RALEIGH, N.C. — The Carolina Hurricanes have a new general manager in Ron Francis and now a new head coach in Detroit Red Wings assistant Bill Peters. It’s not quite the fresh start many of the fans were hoping for when the 2013-14 season ended without a playoff berth for the fifth straight season, but it’s still a fresh start.
Francis reiterated during Peters’ introductory press conference that there likely won’t be any major overhauls with this roster, though.
"We believe we have a pretty good group here that can compete and win," Francis said, "so there’s no real need at this point to make major overhauls, in my eyes."
Peters felt the same way when he studied this roster more and more closely over the course of an interview process with the organization that dates back to May 20. It was Francis’ first coaching search, and he wanted to take his time. Peters, who interviewed with three teams for their head coaching vacancies, did too.
"When I did my due diligence and went to look at rosters of the teams that I was interviewing for, we’re not far off," Peters said. "I think there’s lots of pieces here and it’s up to us as coaches and our coaching staff, once we finalize it, to max our group out."
So it will be up to Peters to try to do what former head coach Kirk Muller couldn’t: get the core of this roster to buy in and play up to its potential.
In some ways, Peters is not much different than Muller. Peters, like Muller, is a well-regarded assistant coach without head coaching experience at the NHL level.
That’s really where the similarities end, though. Muller had a long and successful NHL career, while Peters played less than a handful of games at the professional level and never reached the NHL.
The most important difference? Peters does actually have head coaching experience in the WHL and the AHL, which Muller didn’t. Eight players that Peters coached during his time in the AHL went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 or 2013.
The fresh start, though, will come in how Peters is able to deal with and relate to this team. The word "accountability" has been tossed around quite a bit in Raleigh over the last few years, particularly when it comes to the Hurricanes’ star players that haven’t always performed up to their capabilities. In spite of many around the organization using that word it hasn’t seemed to come to fruition on the ice. And Peters seemed very aware that the local fans have heard it all before.
"I want to be a hard-working team, obviously. Every coach is going to tell you that, but there’s work ethic indicators as coaches that we can pick up on in the game, postgame, watching the video, breaking down the chances for and against and everything else," Peters said. "Guys will know what’s expected. The guys that can deliver and play and do it on a consistent basis are going to be the guys that are going out over the wall and getting the opportunity."
It was clear that Peters understands a head coach in today’s NHL must balance the need to relate to his players on a human level while simultaneously holding them — yes, that word again — accountable.
It seemed like Peters was more than willing to back up that talk with action.
"I have the ultimate hammer as a coach, and the hammer is the ice time. They all want ice time. They all feel they deserve more ice time. They all want to play in the situations that matches their skill set," Peters said. "And I’m all for that, as long as you’re giving me the things that I need and the work ethic to play away from the puck, the attention to detail.
"That’s the perfect marriage when it all comes together and when it doesn’t all come together, I’ve got to swing hammer and then that’s when the ice time fluctuates. … But I want to make players comfortable. I want them to succeed. I’m going to put them in positions to succeed. If they follow the template and the structure that we’re going to play with, they will be successful."
Fans are certainly tired of the higher-ups talking about how "close" this team is to being back to a playoff-caliber group. Francis pointed out that the Hurricanes finished 10 points out of the playoffs, which basically translated into just one extra win a month that the team couldn’t get, which is true. The talent on the roster is good enough to at least be a playoff team.
Most of Peters’ comments during his press conference were a refreshing balance between cautious optimism and realism in terms of where this team is. When Peters was preparing for each interview with the organization over the last month or so, he studied the team closer and closer each time, wanting to identify the biggest problem areas.
"The three things that jump out that we have to fix — flat-out have to, if we’re going to be successful, and we are — we’re going to fix our power play. We have enough skill to have a good power play. We’re going to fix our starts to games. If you’re playing from behind in the NHL an you’er anybody but the L.A Kings, you’re losing," Peters said. "And we’ve got to improve our home record. No question about that. We’ve got to become a harder team to play against here in Raleigh."
The Hurricanes’ power play was 28th in the NHL this season, scoring on just 14.6 percent of its chances. That’s been an issue over the last few seasons. And slow starts plagued the Hurricanes all season long — they were outscored 67-42 in the first period on the season and were 7-20-2 in games where they trailed after one period. Only two teams in the NHL trailed first more often than the Hurricanes this season, and they were 13-31-6 in such games.
Those issues belied the end result for the Hurricanes, which was a 36-35-11 record and a seventh-place finish in the Metropolitan Division (out of eight teams). As to the home game struggles, they were just 18-17-6 at home compared to 18-18-6 on the road. And many of the early-game struggles came at home, killing any fan enthusiasm in the building early.
Really, most of what fans around here want is to watch a competitive team play an entertaining brand of hockey. Peters said he wants to pick up the pace, both in practice and in games, and get this roster ready to play uptempo.
While everyone likes offense, it’s difficult to generate it without controlling all other aspects of the game as well, according to Peters. That’s not something this team did very well a season ago either, as good goaltending was often negated by poor defensive effort.
"In order to be a good hockey team, you’ve got to be good in the defensive zone. You’ve got to be able to get through the neutral zone and go have fun in the offensive zone. That’s where everybody makes their money and everyone wants to be. But in order to get the opportunity to play in the offensive zone, you’d better have the other two zones looked after," Peters said. "We’re going to be a team that controls the neutral zone, if we do it right. And we’re going to be able to spend some time in the offensive zone, therefore allowing us to generate more scoring chances and goals.
"That’s another thing that we’ve got to do. We’ve got to score more goals. We haven’t scored enough goals here in Carolina to match what our talent level is."
It’s far too early to judge this hire — too early in Francis’ tenure, and certainly it’s unfair to compare Peters’ lack of experience to Muller’s and dismiss him for that reason. Everyone has to have a first head coaching job at some point.
But Peters has enough experience with two elite organizations in the Blackhawks and the Red Wings that he understands what it takes.
"I’m confident that we have the right person to lead the ‘Canes going forward. He is organized, detailed, demands accountability and high compete level from his players," Francis said of Peters. "He also comes from winning cultures, and I personally am excited to start working together with Bill to build a Stanley Cup contender here in Raleigh."
It won’t happen overnight, and it may not happen at all, but if Peters can earn the respect of the current players and change the culture in that locker room, it might start to happen sooner rather than later.