More on Root Cause Analysis: The Source of the 2012-2013 Failure
If there is one overriding issue with the Hurricanes organization that I would change, it is what appears to me to be a need for more detachment and more pure analysis. Intangibles in hockey are by their very nature difficult, if not impossible, to define. The inter-relationship between success on the ice and relationships on the ice has no specific scientific or statistical analysis to examine.
If it were simple to build championship teams, dynasties would be the rule and not the exception. On the other hand, there are recurrent themes with the Hurricanes organization that ultimately led to the lack of playoff participation. In my view, one overriding issue for the Hurricanes is a propensity for overvaluing some players for their perceived off ice role.
Why the Hurricanes Failed This Season and How to Fix It
Above all else, the Hurricanes failed this season because they suffered injuries to key players, and the players inserted into the lineup were unable to carry their burden in their expanded roles. It was simple to see on the ice. It was simple to analyze with statistics. This season tested the depth of the Hurricanes organization, but the injuries also tested the resolve the Hurricanes organization to see what could be seen and to respond accordingly.
Putting Grinders on Scoring Lines is a Recipe for Failure
Players such as Pat Dwyer and Chad LaRose are grinders. Grinders have an important place on teams, in proper usage and in proper context. Out of their comfort zone and their skill set, they are flat times on a Porsche during a race. It was a mistake throughout the coaching staff and the organization to attempt yet again to overslot Dwyer and LaRose. That experiment failed in past seasons, and it failed in this season. Jokinen had the potential to be helpful as a second line RW; and it was logical to give try him in that role. As it turned out, under Muller's uptempo game, Jokinen's lack of speed and lack of physicality made him a very poor fit for Skinner and Jordan Staal.
The failure of the coaches and Jim Rutherford to stick with Dalpe was a significant contributing cause, although not the sole cause by any means, for this season's poor performance. Skinner and Jordan Staal need either a player like Ruutu who brings skilled, physicality and scoring touch, or a high-end offensive skill set such as Dalpe. Dalpe in his first six games was producing scoring chances for the second line, and was also creating space for Skinner and Jordan Staal. The idea that Dalpe needed to be perfect each shift to remain on the second line was flawed. There were no perfect replacements for Dalpe. The second line has floundered compared to the skill sets available; and it put far too much pressure on the Tlusty/EStaal/Semin line to score.
This problem is readily fixed. Next season both Dalpe and Ruutu need to spend time on the second line, depending on which one is playing the best. Rutherford and Muller need to write on a blackboard 1,000 times: "I will not put grinders on the second line." I do think there is a system wide cultural change that is needed. Even in the language of how players are discussed, far too much emphasis is given to a player such as LaRose for his hustle, when in fact much of the energy he expends is counterproductive, especially on the second line. Failure is failure. It isn't less of a failure because a great person with great intentions fails. The puck goes where it goes and the delightful personality of the person holding the hockey stick is irrelevant. All the players on the Hurricanes are men of character and integrity or they wouldn't be on the team. For Muller's system of accountability to work, the coaches and the organization also has to hold tight to the principle of accountability. The best players need to be playing even if they are less charismatic in the locker room than some other players.
Hope is Not a Plan of Action
Bryan Allen was far from a perfect hockey player. He was however the best the Hurricanes have had in a long time at clearing the crease and making the Hurricanes hard to play against in the battle zones. It was a mistake not to replace Allen with somebody with similar skill sets and attitude. Corvo was the wrong person for the right reasons. Corvo on some teams would have been a great help. As it turned out in the shortened season, he has struggled. Under Muller's system he is a detriment because he does not bring composure and ease in breakouts. His tendency toward miscues in his own end is not what the Hurricanes needed. Objectively, the addition of Corvo was unlikely to bring anything but disappointment given the mismatch between his strengths as a player and the needs of the Hurricanes. Quarterbacking the power play was supposed to be one of Corvo's strengths. The power play floundered and Corvo was not able to bring veteran presence to bear.
Depending on Non-NHL Quality Goalies Never Works
NHL Teams with terrible goalies don't make the playoffs. An NHL team can be playoff quality, but if the goalie is abysmal the team will be participating in early golfing. Peters has been given every opportunity to succeed as a backup goalie. For many reasons, he has continued to demonstrate he is not yet, and increasingly it looks less and less likely he will become, a legitimate NHL goalie. Peters has moments of brilliance. He is big, fast, determined, highly competitive. He, however, suffers from the inability to provide consistent NHL level goalie performance. He doesn't need to be great. He only needs to be adequate on a steady, reliable basis. To date, he has not been able to do so. Ellis has had a previous history of periods of stellar play, followed by bewildering periods of ineptitude. Injuries certainly played a role; but his mental makeup also plays a role. It was the combination of injuries and erratic play that left him an unemployed NHL goalie. The demand for competent, reliable NHL backup goalies is so great that the fact he was available was at least a caution sign. Now it is unclear if the laceration was the cause of Ellis' decline or whether it was his state of mind. It could all be explained by trying to come back too soon for the good of the team. The problem is how can anybody, including Jim Rutherford, know for certain? As such, the Hurricanes need to turn the page on Dan Ellis.
The McBain Regression
Other than exceptional athletes like Faulk, virtually all young defensemen will have a regression at some point. It's an impossible position to play perfectly; or so nearly impossible that only a few of the most outstanding athletes can replicate success year after year. McBain's regression, however, seems to be as much a matter of not having bought in to Muller's style as it was the natural pattern of things. McBain became a menace by the standards of bringing composed, elegant breakouts. His lack of physicality around his own crease left the Hurricanes vulnerable numerous times. His turnovers were legend.
McBain on some teams will be a great asset. Unless McBain changes his over all approach he has no future with the Hurricanes. Muller is not going to revamp his system to accommodate McBain's preferred style of play.
Mighty Mites Don't Work on the Fourth Line of a Physicality First Team
Muller's system rises or falls on his team bringing solid effort each shift by each line. It depends on wearing down opposing teams and being smart, but aggressive. I suspect one could count the 50/50 puck wins and losses and predict the outcome of the game. In another area in which hope is not a plan of action, the Hurricanes fielded bottom six players who individually were fine, but as a group were too small to play their combined roles well. It was entirely predictable that having three bottom six roster spots taken by LaRose, Dwyer, and Brent would yield disappointment. Any one of the three would do fine. Two of the three is probably overly optimistic. Having all three on one team could not work, did not work, and will not work in the future. It isn't a condemnation of any of the three guys. All three are NHL quality players. All give full effort. Dwyer is the most complete hockey player of the three, I think; but Brent and LaRose are fully proven NHL players. Even so, one could look at all three and know there was heartache ahead. Muller and Rutherford must revamp the bottom six.
The good news is that with Nash and Bowman two of the bottom six are solid. Dalpe should also be on the team, either on the second line, with Ruutu on the third line, or vice versa. Dwyer would be the most logical fourth player of the six. Accordingly, there are only two slots to fill; and the Hurricanes have numerous good choices. In an ideal world, Rask or Barkov would take over as the third line center and Nash would move to the fourth line. Muller would have an ideal setup if the fourth line were not paperweights, but instead were far more productive. For example, Bowman/Nash/Welsh or Bowman/Nash/Dwyer could be an impactful fourth line that could play 10 to 12 minutes of good hockey a night.
The Solutions are Easy to See and Articulate
The problems are easy to see, easy to articulate, and most are easy to remedy if the organization's will is there. The Hurricanes need another high quality shutdown defenseman. Seth Jones is choice #1 for improving the defense. In the absence of Seth Jones, it is much harder to make a hockey deal that helps. Top four defensemen are rare and expensive. Essentially, the Nashville Predator approach of drafting defensemen is one way; but then they wind up developing and leaving for more money. One can hope that Gleason and Faulk are the first pairing; that somebody can play with Pitkanen (assuming he fully recovers), and that Harrison or Bellemore can play with Ryan Murphy. Sanguinetti has the skating ability to play with Pitkanen. If Sanguinetti wants to stick with the Hurricanes, he is going to have to muscle up and bulk up more.
The Hurricanes need to keep Dalpe. The Hurricanes need to draft Barkov if he's available and perhaps even so if Seth Jones is available. Statistically, it's a long shot that the Hurricanes get a chance to draft Seth Jones, and it is much more likely Barkov is available.
The Hurricanes need to try another back up goalkeeper and waive Peters back to the AHL and not re-sign Ellis. The Hurricanes need to trade McBain, and not re-sign Corvo and Bergeron. The Hurricanes need to assess whether Barkov and/or Rask are NHL ready and if not work on obtaining a fourth line center with some bulk and sandpaper.
The Hurricanes have a great future; and with a strong draft in 2013, the talent level will rise yet again. In some ways, the frustrating thing about the Hurricanes is not the lack of talent. The frustrating thing is that the Hurricanes tend to overvalue some layers and undervalue other players so that the organization does not get the best usage of the talent it has.