Let's give them something to talk about
A little mystery to figure out
Let's give them something to talk about
How about love?
— Bonnie Raitt
The Carolina Hurricanes have given their fans, the league, the media and — most importantly — themselves something to talk about — and not anything good. A mystery? For sure. But this story isn't about love, it's about loss. Or rather losses. And lots of them.
The Canes are in the worst funk of their existence. Home or away, contender or bottom-feeder, luck or no luck — it simply hasn't mattered. Regardless of the where, who, what or when, the Canes lose. Which leaves the why.
Theory 1: Effort/Team Doesn't Care
I think this is an easy one to dispel. The Hurricanes have reached a point where over-effort is hurting them, not lack of effort. Eric Staal started the season slowly, began pressing, and is yet to snap out of it. The team, as a whole, has a similar look.
Theory 2: Special Teams Struggles
There's some validity to this. An inability to stop the power play in the first few games of the year, followed by a lack of scoring with the man advantage thereafter contributed to the team's early season struggles, which then snowballed into the lack of confidence we're seeing today. I think any coach would rather have consistent mediocrity out of both their special teams units than the unpredictability of a team that flounders so horribly in one are or the other.
Theory 3: Penalites
Again, this was a big part of the team's bad start. But it's hard to say the blame lies with undisciplined play when Carolina continues to lose games where they hold an advantage in power play opportunities.
Theory 4: Injuries/Suspensions
Erik Cole's injury in the second game of the season didn't help matters. Neither did Joni Pitkanen's late start to the year — and setback — or Tim Gleason's current upper body injury. Tack on Tuomo Ruutu's three-game suspension and you have vital pieces of the lineup missing significant time already. But none of that explains away nine straight losses.
Theory 5: Training Camp/Exhibition Mistakes
The four-game exhibition slate may have proved too short for the Hurricanes, who looked sloppy in their first few games. But perhaps the biggest error was having the roster set in stone coming in to camp. Since being recalled three games ago, Brandon Sutter has proven he belongs in the NHL. Was it a mistake to give a roster spot to a veteran player on a one-way deal instead of Sutter? Could the same be true for Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman or Brett Carson (currently injured)? What about Bryan Rodney, who GM Jim Rutherford hinted would be given every chance to make the team at a top-six defenseman this year? The signing of Andrew Alberts and reacquisition of Aaron Ward put an end to that.
Theory 6: Too Old, Too Fast
The Canes are the NHL's oldest team, but it wasn't a problem in the playoffs last year, and some of the vets — Scott Walker is at the top of the list — have been among the team's best players.
Theory 7: Coaching
Perhaps the biggest reason for the team's poor start. Coach Paul Maurice was commended for the job he did in getting the Canes to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. He also deserves blame for the team's horrendous play this year. Cam Ward was overplayed to start the season, lines have been constantly shuffled — on both even-strength and power play situations — and players repositioned, disproportionate ice time (see fewer than 13 minutes a night for Walker and Sutter, so far), and a curious loyalty to Jay Harrison all factor in. But more than anything, Maurice failed to see that the team's problems went deeper than the issue of the day (see all of the above). To be fair so did many others, but it is Maurice's job to identify weaknesses and patch or fix them, not find excuses. The penalty issue is seemingly resolved, as are the special teams problems. Neither fixes have led to wins. Next up? A return to full health — though that is on hold with Staal set to miss time for the first time since his rookie season. Maurice is running out of reasons as to why the team is struggling.
* * *
Which leads us to the final question: Has the locker room given up on Maurice? It's a fair question. Rarely do you see a team struggle so mightily without any definitive problem. By all accounts there are no problems among teammates, and anyone who watched the team last season knows the current roster is capable of scoring and defending. So the blame right now needs to be squarely on the shoulder of Maurice and his staff.
But it's not as simple as firing the coach. For one, GM Jim Rutherford is an admirer of Maurice, not to mention a close friend. Secondly, the team is still on the hook for departed coach Peter Laviolette's contract, and if you think owner Peter Karmanos wants to pay Laviolette, Maurice and a new coach all at the same time ... well, you don't know Karmanos. Third, any replacement would likely come from in-house, but current staff members Ron Francis and Tom Rowe — the most likely candidates — have been unable to help turn the tide with Maurice, and Albany head coach Jeff Daniels, the only other option, is in his second AHL season and probably not ready to take the helm.
That leaves roster change. We've suggested that moving Ray Whitney — who would have to agree to a trade, but probably wouldn't be totally against going elsewhere in the final year of his deal — would make sense, and there are rumors that Chad LaRose could be pursued by other teams. Is that enough? If a nine-game winless streak isn't enough of a wakeup call, would trading players away get anyone to jump to attention and right the ship? Or is it time — a mere 13 games into the season — to concede that the season is already slipping away and it's time to prepare for the influx of young talent that will fill the roster next year and beyond?
A little mystery to figure out.