The Carolina Hurricanes flipped their calendar to February upon arriving at the office this morning. The next time they do, 29 days hence, the direction of the franchise may have been established for years to come.
Yes, that sounds like a bit of hyperbole. But with 29 days remaining before the NHL's Leap Day trade deadline, Ron Francis finds himself in a bit of an unexpected, albeit welcomed, conundrum.
Few had the Hurricanes contending seriously for a playoff spot this deep into the season. But there they are, one point out of a wild-card position in the Metropolitan Division, making this a more complicated decision than most.
No matter. Francis has proven by his actions up to this point that he had a plan to slowly turn the team over to its younger generation over the course of this season. Now is not the time to change that plan.
When Francis signed Eddie Lack to a two-year contract in the offseason after acquiring him from the Canucks for a pittance, the writing was seemingly on the wall for Cam Ward. It took a while for Lack's career in Carolina to take off, but with Ward on the shelf with a concussion since mid-January, Lack has seized the opportunity, posting two shutouts in the space of a week including one of the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.
Lack's emergence, coupled with Ward's injury, make it likely that the Swede will be the go-to starting netminder down the stretch for Bill Peters starting Wednesday night in Calgary. The likelihood of Ward fetching anything on the trade market is rather remote at this point, but Francis can make a definitive statement by moving him on. It may have more ceremonial value than actual hockey value, but this was presumably the plan all along, and the Canes would be wise to not deviate from that plan.
The other pending free agents likely need to be shopped as well. Kris Versteeg has had an up-and-down season with the Canes, but doubtless some team (Florida?) harboring playoff ambitions could use his Cup-winning pedigree in their locker room. John-Michael Liles would sure look nice as a third-pairing defenseman on a team looking at a deep run, and Ron Hainsey is more than capable of handling the role of sage fount of wisdom for the Canes' young defense corps, so he should be moved too.
The others would go for no more than peanuts, and more than a few of them will likely remain with the Canes following the deadline (looking at you, Nathan Gerbe and Brad Malone), but the plan was presumably to put all of the Canes' pending UFAs on the block in February, and again, it would be smart business to follow through.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room.
The future of the Hurricanes and the future of Eric Staal's career cannot be untangled. They are the prism through which all other decisions will be made. Francis and agent Rick Curran have had discussions regarding a contract extension, but it's a month from the deadline and there are no indications that a deal is anywhere near done.
By all accounts, Staal wants to stay, and the Canes are interested in retaining his services at an appropriate price. But signing him to a new contract now does no one any good. The Canes are now, officially, a young team. Despite the letter on his sweater, it's coming close to the time that this is no longer Eric Staal's team. (It may already be there.)
That's not to say that Staal is not a useful player. He is, and at the right price, he will doubtless contribute in an elder-statesman role with the Canes next year and beyond. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Francis to reshape his team for the next generation.
Even making the logical argument that Staal wouldn't fetch first-line center prices (he's a solid second-liner at this point, but no more than that), he would easily be the most valuable piece available at the deadline barring a surprise Steven Stamkos trade. He would provide an immediate upgrade for at least 2/3 of the teams currently in playoff positions, and could prove to be the tipping point for a bubble team to get in. If Francis can ignite a bidding war, all the better. People pay obscene prices for journeymen at the deadline (hello, first-round pick for Andrej Sekera); how much more could a top center fetch?
At this point, the argument that the Canes have to worry about the fanbase doesn't hold much water. The sense of the diehards has largely been that Francis should stick to the plan anyway, and there simply isn't the walkup crowd to worry about alienating by trading the team's captain. It's the right move for the franchise, both now and in the future.
It might cost the Canes a shot at the playoffs this year, but the end result will be worth it. The roadmap has been set. Now Ron Francis needs to follow through.