Checking Off the To-Do List
On April 12, Francis and head coach Bill Peters formally met with the media to close the book on the 2016-17 season. During the near 30-minute long press conference, Francis laid out his wish list for the offseason that included upgrading goaltending and defensive depth and adding a top-six forward.
By July 1, the Canes had checked off all three.
In late April, the Hurricanes acquired goaltender Scott Darling from Chicago. A week later, they inked him to a four-year extension.
Video: Darling: "Excited to start skating with the guys"
"We felt that he's a guy we think can be a big addition to our hockey club, and that's why we aggressively went after him early and got him signed shortly after," Francis said.
Just prior to the 2017 NHL Draft in late June, the Canes acquired defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk from the Vegas Golden Knights in an expansion draft pick-and-swap. Then, on the opening day of free agency, the Hurricanes brought three-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams back to town.
"Willy is a guy who's been here, understands what it takes to win and be successful and was successful in Raleigh," Francis said. "I think it says a lot about where our team is headed that somebody with that sort of experience and knowledge wanted to sign with us and be a part of our team as we move forward."
Three Out of Four Ain't Bad
The Hurricanes took a group of 20-plus players to Traverse City that was talented enough to again run the table and capture back-to-back championships. That didn't happen, due to a misstep in the third game against Chicago - more on that below - but the team rebounded in Tuesday's finale with a shutout win to claim third place in the tournament.
In all, the Canes prospects posted a 3-1 record, two shutouts, a plus-6 goal differential and a tournament-low 26 penalty minutes. By all accounts, a third title notwithstanding, it was a successful week for the Canes of tomorrow.
"You get a lot of feedback from a lot of guys who are here, and the skill level and speed of our guys is pretty impressive," Francis said.
The Canes were indeed the talk of the tournament. The team fought through a slow, discombobulated start to top Detroit 6-2 before shutting out New York in a dominant 4-0 performance. The Canes were cruising - and then they faced off with the Chicago Blackhawks, who ultimately won their first tournament championship.
That Chicago Game
On Monday night in Traverse City, the Hurricanes were thwacked by the Blackhawks in a 9-2 defeat. Chicago jumped on the Canes early, and that was that.
After the game, I asked head coach Mike Vellucci what went wrong.
"Everything," he said, simply. "We didn't get any bounces, but we didn't work for any bounces. We weren't ready to play from the get go from the goaltending to the D to the forwards. Nobody was ready to play. You can't have that happen. I talked to them about having a good start and being ready to compete. They came right after us on the first shift, competed harder and took it to us for most of the night."
"It was certainly not the performance we wanted," Francis said. "Prior to that we were good. It's a hell of a lesson to learn."
The brutal veraciousness of the postgame comments from Velluci, Francis and inside the room underscored what high hopes the Canes had for the tournament. Losing in the manner they did was not copacetic with the organizational culture, not even in a prospect tournament that, in the grand scheme of wins and losses, is somewhat inconsequential.
"The lesson you learn from last night is that you can't take anything for granted. You have to be prepared at all times. We didn't start that game like we were ready to go, and it cost us. They've got to be ready to respond today," Francis said before Tuesday's finale. "You just want to see the effort and compete back in the game that wasn't there last night."
Video: Mike Vellucci: "Made sure they were focused"
The Canes, of course, did show that effort and compete in their final game against Minnesota, breaking out with five third-period goals in a 5-0 victory to walk away with bronze in the tournament.
Next up: training camp.
"As tough as this week is here, as good as these games are and as fast as they are, there's another whole level next week," Francis said. "They'll get their eyes opened if they're not ready to work again once we open up in Raleigh."
The Hurricanes' training camp roster features 59 players, all of whom are under contract in the organization through one-way, two-way or, in the case of Nick Schilkey, American League deals. The group is split into two teams, with Team Dineen and Team Kron named after inaugural members of the Hurricanes in honor of the team's 20th Anniversary season.
Competition, both in Raleigh and Charlotte, is going to drive these next two-plus weeks.
"I think this is going to be the most competitive camp we've had," Francis said. "There are going to be a lot of guys fighting for jobs in Raleigh. The guys that don't make it, there's no guarantee they're going to play in Charlotte. For the first time we have a lot of guys fighting for jobs in Charlotte. If they can't grab a job there, we don't want them sitting around watching, so they're going to go to Florida to play. They'll have to work their way back up or wait for that opportunity when it happens for them. Hopefully guys understand that, prepared themselves as hard as they needed to in the summertime and are ready to go."
The Hurricanes' preseason schedule features seven games over 12 days, including a stretch of three games in three nights that begins on the fourth day of camp.
"Having the games early like that gives us a chance to get a lot of guys some action," Francis said. "That's probably the best teacher for some of these kids - to get in a game and see how tough it is and how fast it is. That gives them a gauge on whether they're ready or if there are areas they need to work on and improve. Unfortunately you don't get enough games to give everybody, but they've got to be ready. If they get one game, that might be the only game they get. They've got to be ready to make the most of it."
Other highlights of the preseason slate include a pair of games against the Oilers, one in Edmonton on Monday, Sept. 25 and a neutral-site match-up in Saskatoon on Wednesday, Sept. 27. The Canes host two preseason home games: Tampa Bay comes to town on Wednesday, Sept. 20, and Carolina will face the Capitals in their exhibition finale on Friday, Sept. 29.
Since the departure of Eric Staal in February 2016, the Hurricanes' sweaters have been void of a 'C.' In all likelihood, that will change before the 2017-18 season.
"Bill and I talked about it, and Bill would like to [name a captain]," Francis said. "We'll see how training camp goes. If we're comfortable putting the 'C' on somebody, then that will take place probably between our last exhibition game and the start of the season."
Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk each wore an 'A' last season, while Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask rotated the third alternate captaincy at home and on the road. The decision as to who becomes the sixth captain in team history is one that will be made collectively.
"There would be a lot of people with a voice," Francis said. "We'll all have a say and a discussion and make a decision we think is best for the team."
We're just over 20 days away from Opening Night in the 2017-18 season. Justifiably, excitement is high.
So too are expectations, perhaps the highest they've been in years.
"I would say that's a fair assessment," Francis said. "We look at some of the things we did in the summer, and we think that makes us a better hockey team. We look at the fact that some of our young kids are going to have another year of maturation under their belt, and we're hoping for them to take another step forward, which makes us better. The leadership that became a part of our locker room - not just from a player perspective but from an off-ice, in-the-locker-room perspective - makes us better.
"We feel we have a chance to get in the playoffs and do some damage, but I'm sure there are a lot of other GMs around the league thinking the same way," he continued. "There's no guarantees and it's not easy, so we'll see how the season plays out, but we certainly like our chances."