Carolina Hurricanes: Stuck Between Two Futures

I wrote on Saturday about how the future of the Carolina Hurricanes seems to be defense-oriented. They have many solid prospects in their organization, and have the opportunity to add another top-tier talent in the upcoming 2015 NHL Entry Draft. However, even if everything goes according to plan, many of those prospects are still years away from having any significant impact on the league. So what about the more immediate future?

As shown above, general manager Ron Francis doesn’t see the Canes making many big moves in the offseason, but specifically mentions the defensive corps as something that needs to be addressed. And if you look at the Hurricanes defense on paper, it’s no wonder why Francis wants to make that a priority. The Canes do have 24-year-old Justin Faulk, coming off his best statistical season in his young career, and Ron Hainsey has been known to perform as a serviceable Top 4 defenseman at times. However, outside of those two, there’s a lot of unproven or questionable talent on the Hurricanes’ back end.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Of course, hockey isn’t played on paper, it’s played on the ice. And on the ice, there were very few teams that boasted a better defense than the Hurricanes this past year, statistically speaking. The Canes had the #4 ranked penalty-kill this season, and were ranked #3 in Shots Against. Only the Minnesota Wild can claim to also be Top 5 in both categories.

So if Carolina had the ability to prevent a lot of shots and had a successful PK in the process, why were they ranked #18 in Goals Against? A combination of factors. Both Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin had years they would rather forget, as the two goaltenders put up a combined .909 SV% at 5-on-5. That ranks 28th in the league, and it’s at least partially explained by the consistent defensive breakdowns that the Canes defense seemed to run into.

There’s no better example than a 6-1 drubbing that the Florida Panthers gave the Hurricanes late in the season. Though Khudobin was certainly responsible for some of the goals against, in this goal, Michal Jordan gets caught up the ice after an unnecessary pinch and Danny Biega attempts to play the two-on-one, but ultimately gives Aleksander Barkov far too much room to work with.

Limiting shots can win a team a lot of games, but if the chances they DO give up are still high quality, it doesn’t bode well.

Immediate Solutions

The good news is that Francis doesn’t seem to be swayed by the statistically-good defense and will spend the offseason looking for a partner for Justin Faulk. The bad news is that the Canes will have a tough time attracting many good defensemen, due to a limited budget and the stigma of missing the playoffs the past 6 seasons.

Andrej Sekera was Faulk’s partner last year and the two were probably the first legitimate top-pairing the Hurricanes have had in years. But Sekera was an upcoming free agent and with the Canes not making the playoffs, he was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a 2016 1st round pick and Roland McKeown. It also looks like he won’t be a target to re-sign in the offseason.

Fellow THW writer Dan Rice believes that the New Jersey Devils may be rebuilding their defense If we exclude Andy Greene and assume that Adam Larsson would be took expensive to acquire, that leaves some interesting choices for the Hurricanes. If the Canes go through a rebuilding phase, Eric Gelinas should be a target. At 24-years-old, he should just be starting to enter his prime, and he’s shown the ability to play some solid hockey in his two seasons. If they don’t target Gelinas, Mark Fraser, an upcoming free agent from the Devils, could also be an interesting pick.

Mike Green is the top upcoming free agent defenseman going into the offseason, but if the Canes couldn’t afford to pay Sekera what he wanted to stay in Carolina, it’s unlikely they’ll have the budget to go after Green. However, someone like Cody Franson could be an adequate replacement at half the cost. The drop in offensive numbers once he was traded to Nashville is a concern, especially with an offensively stagnant team like Carolina, but he may be worth taking a flyer on.

Deciding Which Way to Go

Ron Francis is in a tough position. The organization desperately needs a rebuild and he does seem to realize this. However, after missing the playoffs for 8 out of the past 9 years, the fanbase is sick and tired of watch a losing product on the ice. Attendance this past season plummeted, thanks in large part to the team going 0-for-October. There was no false hope of making the playoffs this year. They were killed before they even began. The organization can’t handle another season like that. Losing games is one thing, but simply not being competitive is another.

So the organization cannot go “scorched earth” and eliminate all the talent on this team. They have to make it seem like they’re still attempting to make the playoffs, even in the midst of a rebuild. An interview with The Hockey News supports that. Francis seems to chalk the poor season last year to injuries more than a general lack of talent.

“I don’t care what team you are – if you lose three of your top six forwards, it makes it tough to win in this league,” Francis said. “It’s tough when you’re healthy, let alone when you’re missing top-end guys.”

Whether the Canes general manager believes that to be true, or is simply pandering to the fans to provide the false hope that fuels attendance in late Feb/March, only he knows. But hope springs eternal, and if Francis makes the right moves in the offseason, he may just keep the team competitive enough until the Canes prospect pool develops into a force to be reckoned with.