes will win those games. After embarrassing, lack-luster losses to the Chicago Blackhawks and the Minnesota Wild, Peters ripped into his team.
“I’m not sure [what changed],” said Peters after the loss to Minnesota. “But we’re going to have to get it figured out because we’re not going to watch this 19 more times, I know that.”
The Silver Lining
Who knows how the fates will play out? The hockey gods are fickle beings and may reward the Canes for their sustained success late in the season. It wouldn’t be the first time. Back in 2009-2010 season, Carolina was in the hunt for the Taylor Hall/Tyler Seguin duo that topped that year’s draft charts. On January 1st of that season, they had 27 points, 9 points less than the next closest team. A string of late season success pushed them out of lottery range, so they had to settle for drafting 7th. Their consolation prizes in that draft? Some guys name Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk.
With the head coach making it clear that losses of any sort, even against teams that are heavily favored, simply aren’t going to be acceptable in this final stretch of the season, the hope for McDavid will rest on the lottery chance. With Buffalo 14 points behind the Canes, and Edmonton 10 points behind, there’s no chance the Hurricanes will finish last. While the Hurricanes could theoretically lose enough to move back into the 4th spot for the lottery standings, it’s a difference of 2% between 4th and 6th. Is 2% really worth watching the team disregard all the momentum they’ve built up since January?
So Canes fans, enjoy the ride. Enjoy watching Faulk develop into a #1 defenseman right before our eyes. Enjoy watching the development of Viktor Rask and Elias Lindholm as they grow accustomed to the pro game. Enjoy watching Skinner and Alexander Semin return to their goal-scoring form. Whatever issue the two wingers had with Peters’ system appears to have been alleviated, as both are playing their best hockey of the season. Skinner has 8 goals in his past 12 games, and Semin is feeling confident enough to pull this off:
Right now, this season was the first year of a rebuilding process that Francis has hinted may take years. Already, there are a lot of positive signs to take from it. Connor McDavid will certainly speed up the process, but he’s not the end-all, be-all. If the commitment of the coach, players, and general manager are any indication, the Hurricanes will make the playoffs again at the end of this rebuilding process, with or without McDavid on the team. So all we can do now is sit back and enjoy the ride.
Jonathan Gardner currently lives in Raleigh, NC and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.