Noah Hanifin

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Carolina has the ‘open for business sign out there’

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Ron Francis is ready to make more deals.

Heading into the offseason, Francis had 11 draft picks at this June’s draft, and already used one — a third-rounder — to acquire Scott Darling from Chicago.

Now, the Hurricanes GM is prepared to use more in the hopes of adding to the roster.

“We’ve got the open for business sign out there,” Francis said Wednesday, per the News & Observer. “We’re in a unique situation with the amount of picks we have and the amount of prospects we have. It’ll be interesting.

“Really what it comes down to is what teams want: Do they want a player back for the asset they don’t have to protect or are they willing to take some picks and prospects?”

It’s pretty obvious the goal for Francis and head coach Bill Peters is to get the ‘Canes back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The team has shown steady improvement over the last three years — going from 30 to 35 to 36 wins — and had a nice late push before ultimately falling short this season.

“I think we have specific needs, very specific needs,” Peters said at Carolina’s end-of-year media availability. “So as a coach I’m going to give very specific names.”

It sounds like more than just picks could be in play.

The News & Observer said the ‘Canes “aren’t agonizing” over the expansion draft, as the team has a pretty good idea of who’ll be exposed. So it could be a case of identifying the players that will remain, and seeing what assets they may fetch in return.

There’s been speculation that the Hurricanes might be willing to move Noah Hanifin. Though it might seem strange to dangle a gifted 20-year-old d-man with loads of potential, Carolina has good depth on the blueline with Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. It’s expected that prospects Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury will push for NHL jobs next year, and there’s still ’16 first-rounder Jake Bean on the horizon.

Francis also has another asset at his disposal — cap space.

It’s what allowed the ‘Canes to snag Teuvo Teravainen from Chicago for the price of taking on Bryan Bickell‘s contract. Another similar move could very well be in the cards, especially when the NHL releases next year’s cap ceiling figure.

After locking up Zaitsev, Leafs hoping to ‘add’ to defense

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Add the Toronto Maple Leafs to the list of teams that would like to bolster their defense this offseason.

Yesterday, the Leafs locked up Nikita Zaitsev on a seven-year deal. They’ve also got Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner back there.

Another top-four d-man would help.

“We certainly have three individuals under contract — in Gardiner, Rielly and Zaitsev right now — that bring a certain style and certain dimension, and we have a couple of younger players, and we have a couple of free agents that we have to make decisions on,” GM Lou Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But I think we have to add to that group, and not make decisions just for simply adding. They have to be people who come in and help.”

Meanwhile, in Vancouver, there are newspaper columns encouraging the Canucks to shop Chris Tanev.

Or perhaps Carolina would be a good place for the Leafs to look. There’s been speculation that the Hurricanes might be willing to move Noah Hanifin.

Or maybe the expansion draft will shake something loose on another team.

But for a legitimate top-four defenseman, preferably a right shot, the Leafs will have to pay up. They’ll likely be asked to part with William Nylander. Assuming that’s a non-starter, they could always counter with Kasperi Kapanen or Carl Grundstrom, but they’d probably have to sweeten it with something else.

Again, Toronto isn’t alone in wanting to bolster its back end. Buffalo and Colorado are even more desperate to do so.

And we all know the price the Oilers paid to get Adam Larsson last summer.

Related: Are the Leafs getting into ‘go for it’ territory?

After ‘breakout’ year in AHL, Fleury ready to crack ‘Canes lineup

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If it feels like we’ve written about Haydn Fleury being ready to make the leap before… well, it’s because we have.

Quite a few times.

There are reasons for this, of course. Fleury was the second defenseman off the board at the 2014 draft, taken six spots behind No. 1 overall selection Aaron Ekblad. He’s just one of two top-15 picks from his draft year yet to play in the NHL — the fifth overall selection, Isles prospect Michael Dal Colle, is also waiting to make the leap — and he’s already two years behind fellow ‘Canes blueliner Noah Hanifin, who was taken in the ’15 draft and just wrapped his sophomore NHL campaign.

Progress has been a slow process. But now, it finally sounds like Fleury’s ready to break through.

“He’s had, in my opinion, a breakout year,” AHL Charlotte coach Ulf Samuelsson said this week, per the Observer. “He’s been one of our most consistent players. He’s taken a step maybe each month and the last month has made the biggest step because he’s now using his size.

“He’s hard to play against. He’s always been good joining the rush, jumping up, but he has turned into a really good two-way defenseman.”

After a lengthy junior career in Red Deer, Fleury played his first season of pro hockey in Charlotte this season, and acquitted himself nicely. He raced up seven goals and 26 points in 69 games and, as per Samuelsson’s above quote, has used his 6-foot-3, 207-pound frame to his advantage.

Some might look at Fleury’s slow progression to the pro game, and consider him a draft bust. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

‘Canes GM Ron Francis has taken a more deliberate approach with Fleury, 20, and another promising blueliner, 21-year-old Roland McKeown. Both were knocking on the door of making the Carolina roster to start the year, but Francis opted to send them back to Charlotte for more seasoning.

One might wonder why Francis opted to slow play these two, when Hanifin was fast-tracked to the NHL at 18. The answer might not lie with Fleury and McKeown, but rather the group as a whole — Carolina had one of the youngest bluelines in the league this year, featuring Hanifin (20), Jaccob Slavin (22), Brett Pesce (22), Ryan Murphy (24) and Justin Faulk (25).

Murphy, however, could be lost to Las Vegas in the upcoming expansion draft, resulting in an open roster spot. And journeyman Matt Tennyson, who appeared in 45 games on defense for the ‘Canes this season, is a pending UFA.

All this points to Fleury making his long-awaited NHL debut in the fall.

Gaudreau joins Eichel as latest additions to USA’s Worlds roster

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Another big score for USA Hockey on Friday.

Calgary forward Johnny Gaudreau — whose season ended earlier Wednesday with a playoff sweep at the hands of Anaheim — told reporters today he’d be joining Team USA for the upcoming World Championships in Germany and France.

Gaudreau’s announcement comes just days after another big name — Buffalo’s Jack Eichelalso agreed to join the squad.

All this makes for a pretty intriguing roster.

USA Hockey has adopted a youth movement, selecting collegiate players like Notre Dame goalie Cal Petersen (a Buffalo draftee), Boston University forward Jordan Greenway (a Minnesota draftee), Notre Dame forward Anders Bjork (a Boston draftee) and Daniel Brickley, an undrafted free agent out of Minnesota State-Mankato.

In addition to those, some quality NHL youngsters are also in the mix: Noah Hanifin, J.T. Compher, Andrew Copp and a pair of prized Arizona prospects — Christian Dvorak and Clayton Keller. Detroit sophomore Dylan Larkin will also suit up for the Americans.

The 2017 Worlds get underway on May 5.

 

 

‘Belief system is very strong’ for red-hot Hurricanes

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) In less than a month, the Carolina Hurricanes have gone from last place in the Eastern Conference to the edge of the playoff picture.

The Hurricanes enter the weekend four points behind Boston for the East’s eighth and final playoff spot with seven games remaining.

It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a team that earlier this week inherited the dubious distinction of owning the NHL’s longest active playoff drought – and all it took was earning at least one point in a franchise-record 13 straight games.

Heading into the final week of the season, they’ve got a chance – a slim one, but a chance nonetheless – to shed that label as quickly as they earned it.

“The belief system is very strong right now,” coach Bill Peters said.

They know they’ve got to remain near-perfect, though, starting with Saturday night’s game against Dallas and continuing through next week’s two-game road swing through playoff-bound Pittsburgh and Minnesota.

“It’s fun. That’s why you play the game,” said forward Jeff Skinner, who along with many of his teammates has never skated in a playoff game. “I think you look at guys are feeding off of each other, guys are playing well, we’re playing well as a team and it’s a lot of fun coming to the rink when you’ve got things on the line. Hopefully we can keep this thing rolling and keep it that way.”

The only other team in club history to earn points in 12 consecutive games went on to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2006.

These Hurricanes have gone 9-0-4 since March 9 to vault back into contention. They broke that 11-year-old club record Thursday night with a 2-1 overtime victory over Columbus in which Skinner scored the tying goal with 4:20 left in regulation, then set up Noah Hanifin‘s winner 2:16 into OT.

A pair of first-round draft picks has led the way: Skinner (2010) scored goals in a career-best six straight games, piling up nine points in that stretch, and Elias Lindholm (2013) had either a goal or an assist – or both – in 11 of those 13 games.

“We absolutely have a shot here to do this,” said Hanifin, their first-round pick in 2015.

Carolina’s string of seven straight years without making the tournament became the longest in the league when Edmonton clinched its first playoff berth since 2006. Coincidentally, the Oilers’ last appearance in the postseason came in 2006 – when they lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final to Carolina.

The Hurricanes’ only playoff berth since that championship season came in 2009 – when they won two early-round Game 7s to advance to the Eastern Conference final. Since then, they haven’t been close very often, finishing at least 10 points back in each of the last five years.

It wasn’t long ago that things looked bleak once again. Carolina was in last in the East on March 4 with 60 points, one behind the Detroit Red Wings, after a home loss to an Arizona team that remains the second-worst team in the league.

The Hurricanes have been tough to beat ever since.

“When you’re playing well, you want to get back out there,” said veteran goalie Cam Ward, the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. “We’re starving to go to the playoffs, but you can’t do it all in eight games. You’ve got to take one game at a time and not look too far in the future. We’ve been doing a good job of taking care of ourselves and coming to the rink each day and trying to win the day. … Winning’s fun, so we’re having a lot of fun.”

Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap