As the trade deadline approaches, several NHL teams have an important decision to make on whether to buy, sell or stand pat. I say several because for many that decision is easy. Teams like Chicago will surely buy while teams like Toronto and Buffalo will likely sell. But, because of the loser point and general parity, there are more teams in the middle than usual.
These teams have a tough decision to make: to buy and possibly give away assets when they really don’t have much of a chance at winning it all or to sell and give up on the season, possibly enraging fans.
No team is in a more difficult a spot than the Carolina Hurricanes. The ‘Canes currently sit sixth in the Metro Division with 66 points. They’re two points behind Pittsburgh for a playoff spot, but the Pens have three games in hand and are playing well. It will be difficult for Carolina to make the playoffs but not at all impossible. However, a fourth place finish in the Metro would land them a date with the historically-good Washington Capitals, a series they’d basically have no chance at winning.
The Hurricanes will not win the Stanley Cup this year and they’re almost a longshot to make the playoffs. While this may seem like a difficult situation that many teams find themselves in, it’s worse for Carolina for a few reasons.
1. This isn’t smoke and mirrors – Unlike teams that have made surprise jumps in the standings in the past, the Hurricanes aren’t relying on any unsustainable luck to win. The ‘Canes are fifth in the NHL at Corsi For percentage (measures possession) at even strength. Carolina plays some of the lowest-event hockey in the league (28th in corsi events per 60 minutes), showing that a solid young blue line has rounded into form while the forwards have scored enough to make the team competitive. However, the goaltending has been abysmal. The team is 28th in even strength save percentage. Cam Ward has been awful for years, but Eddie Lack’s struggles this year have come as something of a surprise. All of this is to say, the Hurricanes are legitimately a team on the rise.
2. Eric Staal – The veteran and star of the 2006 Cup team has been nothing short of a salary cap albatross over the past few seasons. He’s obviously no longer in his prime and is a free agent at year’s end. He’s still good enough to help a contender, which should make him perfect deadline fodder. However, it’s tough for a franchise as young and success-starved as Carolina to trade one of the only marque players it’s ever had. Additionally, Eric’s brother Jordan turned down a huge extension with the much more talented Penguins to play with his brother. The argument could be made that Jordan is the Hurricanes’ best player, so keeping him happy is a top priority.
3. Where to go next? – The Hurricanes are definitely a team on the rise, but how high is that ceiling? J. Staal is under contract until 2023 but is already 27 years old. What should be done with the talented, but one-dimensional Jeff Skinner? Do they roll with Eddie Lack next season? The Hurricanes are talented on the blue line but they don’t seem to have enough up front to compete with the top dogs. Landing in one of the three lottery spots could go a long way for them down the road, but it’s unlikely they do. Otherwise, their ceiling could be losing in the first two rounds of the playoffs every year.
4. Attendance – Making the playoffs and getting shellacked in the first round would go further for Carolina than any franchise in hockey. The Hurricanes have appeared in the postseason just once in the last decade. It’s been a full 10 years since that Stanley Cup and the team hasn’t been remotely relevant in that decade. It’s difficult for hockey to work in non-traditional markets but it’s basically impossible when the team doesn’t succeed. That has really taken its toll this season. Despite the recent hot streak, the ‘Canes average just 11,764 fans per home game, last by almost 2,000 per game. A playoff run, however brief, could go a long way for a struggling franchise.