Koutroumpis: Hurricanes rebuild continues with additions to roster depth and speed

Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network
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Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network
Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network

RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes’ roster rebuild continued along in its subtle, nonchalant manner following the first day of the NHL 2016 free agent signing period on Friday.

With the market rife with many unrestricted free agents, and many deals announced early, executive vice president and general manager Ron Francis remained adamant in continuing to increase the team’s depth in all positions throughout the organization.

However, he didn’t bite on making any long-term, high-priced deals.

“I’m always surprised by July 1,” Francis said.

“I think I said it when I took the job; for me, it’s one of the more dangerous days. Obviously the teams felt that the terms and the money was right and the players…you can’t blame them for getting it. Everybody has their own opinion on it. Mine’s a little bit different.”

After announcing three signings for the day, the longest term (two years) and highest paid ($2.5 million per year) to forward Lee Stempniak, Francis explained his rationale in taking the modest approach of wading through a deep free agent pool.

“For me, when I look at giving terms to somebody that’s in that range, my concern is and we said it from Day 1, is that we’re gonna build this thing right from the ground up.

“My real concern is getting into a long-term deal with somebody that prohibits me from signing one of those younger guys moving forward,” Francis continued, alluding to defensemen Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Noah Hanifin, all currently on entry-level contracts (ELCs), as well as an upcoming deal to forward Victor Rask, and one eventually to Tuevo Teravainen.

“It really wasn’t a consideration for me at this point, based on where we’re at.”

Youth brings speed, Euros bring style

A look at the Hurricanes’ roster from top-to-bottom illustrates two points of view.

The first glance and consideration elicits the excitement of putting eyes on the progression of young pros such as forwards Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, and Elias Lindholm along with defenseman Justin Faulk, who may all finally produce exponentially like many have waited to see from them.

Add to that the influx of another nine prospects via the recent 2016 NHL Entry Draft, including a few more Europeans, and all of a sudden, the energy level expected at prospect camp and training camp will ratchet up even more.

“I wouldn’t say intentional on the European players,” Francis said of the team’s selections made during his tenure as GM.

“I think we’re tryin’ to put the best team on the ice possible. I don’t think in any of the moves we did from the end of the season until now, that we’ve gotten slower. We’ve actually gotten faster as a hockey team. So, in addition to the skill and the size, I think we’ve added speed to our lineup as well. We’re pleased with how things have fallen over the last few months.”

So much fruit collected to ripen and put to market

The second view of Carolina’s entire depth in its system shows much quantity with energy and skill, but also much unrealized potential.

How many prospects’ incoming skill sets will develop quickly enough and become useful in helping to snap a seven-year drought in not making the playoffs?

Though size and speed will go a long way in how fast the game is being played, the deficit that currently exists with this team at this point in the off-season is a lack of experience, and more specifically postseason experience.

Yes, the Hurricanes’ signing of veteran forward Viktor Stalberg brings in another Stanley Cup ring for the young guys to look at, but is that enough to motivate this group to do what hasn’t been done in so long?

That remains to be seen.

For now, what Francis has done is stockpile so many bodies to help compensate for injuries that occur throughout the season.

A wise move.

“I think when we look back to two years ago, part of our concern was any kind of injury during the season, we felt we didn’t have the depth in the organization maybe to overcome that,” he said.

“I think we’re finally getting to the point where we feel a lot more comfortable about our depth throughout the organization. Certainly with the different picks we’ve accumulated with the guys we’ve been able to draft over the last few years, we think we’ve got a lot more prospects in the pipeline as well too. That’s gonna allow us some flexibility.”

To add to its flexibility, Carolina now has so many assets that eventually Francis will be able to, and be required to trade some of them in order to get the experience needed during a playoff run.

Again, a wise tact to take.

“Sure, guys we’re in conversation with are certainly aware of what we have in our system, and like what we have,” Francis said.

“That gives us some more flexibility to do those deals you’re talkin’ about movin’ forward.”

With experience must come an open mind as well

Another consideration Francis pointed out about new veteran players coming into the organization was the understanding they must have and commitment to working to play within the Hurricanes’ fast-paced, defensively-collective style under head coach Bill Peters.

Apparently former captain Eric Staal didn’t think the ‘Hurricanes’ system fit his style’ according to comments he made to other media outlets after signing a three-year deal with the Minnesota Wild – one that came about following a brief stint with the New York Rangers.

“A little surprised by that,” Francis said in reaction to Staal’s comments.

“We play an up-tempo style. I would think as a player you would want to play an up-tempo style, and I think as a forward you would be really happy. I know I would if I was playing; I’d be really happy to be playing in front of those young D that can skate and move the puck. I’m not sure why he would say that, but, I know if I was still playin’ I’d be happy to play in front of that back end and the style we play.”

The many times I saw Staal in the dressing room following a practice or a game over the past five years, it didn’t look like he was enjoying playing the game as he once did.

Yes, he did smile at some points, but the the looks of seriousness and  frustration that went along with carrying the burden of a team that hadn’t contended in the postseason in so long caught up to him.

Add to that fact that it wasn’t only a handful of young players who walked around him in the room, but double that, and with more coming.

Staal tried, but indeed didn’t thrive, nor helped himself to, in any manner while playing Peters’ system.

With the potential of once again missing the playoffs, the former captain waived his no-trade clause and allowed Francis to move him and stockpile yet more assets – two second round picks as well as prospect Aleksi Saarela.

Unfortunately, Staal may have allowed his old-school hockey attitude to bring his own game down too far as well as that of others, even if so done unintentionally.

Not a proven fact yet in how he will fare with the Wild, but his comments regarding his past few seasons with the Hurricanes spoke volumes towards explaining the decline in his game in Carolina to that regard.

High hockey IQ

What Staal may not have been willing to do is fully buy into to the changes Peters had implemented.

He knew the game and had experienced success at various levels, but he did not bend as much as he needed or allowed himself to, nor assimilated as much as required or asked of him.

However, as Staal has, Francis has moved forward and continued to add the type of players with the abilities and skills he desires to see the Hurricanes coaching staff work with.

“I think for me, if you ask me, I love hockey players with high hockey IQ,” Francis said.

“I think that they’re the easiest to teach and adjust. I think when you look at today’s game, I think the coaches have done such a good job of, almost to a point, programming their systems into the players. Positions you have to stand in and routes you have to take, so it takes some of that thinking out of it. But, where that comes back into play is in the creative play aspect in trying to create offense in reading plays and reacting. In a league that is so hard to score goals, having that hockey IQ and ability to sort of think outside the box offensively, I think is important.”

Looking to Finnish

Continuing to look at the potential season-starting lineup possibilities for the 2016-2017 season, was it intentional or coincidental that in signing Finnish forward Sebastian Aho to his ELC that Francis made a trade with Chicago that included fellow countryman Teravainen.

“It’s not really by design,” Francis clarified.

“When you look at it, Finland’s had so much success the last couple of years. They won the gold medal in the World Juniors this year, and the U-18s, and then finished second in the World Championship. I joked when I traded for Teravainen that he’s going to potentially be a mentor for a young player in Aho – Teravainen doesn’t turn 22 until September. Saarela, we think, is a real good prospect, a guy that can slide up and down your lineup. We drafted Kuokkanen this year – another guy we think has big upside potential moving forward. It’s not by design. It’s more just taking the best player in the situation we have.”

Culture in the room changing

Sure, I guess you have to accept the explanation if the GM says so, but in two years Carolina has amply stocked up on Finnish players to rival that of the Swedes.

So, for it to be coincidental is a bit of a stretch, but it all makes sense.

With so many young players coming into the organization together, the more comfortable they are in adjusting to life in the NHL and in the Triangle, the better chance they have to cohesively learn together and experience failure and the success that follows it accordingly.

According to Francis, he noticed a positive outcome to this particular point during the latter part of last season.

“I will point out that there was a time between the trade deadline last year and the end of the season in the hotel lobby that guys were going out for dinner and there were 16 guys going out together,” he said.

“Maybe that’s because they’re young and they all kinda get along or not, but in all my years and playing the game, you don’t normally see 16 guys going to dinner together. So, that to me is a good sign that our guys are tight in that locker room and movin’ in the right direction in that leadership role.”

Much potential with much to prove

Thus, while not pulling the trigger on numerous high-dollar deals during the off-season thus far, Francis seemed content with where the Hurricanes sit in early July – younger and faster.

Again, adding yet another new group of veteran free agents and more prospects into the mix doesn’t necessarily raise the chances, nor guarantees that the Carolina Hurricanes will make the playoffs.

That is still to be proven.

However, the direction this team is headed continues to present the exciting possibility – potential as many are calling it – of that happening more so than in recent years.

That’s the hope anyway.

If anything, the plan is coming together the way the GM has stated over and over he’s wanted it to.

“I think we’re pleased with today,” Francis said.

“When we talked at the end of the season, we talked about trying to add some skill into our lineup, we talked about trying to add some size, we talked about adding some leadership. We think from where we are today versus where we were at the end of the season, with the addition of Teravainen, Stempniak and the possibility of Aho making our lineup, with Bickell and Stalberg, we have some size and leadership, and we brought some Cups into the room. We’re pleased with where we are today from where we finished the year.”