If you didn’t see it coming, you just weren’t paying attention. All the clues were there. Those people, saying all the right things, that was just a smoke screen of epic proportions. It has happened before and it will happen again. The difference in this instance is that both parties ended up getting exactly what they wanted.
Tom Dundon waxed nearly poetic about his appreciation for Bill Peters. For his part, Bill Peters thought he was heading for the type of owner support that means better talent. Turns out most of this was dressing up the inevitable as both likely knew the proverbial writing was on the wall. As soon as Ron Francis was “reassigned” (cough, fired, cough, cough), Peters had to know his part of the continuing Hurricanes saga was almost certainly written out of the script. A new general manager nearly always spells coaching changes. From the new owner’s perspective, the manifold attempts at invigorating the fan base, at filling an arena, and building momentum for the franchise fell flat when the team finished the final 20 games going 9-10-1. Couple that with the home heavy February that saw the team go 4-6-3 and you get an admittedly impatient owner itching for significant change.
The second shoe of that change dropped on Friday when Coach Peters exercised his out clause on his $1.6 million contract. Rumors have him headed back to Western Canada with a strong likelihood of ending up behind the bench in Calgary. At the end of the season press conference, manned exclusively by Dundon, his nice but non-committal comments about Peters “having options” were paired with his own declaration of “options”….a “don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out” comment if ever there was one. Let’s face it, this team, this organization, and this fan base needs the closest thing to a fresh start; one that doesn’t demand yet another multi-year rebuild. The exits of Peters and Francis are the first major indicators of what’s to come.
Now that it is officially over, a brief bit of reflection on some of the positives is warranted. When Ron Francis took over, he dismissed Kirk Muller in about 3 seconds. Shortly thereafter, he hired William Robert Peters, he of the well put together PowerPoint presentation. Even Tom Dundon commented on how “prepared” Bill seemed to be. All that preparation took a while to yield results. Yet, certain aspects of the Peters’ reign proved quite beneficial to the club.
Promoting, playing, and heaping responsibility on the Jaccob Slavin/Brett Pesce duo and its subsequent results cannot be minimized. The organization might have discovered these guys as 4th and 3rd round gems, but Bill Peters put them in the position to succeed….and succeed they did. By and large the deployment of Teuvo Teravainen and the growth of Sebastian Aho were shepherded by Peters. Despite this season’s regression, Jeff Skinner played his finest overall season (2016-17) under this coach. Despite some erratic deployment of call ups from the Checkers this season, overall one can’t claim that Peters didn’t give the youngsters a chance. Even this season, Valentin Zykov posted 3 goals and 7 points during his 10 game call up. So one can’t really castigate Bill for “not giving the young guys an opportunity”.
From a possession and shot suppression standpoint who can doubt the results of his tenure. In Bill Peters’s 4 seasons, the Hurricanes were 3rd, 5th, 5th, and 1st in the league in shots against. For 3 of the 4 seasons the Canes had a top 10 penalty kill. While some might align this stat with being “soft”, the Hurricanes were the least penalized team (penalty minutes per game) in 3 of his 4 seasons. Looking at one of the key possession metrics, Corsi For, the Hurricanes were 9th, 11th, 6th, and 1st in the league, again an outstanding result.
While really a result of Ron Francis’s efforts, Carolina was able to rebuild a prospect pool that began as something of a laughing-stock. Almost every minor leaguer who cracked the Hurricanes roster prior to the Peters era is out of the NHL (or remains in the AHL). Fast forward 4 years and key positions are held by players drafted and developed by the Hurricanes. Guys like the aforementioned Slavin and Pesce, but Noah Hanifin and Haydn Fleury both also play critical roles on the blueline. Young Sebastian Aho is on the cusp of near superstardom. Some may point to Nylander, Ehlers, Werenski, and McAvoy as guys taken later in the draft that are seemingly flourishing at a higher level than Carolina’s picks in those respective drafts. However, there’s not yet a “Ryan Murphy-esque” bust in the last 4 drafts.
This season, the Carolina Hurricanes began to be regarded as more of a “tough out”. Sure teams still often threw their back up goaltenders out against the Canes, but it was often to their chagrin. This team beat some of the toughest competitors regularly. Stanley Cup playoff teams like the Blue Jackets, the Maple Leafs, the Penguins, the Devils, the Flyers, the Kings, and the Golden Knights all suffered losses at the hands of the Canes, in some cases multiple losses. The team secured points in 22 contests on the road. All of this happened with one of the younger teams in the league.
That previously mentioned pipeline of prospects is starting to show serious signs of bearing fruit. The Charlotte Checkers are in the Calder Cup playoffs for the second straight year. Valentin Zykov finished the season as the leading goal scorer in the AHL. Along with Warren Foegele and Aleksi Saarela, the Checkers sported 3 guys in the top 20 in goal-scoring. Last Summer’s 1st round pick, Martin Necas, is helping to guide his Czech club in the post season (now in the finals). Morgan Geekie and Jake Bean are both having spectacular playoffs with the Tri-City Americans. Stelio Mattheos put up 43 goals and 90 points in his D+1 season. He was also over a point per game in the post season. Jeremy Helvig had an impressive season in net with Kingston, enough to get an ELC a couple of weeks ago. A team that historically scrapes the bottom of the prospect rankings barrel, the Carolina Hurricanes were ranked as high as 3rd at the beginning of this past season. It is hard not to feel optimism for the future.
In the end results matter. The Bill Peters Era merely added 4 more seasons on to a 9 year post-season drought. Building prospect pools and icing young, exciting skaters is fine and dandy, but without playoff appearances, it’s all for naught. After a dismal 71 point season in Peters’s first as head coach, the Canes seemingly got incrementally better the next two seasons. There was an a general feeling that this season was going to surely be the year that Carolina would see the playoffs again. While not guaranteeing it, both Francis and Peters verbalized expectations for the post-season. We all know how that turned out.
This team has talent, even scoring talent, but when it became apparent that the offensive firepower just wasn’t good enough, neither Peters and his coaching nor Francis and his player moves (or lack thereof) made the difference. Stockpiling assets and young guns is admirable, even desirable, but at some point in time you’ve got to compete. The motivation didn’t seem to be there from a coaching standpoint and opportunities for trades or deadline deals just never happened. As such, the team clearly felt let down. Worse yet, the fan base felt like the organization just wasn’t doing all it could to compete for the post-season. That was especially apparent this season.
Fans blame coaches for a lot of things that are out of their control. Let’s face it, a team like the Hurricanes that has displayed some of the leagues lowest shooting percentages during the Peters era, continues to look less skilled than their peers. However, the late game collapses or the uninspired play once they lose a lead, are at least partly attributable to organizational issues that have to be laid at the feet of the coach. Instead of yelling at players about “saves”, maybe you might want to figure out how to play with a lead or not fold like an origami bird at the first sign of adversity.
You’ve got players like Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner, and, to a lesser extent, even Jordan Staal who don’t always live up to their billing. Consistency issues abound. If Skinner isn’t scoring, he’s not making up for it on the defensive side of the puck. You can overlook Faulk’s defensive brain farts when his cannon of a shot is finding the back of the net. Absent that, he’s more of a liability than this team could stomach. But lining Skinner up with Derek Ryan or pairing Faulk with a young Noah Hanifin probably had a good deal to do with those results. Both of those decisions produced questionable results and both are on Peters.
It starts with “…..make a fucking save….” and goes on from there. Yup, the goaltending during the entire span of the Peters era was and remains garbage. Over the last 4 seasons the team’s save percentage has been 29th, 28th, 20th, and 28th in the league. During that same span the team has had Cam Ward, Scott Darling, Eddie Lack, Anton Khudobin, and a tiny bit of Michael Leighton. For at least a portion of those seasons Ward has held the starter’s role. Even after Francis signed Darling to be the putative starter, paying him as such, Ward eventually took back the title. In none of those seasons did Cam Ward put up league average statistics. Unfortunately his back ups posted even worse numbers. Still, there’s not a shooter in the league who doesn’t put the puck “glove side high” on Ward, knowing that he’s got at least a 50/50 chance of scoring.
Did the Hurricanes really have terrible goaltending (well, yes, they did) or did something about the coaching staff and the system employed lead to those statistics. Sure Eddie Lack and Scott Darling put up some impressive numbers in a back up role, so maybe they couldn’t handle the pressure of the starter’s job. But even Khudobin suffered under Peters’s system. Now, Anton is back to posting impressive numbers for the Bruins. While the evidence is sketchy at best, there’s something about 3 good goalies falling on hard times with the Hurricanes. It is difficult not to point a finger in the coach’s direction. If nothing else, could there be something about Peters that destroys a goalie’s confidence?
If this team had league average goaltending, the post season drought almost certainly would have ended this year. More importantly, not having that dependable backstop, trickled across the entire team, impacting confidence and consistency. Playing not to lose instead of keeping the foot on the gas. Seeing a “softie” or three in most games caused players to get disheartened early and often. There is no doubt that the guys second guessed themselves or felt no lead was safe knowing that Cam or whomever else was in net was surely going to kill momentum in nearly every game. Even when one of the tenders not named Ward played a good game or two, Peters would inexplicably go back to Ward, again killing whatever confidence might have been building. This was particularly evident with Eddie Lack.
The “New” New Era
There are other instances where questionable decisions by the coaching staff seemed too random to explain. Deployment of the lines, powerplay personnel, defensive pairings, and so on all raised questions over the last 4 seasons. While the Peters system had its high points, one has to wonder if Carolina had the right players to run the system that Peters was preaching. In the end, Bill Peters is probably a pretty darn good coach. He just wasn’t and isn’t the right man for the job in Raleigh any more. Whether it is because he lost the room (most likely), inadequate talent (probably), or just plain poor decision-making (without a doubt), both the team and Peters needed to part ways. As Tom Dundon looks for a new bench boss, it remains unclear as to the direction he will go. One thing’s for sure, there’s little doubt that the status quo will remain. Change is not just coming; change is here.