The playoffs maybe just out of reach for Ron Francis and his club, but his rebuilding of the Hurricanes is going along just fine.
The Carolina Hurricanes have collected 10 points from their last 6 games, keeping them mathematically in the hunt for the postseason. Barring something miraculous though, it looks like yet another season of now spring time hockey in Carolina. Yet, for general manager Ron Francis, his rebuild is right on schedule.
For the sake of comparison, let’s take a look at where the Canes stand against the two other Eastern Conference teams that started their rebuild at roughly the same time. Those two franchises are the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Ever since the Sabres lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2006 (sorry, not sorry) and 2007, the team struggled to put together another team quite as good as that one. In response, they officially started their rebuild in 2013, which was about the same time as Francis initiated his.
Since then, Buffalo has totally restocked its forward corps. Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane make up a pretty deadly attack. Rasmus Ristolainen is one of the best young defensemen in the league, but he has little support on the blue line. In net, Robin Lehner has been very solid this season for Buffalo.
The Maple Leafs haven’t been a relevant playoff team since the early 2000’s when Carolina beat them in the 2002 Conference Final (sorry, not sorry again). Brendan Shanahan’s mass overhaul of the franchise really kicked off with the selling of Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. Their rebuild started about a year after Buffalo and Carolina’s.
Toronto has struck gold with forwards in the 1st round of drafts. William Nylander and Mitch Marner are incredibly gifted young forwards. Then of course there is American prodigy Auston Matthews who has lit up the league this season as a rookie. Frederik Anderson has been wonderful in net for the Leafs. His play has saved their skilled, but leaky defense and propelled Toronto into the last playoff spot in the East.
Where Does Carolina Stand?
It is easy to look at Toronto’s early success in their rebuild and assume Carolina is behind. Looking deeper though, the Canes have checked off more rebuilding boxes than both the Sabres and Leafs have not. For one thing, the Canes have by far the best defensive corps of the three teams. Neither Buffalo or Toronto hold a candle to Carolina’s potential/present on the blue line.
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All three teams have built through the draft, but the Canes haven’t been given the gift of the lottery. Both Eichel and Matthews are generational players who have, for the most part, single handily carried their teams. Carolina hasn’t and likely won’t have that luxury in Francis’ rebuild. Instead, they have found much more success in later rounds. Besides Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm, most of the youngest key pieces turning the Hurricanes around are later round picks.
Lastly, the Hurricanes have been able to have equitable success without spending nearly as much money. Francis is over $16 million short of the cap ceiling right now, while both Buffalo and Toronto are hovering around $1 million in cap room.
That also carries over into philosophy. Francis has refused to spend money in free agency as of yet. Buffalo’s offense is predicated on free agency with the likes of Kyle Okposo commanding lots of money last summer. It’s a similar story in Toronto. The Leafs might not be spending a lot of money on active players, but will be plagued by long term contracts for non-active players.
This tells us that the Hurricanes success comes from drafted players, meaning their formula is more indicative of long term success. Plus, with the most cap room by far, Carolina is poised to make a splash this summer, filling any remaining holes.
Ron Francis has done a great job rebuilding the Hurricanes for the long term. Compared to like teams, not only is Carolina on target, there is a good argument that they might be further ahead than one might think. No matter the result this season, just remember… In Ron Francis We Trust!