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DeCock: Still early in offseason, but Hurricanes not off to active start

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com

Monday was a difficult day for a pair of former Carolina Hurricanes. The Buffalo Sabres decided not to bother even making a qualifying offer to Jamie McBain, a restricted free agent, and the Toronto Maple Leafs initiated buyout proceedings with Tim Gleason.

Both lasted a season (or less) with their new teams after being considered franchise cornerstones here for years. Throw in the long list of players who never played another NHL game after leaving the Hurricanes – Chad LaRose, Tim Brent, Andreas Nodl and so on – and it’s another example of how Carolina’s old front-office regime continually overestimated its roster, to the detriment of the franchise.

It’s starting to feel like the new regime is at risk of falling into the same trap.

New general manager Ron Francis said this weekend his priorities during free agency, which begins Tuesday, are the fourth line and a depth defenseman. Admirable goals both, but hardly earthshaking when an even-handed appraisal of the team’s needs might also include another top-six winger, a third-line center, a second-pairing defenseman and a Cam Ward trade.

As things stand now, the Hurricanes appear prepared to head into next season with a new coach and the same old roster.

That’s the same tired roster that has produced far more frustration than playoff appearances over the past five years, potentially minus veteran leader and Masterton Trophy finalist Manny Malhotra and homegrown depth defenseman Brett Bellemore, both of whom are expected to test the free-agent market.

It’s not like Francis just walked in the door and needs time to make his own assessment. He has spent the past three years in the front office. Upon taking over, Francis promised he’d consider anything. He may yet. It took him only a week to fire coach Kirk Muller, a little longer to identify and hire Bill Peters as his replacement. There’s a lot riding on that change at the moment.

To Francis’ credit, he pushed for defenseman Hadyn Fleury in Friday’s first round when his predecessor Jim Rutherford presumably would have leaned toward Kasperi Kapanen, son of Sami, with that pick (and indeed ended up taking him with his new team, the Pittsburgh Penguins). Beyond that, it’s been awfully quiet.

“You poke around on a couple different things, try to find out what’s going on out there,” Francis said. “I think coming in (to the draft) I wasn’t expecting anything major happening. Like I said from Day 1, if there’s a deal that makes our team better I’m all for doing it. In talking to the other GMs and things that were offered and talking with my guys, it didn’t make sense for us to do anything at this point. We’ll proceed accordingly.”

Regardless of how much of it is provoked by circumstances outside of Francis’ control, the Hurricanes’ inaction is more than a little disconcerting given the acknowledged necessity for a change of direction that provoked Rutherford’s departure in the first place. Even if Ward is untradeable and the market is otherwise stale, who can honestly sit here today and feel comfortable going into next season with essentially the same roster, which Francis has indicated may happen?

No trades. No buyouts. No major free-agent signings planned. Francis still has two months to make a few moves, and gets the benefit of the doubt at this point, but at the moment there’s an awful lot of pressure on Peters to work miracles next fall. It’s a long summer, but it’s been too quiet so far.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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