RALEIGH, N.C. – Right after Carolina Hurricanes executive vice president and general manager Ron Francis fielded a lobbed pitch of a question regarding how simple and easy the process turned out to be in receiving a contract extension, he faced the heater thrown right down the pipe about providing forward Raffi Torres a professional tryout opportunity (PTO).
He paused and took a breath before answering why he would allow someone, who in many people’s minds, after laying out the most egregious and dirtiest hits in recent National Hockey League (NHL) history and suspended accordingly for them, to get another chance at playing in the league.
“Well, you know, I think this is a guy who has shown he can play the game well,” Francis began.
“I think the one year, he scored 27 goals. He has missed some time because of injury last year because of the knee; he’s coming back off that rehab. He’s missed some time because of suspension. You all know how I played the game. I don’t condone those kinds of hits and I think they were dealt with the right way in regards to the league. He served his time and he’s forfeited his money and hopefully he’s in a different place here moving forward.”
Torres, a former first-round draft pick of the New York Islanders, selected fifth overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft from the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) former Brampton Battalion, now located in North Bay, is now a 16-year pro with 635 games to his credit during which he’s posted 260 points (137g, 123a) and 497 penalty minutes.
Oh, he’s also racked up five suspensions totaling 72 games with the most recent being a 41-gamer as the result of a headshot to Anaheim Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg during a 2015 preseason game.
All those suspensions accrued over a four-year period beginning in 2011, making him a multiple repeat offender in the eyes of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
However, believe it or not, since he got a regular job in the NHL 12 years or so ago, Torres has never accrued more than 88 penalty minutes in one season.
He actually once was a talented player who could score goals.
Playing for the Battalion, he amassed 223 points (111g, 112a) in 185 games playing alongside players like Jason Spezza in the first of three years in Brampton, and leading the team in scoring for his final two seasons (1990-2001) there.
He possessed scoring acumen, no doubt, and was a first-round pick as a result.
His time with the Islanders didn’t work out, but his pro career didn’t start to take full shape and define itself until he ended up in Edmonton three years later.
He played 80 games in 2003-2004 and finished with 34 points (20g, 14a) that season.
During the 2004-2005 NHL lockout season, Torres played in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Edmonton Roadrunners, the Oilers’ minor league affiliate, and finished tied for the lead in team scoring.
To the casual observer, that was the pivotal season it seems when Torres made his mark and established himself as a true pro – totaling 46 points (21g, 25a) in 67 games along with 165 penalty minutes.
He could produce respectable numbers offensively while providing toughness for a solid 200-pound-plus six-footer.
Whatever happened that season generated enough momentum for him to return to Edmonton during a season that provided Carolina Hurricanes fans their eventual first glimpse of him in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final series.
When Francis referred to Torres playing the game well, that point in his career must have been what he was referring to.
Torres scored 27 goals and added 14 assists in 82 regular-season games to go along with 11 points (4g, 7a) in 22 playoff games.
From 2006-2010, he posted double-digit goal totals in three seasons – one with Edmonton and two with the Columbus Blue Jackets after being traded there.
He added two more seasons with such results with the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes in 2011 and 2012.
However, that was the point in time in his career when Torres seemed to get some wires crossed and began handing out overly aggressive, career-ending type head shohttp://trianglesportsnet.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpts to his opponents.
On top of suffering knee injuries, any semblance of effective offensive production that he once had was overshadowed by the grim-reaper-like presence he assumed on the ice.
Why would Francis ever consider allowing such an individual to set foot in a dressing room full of young, energetic professionals who are being taught to play the game ‘the right way’, according to Francis and head coach Bill Peters?
What could he offer?
Grit – toughness.
“He’s a physical player,” Francis stated.
“He’s a physical guy. You want guys not to cross the edge because it hurts your team. We don’t want guys that are gonna be takin’ penalties or suspensions with our team if we get to that point. If he plays within the rules, he can be an effective player. He’s shown that in the past.
“It’s something we don’t have a lot of in our lineup.”
“So we figured we’d give him the opportunity to bring him here to camp. It’s a PTO, it’s a tryout; it’s not a contract, so he has to earn a contract or a spot in our lineup.”
Francis doesn’t have anything to lose by offering Torres a PTO, particularly if it was done as a favor.
“You can all connect the dots,” Francis said.
“His agent group, my former agent is part of that; so we’ve had discussions and what we’re lookin’ for moving forward and how we expect players to play. Like I said, it’s a PTO. It’s not like we’re signing him to a four-year contract. We’re giving him the opportunity to come in and show us that he can play. If he does, then we’ll have that discussion down the road.”
Many, including me at first, were left scratching their head wondering why?
After making sensible and calculated decisions so far to reconstruct the Hurricanes into a more dynamic and sizeable team to compete against, why this move?
Like playing in a chess match, setting your pieces up for future moves could be a way to look at it.
No one wants Torres, or has indicated up to this point that they do.
Bringing him into a training camp situation provides him a chance he’s looking to make good on while a number of still emerging young players are trying to figure out how to carve out their niche in the NHL.
He’ll know the expectation will be for him to push them – not crush them – as well as show that he can compete with them.
They’re fast, so they’ll provide the measuring stick to determine if he’s up to snuff soon enough.
If he can’t catch them, then the decision to release him will be elementary.
If he keeps pace, then things get more interesting, and we’ll talk about that then.
By the way, Torres won’t be sitting in the corner of the dressing room by himself, not knowing anyone either.
He’ll have veteran center Jay McClement to reconnect with and help him to quickly assimilate to his surroundings as the relationship between the two dates back to two seasons in junior when they played together in Brampton.
Torres can also call former Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison, another Battalion teammate, to find out more of what to expect regarding the culture of the organization as well.
If Torres doesn’t fit in, he moves on knowing that Carolina was the one team that gave him a chance and will have nothing but good things to say about the Hurricanes moving forward.
Francis must have thought about all these little details.
Like he said, Carolina has nothing to lose here and has committed nothing financially and contractually, other than an opportunity.
The graceful nature of Francis doing this is totally in line with his personality, and plays into the goodwill he’s earned throughout his career.
To risk diminishing the trust level he’s established without following a well thought out decision-making process would be ill-advised.
For the most part, former and current NHL players and personnel look after each other, so providing one last chance to a physically and publicly rehabilitating veteran is chancy, but more of a calculated way to earn return favors down the road.
Ron Francis has only begun to connect together the vast network of contacts he has to continue to shape the Hurricanes into a playoff team.
That will involve him making more of these bold and take-notice types of deals than the presumptive ones everyone’s become accustomed to seeing since he assumed the GM position.
Get your popcorn ready, Act II of the Carolina Hurricanes evolution has begun.