When Paul Maurice penciled in his first three shootout participants last night in Montreal, there was a clear strategy to his selections. First was Tuomo Ruutu, arguably the Canes best player for the past week. Next was fellow Finn Jussi Jokinen, perhaps the best in the business. And third was captain Rod Brind’Amour.
There are several ways coaches and their staff choose their shooters: in-practice competitions, past performance in the shootout, in-game effectiveness, and even revenge — sending out a player against an ex-team (like Brind’Amour finishing off the Flyers back in 2007).
But last night’s final choice wasn’t about any of those factors. It was about confidence. Maurice gambled that his captain, either mired in a seemingly endless multi-season slump or finally showing signs of aging, would finish off the Habs. A Brind’Amour winner would've rallied the team and perhaps boosted the veteran’s confidence. Despite a solid effort from Brind’Amour, Montreal goaltender Carey Price made the stop — as he did against five other Hurricanes.
By now, we all know this isn't the Rod Brind'Amour of two or three seasons ago. But Maurice’s move wasn't about putting the three best players — of which Brind’Amour was just two years ago, though many forget that now — in his shootout lineup, but instead trying to seize the opportunity to give his beleaguered center a boost.
While you can't pin the shootout loss on Brind'Amour alone — it took six to tango in the blanking — it was just another example of Maurice& Co. rolling the dice and coming up snake eyes.
The team’s first gamble came from general manager Jim Rutherford, who banked on the duo of Aaron Ward and Andrew Alberts being an upgrade over Dennis Seidenberg and Anton Babchuk. While Alberts has brought exactly what was expected from him — steady, physical play without much offense — Ward has been perhaps the team's biggest disappointment. In fact, outside of the re-signing of Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu, and the addition of Tom Kostopoulos, Rutherford’s offseason moves have failed miserably. Chad LaRose and Erik Cole have combined for a goal and three assists in 30 total games. Stephane Yelle was supposed to be a defensive stalwart on the fourth line, but instead has struggled to stay out of the penalty box and was even placed on waivers. Not only did the moves keep NHL-ready Brandon Sutter and puck-mover Bryan Rodney in Albany — Sutter has since seized his opportunity and is unlikely to go back to the AHL, while Rodney has added a needed dimension to the Canes’ blueline — but it's put the Hurricanes in an almost unthinkable predicament: cap troubles.
Second, Rutherford made the decision to limit the Hurricanes to just four preseason games, a move he has admitted contributed to the team’s slow start.
Maurice has been guilty as well. His decision to start Cam Ward every game — until he was injured — on a team struggling to win clearly demoralized the goalie. One could even argue if Ward had not been playing in the back end of another back-to-back game against Columbus, he might not be injured. But more importantly, when Ward went down the Canes were stuck with a rusty backup in Michael Leighton. The lack of confidence in Leighton surely contributed to the signing of Manny Legace, and the jury’s still out on whether or not that was the right move.
The constant tinkering of lines — Brind’Amour’s move to wing stands out — and off-and-on special teams struggles point to a coaching staff that is desperate to find answers.
The problem is, when you're 3-12-4 and just one game removed from a mind-numbing 14-game losing streak — as the Canes were heading in to last night — you don't use a pivotal spot in the shootout to try and play amateur psychologist. Maybe if you're in a reasonable position in the standings and are trying to kickstart your captain to help your team over the long run you call Brind’Amour’s number. But not when you’re on the cusp of back-to-back wins and sitting at the bottom of the NHL.
Throughout the losing streak, Maurice talked about how the team needed to take it one shift, one period, one game at a time. But his decision to use Brind’Amour points to him looking days and weeks ahead. If it works, Maurice looks like a genius and maybe Brind’Amour regains some confidence. But it didn't, and it was — again — a gamble not worth taking.