Adam Gold

Will Canes buy or sell?

Posted February 12
Updated February 15

For five days the Carolina Hurricanes will sit, watch and wonder.

Sit on a beach, in a golf cart, or at a movie theater taking advantage of the rest and opportunity to recharge the bye week should provide. Watch while the eight or so other teams in the fight for the final playoff spot try to put more distance between the Canes and the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. Wonder if too much damage has already been done and if they’re even good enough to pull this off starting Friday when final 29-game sprint commences.

The Hurricanes are 14th in the Eastern Conference standings, but only six points out of the final playoff spot currently held by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Carolina closed out the five game stretch between the All Star break and their off week with a pair of mistake-prone losses that all but erased from memory the three-game winning streak that included wins over the Flyers and Islanders — two of those teams in this Battle Royale for the final spot. Yet, when the Canes hit the ice on Friday against the Avalanche, they will have math in their favor.

Carolina will have at least two games in hand on every team in front of them and as many as five on the Bruins and Flyers. The Hurricanes will play 17 of their final 29 games at PNC Arena — including their first five — where they are 17-6-1. Of Carolina’s final 29 games 11 will come against those teams in direct path between the Canes and their goal of ending an eight-year playoff drought, so all of this is under Carolina’s direct control. In addition, the Canes still have all four games remaining against the Coyotes and Avalanche, the two worst teams in the NHL.

The reality, however, is that the Hurricanes have much less time than it appears. The trade deadline is March 1, and there will be just six games between Friday and decision time. Without at least 10 points in those six games, there’s no reason at all for General Manager Ron Francis to enhance this roster for this season. In fact, it would probably be smart to see what trade value was out there for veterans like Viktor Stalberg, Ron Hainsey or Jay McClement. The answer is likely to be “not much”, but without an explosive start out of the break, there’s almost no reason at all to be buyers on the 1st.

That brings us to a fair assessment of the 2016-17 Hurricanes. A year that saw young emerging stars establish themselves as legitimate building blocks toward future success. Sebastian Aho has become one of the Hurricanes best forwards. It’s just not a coincidence that every line on which he’s included suddenly becomes their “top” trio. Remember when he was skating with Teuvo Teravainen and Lee Stempniak? Right now, Aho, Jordan Staal and Elias Lindholm can’t be on the ice enough.

As for Lindholm, sometimes it just takes a player time to find out who they are. Elias spent the first few seasons searching for an identity. However, this year, even long before the creation of this A-S-L combination, Lindholm was showing signs that there was more to his game than just a few slick passes on the power play. Good in the face off circle, strong on the wall and now creating goals for others like you’d expect out of a high draft pick. In Lindy’s last 30 games, he’s got 25 points (5 goals, 20 assists) and is a plus-2.

Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have become entrenched as Carolina’s top defensive pairing, supplanting Hainsey and Justin Faulk in that role. Remarkable in that this is just year two for both players and each has so much room to grow offensively and physically. Each player needs to take a step farther in their ability to create offense and to play with a little more bite in front of their own net, but each is also smarter than you’ll find in 22-year-old blue-liners.

Add to the core of Faulk, Staal, Skinner, Rask and developing players like Teravainen, McGinn and defenseman Noah Hanifin — who, if truth be told, was probably in the NHL before he was mentally ready — and you see why so many around the league are high on the Hurricanes future.

How best to make that next step is the job for Francis and others to decide. Clearly, the Hurricanes are in dire need of another play making forward. Whether it’s a center who can get the most out of Jeff Skinner’s goal-scoring talent or a forward that would demand attention on the other side of the ice to give Jeff more room on the left.

It’s also plain to see that the Hurricanes are in need of a goaltender. Cam Ward’s resurgence to number one status this year was as welcome as it was unexpected. Even though Ward closed the last half of the 2015-16 season on an upswing, few expected Ward to be able to carry the team the way he did for the better part of three months. Say what you will about Ward’s overall numbers, which admittedly have him in the bottom half of the league’s net minders, from Nov. 1-Jan. 14, Ward was among the league’s best.

He started 32 of 34 games, registered a goals against average (GAA) of 2.14 and a .922 save percentage (SV%) while compiling a 17-9-5 mark. At age 32, that’s far too much of a burden to ask Ward to carry and from the start of that fateful five-game losing streak his play has been inconsistent. Unfortunately, with Eddie Lack at this point having proven incapable of providing adequate relief, Bill Peters has had little choice but to roll Ward out there to diminishing returns.

Now comes the task of how these most pressing issues are addressed. Well, before Ron Francis can tackle that problem, the team has to tell him whether or not it’s worth it today, or an issue best dealt with in the off season. Sweep the home stand beginning Friday against Colorado, then feel free to augment the roster on the fringes or (far less likely) with something more dynamic. But, anything short of that heading to Florida for games with the Panthers and Lightning and it’s time to start thinking about next season.

Here’s what we know about Francis’ way of thinking; everything is about making this team a playoff team for the long haul as opposed to the short term. So, what the organization thinks about the likes of young forwards Nicholas Roy, Julien Gauthier, Janne Kuokkanen, Aleksi Saarela and others, will impact any decisions to add an established name with a salary to match. Likewise, will the expected arrival of defensemen Jake Bean, Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown, and whether or not there’s a goaltender in the system who can play as many as 30 games next year.

Before you shout the name of Alex Nedeljkovic, the team’s intended “goaltender of the future.” It remains to be seen whether or not he is, or if that more befits the likes of Jeremy Helvig or Callum Booth, a pair of 6-foot-4 prospects having varying degrees of success in junior hockey. I can tell you this much, if the organization believes that Nedeljkovic is the future in goal, it’s really hard to see him with the Hurricanes next season based on his American Hockey League experience thus far.

This is, as I’m sure you could tell, a complicated formula. Taking into account the targeted player, the level of need, the cost of acquisition, the salaries involved — not only at the present time but with an eye to the future — and whether or not that player’s presence is an impediment to utilizing the system to continue this growing foundation.

The final countdown starts Friday. Five games to regain relevance and create clarity for the organization to push for the group of eight this spring, or set the team up for next year and beyond.

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