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.