Road to Raleigh Hockey Runs through Pittsburgh

Raleigh has a professional hockey team. That is a good thing. Even though the fan support has been dismal this season, not having the Carolina Hurricanes in town would create a huge void. Pittsburgh has several professional sports teams. The Steelers, the Pirates and of course the Penguins call Pittsburgh home. The fans have a nice selection from which to choose.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been around since 1967. Part of the NHL’s first expansion, they have had much success in their nearly forty-year existence. The Carolina Hurricanes have been around (as the ‘Canes) since 1997. Prior to that they were the Hartford Whalers. The Penguins have won three Stanley Cup Championships, and the Hurricanes have won one. The success of the Pittsburgh franchise has set fan expectations very high. The same happened in Raleigh in 2006, however ‘Canes fans have slipped into a malaise based on the team’s absence from the NHL playoffs the past five years. Looking like it will be six years isn’t helping get fans out to the PNC Arena this season.

Raleigh loves Penguins

The most notable proof that Raleigh loves Penguins comes in the form of former GM Jim Rutherford’s free agent pickup of Ron Francis. It can be argued that picking up the former Penguin great turned the Hurricanes into legitimate contenders. While it was 8 years before they would hoist the Cup, they made the playoffs three of the next four seasons after Francis arrived in Raleigh. In 2002, Carolina actually went to the NHL finals. In Game 1, Ron Francis scored the game winner  in an overtime thriller, but the ‘Canes ended up losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games. The impact of Ron Francis the former Penguin is without dispute.

Sure Francis had a history with the team as a Hartford Whaler. And he made a huge impact on the Pittsburgh Penguins. But his impact on the Carolina Hurricanes’ hockey history is undeniably great and still being written. As the newly minted General Manager/Executive Vice-President of the ‘Canes, Francis will leave his imprint on the team for what will likely be many years to come.

Unlike his predecessor Jim Rutherford who is now in – you guessed it – Pittsburgh, Francis is not currently blessed with a playoff-contending team. Ole JR may find himself watching hockey games well into June of 2015, while Francis will likely be working the phones trying to lure Connor McDavid, or Jack Eichel, or Noah Hanifin to the Hurricanes. Raleigh News & Observer reporter, Luke DeCock opined on December 10th that Francis should call it a season and begin the rebuild now. I’m not ready to go that far, but a few more losses and DeCock may be right. Some fans would agree that this season is done:

 Another Carolina Penguin

Jordan Staal is another Carolina Hurricane who played hockey in Pittsburgh. He was acquired by the ‘Canes in a trade in June of 2012. His play for Carolina has been okay, not overwhelming. As I wrote on September 15th, there is debate in Raleigh as to whether or not Staal is overrated and overpaid. ‘Canes fans were all set to find out what kind of impact he would have under new head coach Bill Peters, when unfortunately he broke his leg on September 23rd in a game against the Buffalo Sabres.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yz8FaDTXfHU

The hit by Josh Gorges did not look significant when it happened, but it was indeed very significant. Staal has been out since, and the Hurricanes still have not had a chance to play a single game this regular season at what would be considered full-strength. His recovery is progressing, and as predicted yesterday, did join the team in the morning skate in Tampa.

While it can be said that the acquisition of Jordan Staal by the Hurricanes was another mile marker on the road to Raleigh hockey running through Pittsburgh, it really has yet to be seen if it is a marker that will point in the direction of the post-season. Jordan and his brother Eric make up over $15,000,000 in salary of the team’s total player payroll this season. That is a substantial amount. Everyone around the team is hopeful that Jordan Staal will return fully recovered sooner rather than later, and that he will make a difference in the team’s success.

Penguin becomes a ‘Cane for a few months

Many fans of ‘Canes hockey will remember Mark Recchi. Starting with the Pittsburgh Penguins and winning a Stanley Cup with them in 1991, Recchi played with the Philadelphia Flyers, the Montreal Canadiens, and back to Pittsburgh. He was acquired by the Hurricanes in March of 2006, and helped the team complete its successful run for the Stanley Cup that year. In the offseason, he went back to Pittsburgh. He eventually won a third Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011. (Recchi was 43 when he won his third. Note to doubters of the 42-year old Jaromír Jágr.)

According to NHL.com, Mark Recchi played in twenty regular season games for the Hurricanes in 2006. He had four goals and three assists. In the ensuing playoffs, he appeared in twenty-five games and had seven goals and nine assists. Two of his goals were game-winners, and two came on the power play. While his time in red was short-lived, it can be argued that he was an integral piece of the Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup puzzle in 2006. Another example of the road to Raleigh hockey running through Pittsburgh which, like Ron Francis, had a positive result.

The road sometimes runs both ways

Probably the most notable Carolina Hurricane to go north – with the exception of Jim Rutherford – is Jussi Jokinen. Acquired by the Pens in April of 2013, the ‘Canes received a conditional pick in 2013 in exchange. Jokinen was not a superstar while in Raleigh, nor did he reach that level in Pittsburgh. He is a reliable player with a lot of experience. He is now playing with the Florida Panthers. Of course ‘Canes were less than thrilled when Jussi scored his second career hat trick facing his former team on October 8, 2013.

As I noted on June 6th of this year, other notable Hurricanes to go north have been Brandon Sutter in 2012. Sutter was drafted by the ‘Canes in 2007 and traded to Pittsburgh in the trade for Jordan Staal. Sutter had a career-high 40 points with the Hurricanes in 2009, and has been marginal in is time in Pittsburgh. Although they did re-sign him in August of this year to a two-year contract worth $6.6 million.

Another former Hurricane Craig Adams went from Raleigh to Chicago to Pittsburgh.

Craig Adams won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. There seems to be a trend forming where these two teams have had players in common who have contributed to each others’ success. While Adams detoured through Chicago on his way north, he is yet another example of shared success between these two teams.

There are a few others I could mention, but instead I’ll ask if the road to hockey in Raleigh will continue its run through Pittsburgh? It may. We do know that Rutherford loves to “acquire assets.” If the Penguins see something the Hurricanes have that could bolster their playoff run, the phone in the PNC Arena may start ringing. Or maybe Ron Francis might dangle something in front of JR that he can’t resist and the ‘Canes could acquire some assets of their own. In any event, it’s a lovely drive from Pittsburgh to Raleigh and back. Perhaps someone special will make the trip south soon.

These are my ‘Canes-Penguins connections. What are yours? Feel free to share them in the comment section below.