Wednesday, June 12
Updated: June 13, 10:57 PM ET
Hurricanes aren't about to fade from contention
By Sherry Skalko
DETROIT -- The Carolina Hurricanes will be back.
Maybe not next year, maybe not the year after. But at some point in the not too distant future the 'Canes will prove this year's playoff run wasn't a fluke. At least that's what 'Canes general manager Jim Rutherford believes.
Rutherford vows that unlike numerous other Cup finals participants over the last 10 years, the 'Canes aren't a one-and-done team.
"I do feel confident that the make up and structure of this team is strong enough that it will be very competitive for a long time to come," Rutherford told ESPN.com this week.
Bold words. Especially considering 10 of the 15 teams that have appeared in the Stanley Cup finals since 1991 failed to return a second time. Included in that list are the 1991 Minnesota North Stars, the 1993 Los Angeles Kings, and the 1998 Washington Capitals, who all failed to make the playoffs the following season.
The Hurricanes would appear -- at least on the surface -- to fit right into that mold. Rutherford begs otherwise.
"Not to compare those teams player to player, but one of the things that we have done with this team is we had a big makeover, starting about two years ago, when our team was getting older, and we started to put younger players into our lineup," Rutherford said.
It's called patience and stability, something the Hurricanes have in abundance.
One has to look no further than the head coach, where Paul Maurice has been on board for seven seasons -- despite a losing record. More successful coaches have come and gone in the NHL. But Maurice, who was nearly fired last December, is currently tied with Ottawa's Jacques Martin as the second longest-tenured coach in the NHL. Detroit's Scotty Bowman is first.
"It takes a lot of courage for your GM not to point the finger at the coach," Maurice said. "We have also never had a disastrous season. We were always in the playoff hunt and always getting a little bit better."
They also have a solid nucleus of players under contract for the next few seasons, including center Rod Brind'Amour, goalie Arturs Irbe and defenseman Glen Wesley. And they are willing to pass on high-priced free agents and allow their own young players develop.
While no one on the roster was in the Hurricanes system prior to 1993, 10 players who have appeared in this year's playoffs are Carolina/Hartford draft picks, including forwards Erik Cole, Jaroslav Svoboda and Josef Vasicek, who were chosen in 1998. Vasicek and Svoboda are only 21 years old, and Cole, although 23, just finished his first professional season.
While their list of restricted free agents is considerable -- forwards Jeff O'Neill, Sami Kapanen and Kevyn Adams, and defensemen David Tanabe, Niclas Wallin and Aaron Ward -- Rutherford is confident he'll be able to retain the necessary elements to keep the team competitive.
"When you look at the future of this team," Rutherford added, "without dealing with the unexpected of the unrestricted free agents who have the option of leaving on their own, we're only dealing with a couple of players within the next couple of years who would be changed off and we've got younger players who will play bigger roles."
Francis, the Hurricanes' emotional compass, signed a five-year deal in 1998 with the fifth year (2002-2003) a player option. Back then, neither the Hurricanes nor Francis expected that his best year would be the fourth. But it has. Francis finished the regular season fourth in the NHL in assists (50) and eighth in points (77). Now, he has the option of becoming an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
With the playoffs in full swing, Rutherford has delayed face-to-face discussions with Francis, but has met with Francis' agent, Tom Rich.
"There is a mutual understanding that he'll finish his career here and he will stay with the organization," Rutherford said. "That being said, the ball is in his court, or rather the puck is on his stick."
Hedican's status is less certain. When the Hurricanes acquired him from Florida on Jan. 16 in a five-player deal for defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, they got rid of a risk taker who was struggling offensively and was a defensive liability.
But it wasn't until these playoffs that what they got in return -- a solid, puck-moving defenseman as well as a leader in the dressing room -- became apparent. While he's sure to receive more lucrative offers from other teams, Hedican has expressed his desire to stay in Carolina should the organization continue to show indications of improvement.
Which begs the question: Who determines what constitutes improvement?
The 'Canes aren't out to throw around money.
After they were eliminated by the Devils last year in six games, management identified team weaknesses -- a lack of strength, balance and ability to move the puck on defense -- and fixed them. Not only did the Hurricanes improve with the additions of Hedican, Ward (from Detroit) and Sean Hill (from St. Louis), they did so cheaply.
"I like to call it 'within our guidelines,'" Rutherford said.
Those guidelines -- patience, stability and fiscal responsibility -- don't translate well into the win-now environment of professional sports. Rutherford knows that. But he's willing to take the risk.
"Look at teams that make changes on a regular basis, for the most part nothing changes except the faces. You see it over and over in all of major league sports," Rutherford said. "I'm not sure that is the solution to success."
Sherry Skalko is the NHL Editor for ESPN.com.