Coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford decided to stand pat in the offseason, hoping for further improvement from surprising youngsters like Erik Cole, Jaroslav Svoboda and Josef Vasicek. The lone significant change was the departure of Martin Gelinas — a prototype role player who was not only consistent but proved to have a knack for coming up big in big situations.
When Gelinas signed a two-year contract with Calgary during the summer of 2002, not only was it the end of the four-season run of a Raleigh fan favorite, but it marked the last time a Quebec-born player played a significant role for the Hurricanes. From established NHLers like Eric Belanger to prospects like Bruno St. Jacques to current AHLer Jerome Samson, Carolina has yet to strike gold with a Quebec-born player since Gelinas’ departure. Defensemen Alexandre Picard, acquired Feb. 12 from Ottawa along with a second-round pick for Matt Cullen, is the latest Québécois to try and find success in Raleigh ... and break "The Curse of Gelinas."
For whatever reason, Quebec and Raleigh just don't seem to mix. Since the Hurricanes moved to North Carolina, only nine Quebec-born players have played for the franchise (only five in Raleigh), and many of them have been in red and black briefly (Enrico Ciccone for 14 games; Steve Martins for 3; Joey Mormina for 1; goalie Eric Fichaud for 3; and Samson for 5 so far). Kevin Dineen, who spent the two Greensboro years with the Canes and is arguably the most accomplished of the group, was born in Quebec but spent most of his childhood in the United States. St. Jacques, a promising defenseman who was acquired from Philadelphia in the Sami Kapanen-for-Pavel Brendl trade, played just 53 games over two seasons before being traded to Anaheim so the Canes could reacquire Craig Adams.
Belanger was the last Quebec-born Hurricane for which big things were expected. Acquired along with Tim Gleason from the Kings in the Jack Johnson trade, Belanger was supposed to fill the void left by Cullen, who left Carolina the first time following the 2006 Stanley Cup championship season for the Rangers, only to be reacquired a year later.
But Belanger never seemed to fit in with Carolina on the ice. Some fans suggested the French-Canadian simply didn't mesh with the roster, while Carolina owner Peter Karmanos pinned it on coach Peter Laviolette, saying he was too quick to slot new players into a definitive role. Regardless, Belanger was jettisoned after 56 games to Nashville for ex-Cane Josef Vasicek (yep, another Carolina encore) and then quickly flipped back into the Southeast to Atlanta for Vitaly Vishnevski.
Is it by pure chance that Carolina has had little to no success with Quebec-born players? Or is it an example of there being so few attempts by the team that they simply haven't hit the mark since Gelinas?
The Hurricanes did make an attempt when they surprised many by using their first-round draft pick this season on Shawinigan forward Philippe Paradis — just the ninth QMJHL player chosen by the team since the move to North Carolina, and the first first-rounder by the franchise since the Whalers selected Jean-Sebastian Giguere 13th overall in 1995. But the team quickly cut ties with Paradis, trading his rights to Toronto for former first-rounder Jiri Tlusty less than six months after the draft.
In fact, no QMJHL player drafted by Carolina has gone on to have success with the Hurricanes — only Francis Lessard, a third-round pick in 1997, made it to the NHL, and he has played just 91 games in the league (none with Carolina) and spent most of his career as an AHL enforcer. Nicolas Blanchard, Stefan Chaput and Samuel Morneau are all recently drafted out of the Q, but none was selected before the fifth round or is considered a sure-fire future NHLer.
When Picard plays his first game in Raleigh, he will become just the second Quebec-born player to play with the Canes this season, joining AHLer Samson. To be fair, several teams have gone without a game played by a Quebec-born player this season: Chicago, Calgary, Detroit and Los Angeles, along with Southeast Division foes Atlanta and Florida. Anaheim has only had Giguere, who is now with Toronto.
But none of those teams seem to have the historical lack of success that Carolina has had with players from Quebec. Anaheim had a massive winner in Giguere, the franchise's best ever goalie. Atlanta, in their Carolina-like brief history, found some success with Donald Audette and Yannick Tremblay. Florida had Roberto Luongo at one point, plus No. 2 all-time scorer Scott Mellanby — who ended his career in Atlanta — is a Montreal native. Chicago and Detroit have storied — and long — histories that include greats like Denis Savard and Marcel Pronovost, who played 1,096 and 983 for their respective teams. Calgary was home to netminder Rejean Lemelin, who ranks third all-time in wins for the franchise, and one-time 50-goal scorer Guy Chouinard.
Is Quebec and Raleigh the new oil and water? Some might suggest the language barrier is part of the issue. In my early years in the Triangle, I had some difficult moments understanding a thicker Southern accent. But those struggles would likely pale in comparison to someone whose first language is French. Atlanta and Florida having few players from Quebec would add weight to that argument, but then you realize Tampa Bay has four such players, including franchise cornerstones Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, plus big-ticket free agent signee Alex Tanguay.
If we do use language as a reason, Picard shouldn't have a problem —he could rival Sergei Samsonov or Niklas Lidstrom with his grasp and use of English as a second language. But there's something to be said for strength in numbers when it comes to building chemistry in the locker room: Carolina's three-player Finnish contingent has thrived playing together in Raleigh.
Picard won't have a similar support system in Raleigh, but he also won't have the glare of the Ottawa media shining on him day after day — something new teammate Joe Corvo can relate to.
In Picard, the Hurricanes see a big blueliner who can skate and move the puck — and who is just 24 years old. In the Hurricanes, Picard gets a team that has made it standard practice to bring in young, unpolished defensemen (see Joni Pitkanen, Gleason, Mike Commodore, ect.) and mold them into the role that best suits them and the team. There's no reason to think they can't do the same with Picard, regardless of where he comes from.
Unless, of course, "The Curse of Gelinas" strikes again.