Since the day in March '91 when Ron Francis was traded from
Hartford to Pittsburgh, the star-crossed franchise has moved
from Connecticut to North Carolina. Changed its name from
Whalers to Hurricanes. Altered its colors from blue and green to
red and black. Shuffled through five coaches. And kept just two
players from that '91 roster. When Francis returned to the club
as a free agent this summer, he felt a little like Dorothy.
Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Hartford anymore.
"Everything is different except our place in the standings,"
says Francis of a team that has won just one playoff series in
19 NHL seasons. "The final thing we need to change is this
team's identity by becoming a contender for the Stanley Cup."
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice believes that Francis will
transform Carolina's center position from a weakness into a
strength in part because he will take some of the scoring
responsibility from Keith Primeau, who seems primed for a
breakout season. Primeau, 26, was Canada's best player in the
Olympics last winter and returned to the NHL as a dominant
two-way threat, scoring 27 points in his last 24 games. Carolina
must generate more offense after scoring the sixth-fewest goals
in the league last season. The Hurricanes need aging snipers Ray
Sheppard, Gary Roberts and Kevin Dineen to have productive
seasons. Carolina is also counting on solid goaltending from
Trevor Kidd, who finished last season with a .922 save
percentage, tied for second in the NHL behind Dominik Hasek.
The Hurricanes shelled out $21 million to Francis because they
realize this is a pivotal moment for a franchise that attracted
a league-low 9,108 fans per game in its debut season in North
Carolina and is moving into a new arena in Raleigh next year.
"It's no secret that we need to break the mold," Kidd says.
"It's like this franchise has had this huge weight on it, and
it's up to all of us to finally say, 'Enough already.'" The
team's six-year absence from the playoffs is the longest current
streak in the NHL, and if the Hurricanes miss the postseason
again, they should be downgraded to a tropical depression.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
This franchise, which hasn't qualified for the postseason since
1991-92, has missed the playoffs in 57.9% of its 19 seasons, the
second-worst percentage among teams that entered the NHL before
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--Goalie Trevor Kidd, who was spectacular in the last half of
1997-98, needs to play that way from the start of the season.
--Huge forward Keith Primeau (6'5", 220 pounds) has to be
salivating over the extra room behind the nets this year,
because it will allow him to make better use of his size.