This was supposed to be the year. The Carolina Hurricanes were tossing away their old budget, they were changing their frugal ways of the past, and they were going to spend the money needed to make the playoffs this season.
On paper, they accomplished pretty much what they wanted to in the off season.
Before the end of last season, they extended Alexander Semin's contract for five years, which would keep one of the previous season's most productive lines in the NHL together, in Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty, and Semin.
They drafted and signed Elias Lindholm, figuring he would be able to fill the third line center slot.
Most of these moves made by management seemed to be good ones, so went what wrong? Was it poor management, bad coaching, terrible luck, or are the players simply not good enough?
More than likely, it is a combination of all of the above.
While Jim Rutherford and company made several fine moves before this season, management's failure was probably the over-valuing of this team's "core". If the core of the team has been the same throughout the recent five years of disappointment, perhaps the core itself needs to be looked at and not the pieces surrounding them.
While the struggles of Cam Ward have been well documented, (he is currently sporting a .893 save percentage and has played in just two fewer games than his counterpart, Khudobin), team captain Eric Staal is quietly having one of his worst seasons as a pro.
Staal has just 17 goals in 69 games, one less than he scored in 48 games in last season's shortened campaign. (Three of those 17 are empty-netters). He has just one powerplay goal all season long and zero game-winning goals. Both of those are career worst stats.
He also leads his team in penalty minutes.
But what might hurt the most is that Staal is earning $9.25 million this year, the fifth highest salary in the NHL. Much, much more is expected from him.
It seems that Jim Rutherford's biggest mistake was severely misjudging the long term value of his star players and perhaps that might be one reason he is expected to step down this summer. For what it's worth, Ward and Staal are both rumored to be available for trade on the open market when it opens this off season, as is previously untouchable Jeff Skinner.
More than likely if the team is able to trade Ward, they will be required to pay a portion of his inflated salary, the same as they are doing currently with Jussi Jokinen and Ruutu.
Is it just coincidence that so many players are having a rough year of it and that they were misjudged and over-valued? Was Rutherford wrong that many times or are there other factors involved? Does coaching have anything to do with it?
Players who were dependable previously, Gleason, Ruutu, Jokinen, and also Chad LaRose, each had trouble under Kirk Muller. These players are arguably performing better now than they did under their former coach, (except for LaRose of course).
This is the third season for Muller now, has there been any progress or improvement? Is he getting the most out of his players? Has there been overall development?
We are approaching the end of the season and he still has no consistency in any lines. There is not even a regular first line.
There is no team chemistry, and I do not mean that the guys are not good guys and don't get along okay. By chemistry, I mean that when they leave a drop pass, there is actually a teammate there to gather it. That they can make reads off of each other, consistently. That they know what their linemate is thinking, where their linemate wants the puck when they get a pass, and where they prefer to shoot. It seems there is little of that.
What is the team identity, other than to start slow in a game? They have been known around the league as being an "easy" team to play against and they were going to put an end to that this season, but have they?
More often than not, the team seems unprepared to start a game the right way. The powerplay has regressed, almost to being the worst in the league.
Muller has been strict about sticking with his system, regardless of circumstances. Even when the team was decimated by injuries, he stuck with the system. But shouldn't there be some flexibility? Shouldn't a coach adapt his system to fit the players he has to work with?
All of this is certainly not an easy thing for an outsider to determine, but for the most part it appears that this coach is not getting the most out of his players and there is no progress or improvement.
Kirk Muller was a great player and is an exceptional person. He has not had an easy road of it, between two partial seasons and a plethora of injuries. But this adversity is not much different than what any other franchise or coach has to go through.
This is a results orientated business and the results have not been there. If the club is going to make changes, they need to look at the coaching staff as well.