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Hunting for a New Identity

Another sub-par season leaves the Carolina Hurricanes on the brink of an identity crisis.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Hurricanes wrapped up their season with a shoot out win over the Philadelphia Flyers but with extended play on the golf courses again. The Hurricanes extended their post-season drought to five seasons finishing 7th in the Metropolitan Division, 13th in the Eastern Conference, and 24th in the league.

As training camp began, plenty of optimism breezed through the locker room considering this was ‘the year’ for the Hurricanes to step up and make the playoffs and it was Kirk Muller’s first complete training camp. In retrospect, the Hurricanes did everything except take abrasive action.

On paper, this was a star-studded roster at the fingertips of head coach Kirk Muller and was possibly the most talented roster the franchise had laid it’s eyes on. Instead, they did what they’re identity was the entire season, show up late. When they did show up on time, however, they proved that they were just as good as any other team. Simply put, the Hurricanes are at the brink of an identity crisis.

Captain Eric Staal can tell you that his game didn’t start to come together until late December, which was when the team reached what seemed to be their only peak. "After Christmas my pace and my game was back to where it needs to be," he told the News and Observer. "It was tougher than I thought it would be, but I’ve never made any excuses and I’m not going to make any now. It was a tough start not only for me but I think for a few other guys. … That makes it a tough hill to climb and you get behind."

Granted, there were goalie injury issues that transpired early in the season, but they could have done better than they did. Their success rolled in to January, as the Staal, Alexander Semin, and Jiri Tlusty line were the top producers of that time span. The Hurricanes recorded a five game winning streak and had the hot hand in the New Year.

From late December up until the Olympic break the Hurricanes had found their groove and had a record of 16-11-4 in that span and a remarkable record for the month of January going 10-4-0. Jeff Skinner recorded his second hat trick of the season and his career, Andrej Sekera was named the third star of the week on January 27, and Anton Khudobin was awarded the first star for the month.

After the Olympic break, success seemed to slip away for the Hurricanes. The return included two losses to the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars at the end of the month of February. The beginning of March saw a four game losing skid continue. Slowly the Hurricanes saw their playoff chances deteriorate as they no longer had the spark that kept them going in January. So the Canes got bumped from the playoff race again, what’s to be done?

What is really critical for the Carolina Hurricanes to be successful in the future is to have a more physical presence. Their current offensive style tends to be dump and chase, but because they don’t have the bodies to get physical on the boards it tends to be dump and lose. There is also a lack of effort in the battle on the boards. If they’re able to add physical company, it will even up the score against bigger teams like the Boston Bruins who might be the most physically dominant team in the league.

The production within the lineups needs to change. A talented roster should never go unnoticed, but it did.

Eric Staal’s $9.5 million a year is amidst the preeminent contracts in the league. This season Staal reached a low of 21 goals and in the past three seasons hasn’t exceeded 30. "For me, I know what’s expected of me here," Staal said. "I’ve been here long enough to understand that and obviously I’m counted on offensively to produce. I felt like I’ve done a lot of the same things I’ve done every year but for whatever reason, goal-scoring wise, the puck didn’t seem to be hitting the back of the net as it has in the past."

Staal was ‘snubbed’ from this years’ Canadian Olympic team and soured back stating, "Do I think they made a mistake in not taking me? I hope to prove that." Instead, Staal dismally had one of the worst seasons of his career and has been the anathema of many fans. "Whether people think that or not, I’m out there competing as hard as I can, regardless of the situation."

What we know is that Staal is much more capable of playing at a higher level that he’s played in recent years. Which begs the question, what can get him back to that level again? He stated in a recent interview that he’s continued to do what he’s done in previous years, but that the puck hasn’t bounced in his favor. The same tricks only work so many times.

Semin is also much more capable than producing 22 goals seeing he tallied a 40 goal season in 2009-2010. Jim Rutherford was not afraid to mention the fact he wasn’t receiving the production numbers he wanted from Semin in an interview with ABC 11. Staal and Semin have potential to be the top producers in the league unless the money they’re receiving means otherwise.

On the other hand, Andrej Sekera and Manny Malhotra may have been the most valuable players on the roster this season and were undoubtedly the most consistent. Malhotra made a noteworthy return after battling adversity due to puck to an eye injury in 2011. He told the media in a final season interview on Tuesday that he believes that he proved he can still play in the NHL.

Sekera was worth every penny and more(Jamie McBain and a second round pick to Buffalo). Sekera played many key roles for the Hurricanes and never did he disappoint. He was one of the top producers for the team recording 11 goals, 33 assists for 44 points. Sekera also led the team in average ice time per game with 23:40.

Jeff Skinner proved that he is indeed a franchise cornerstone. For the second time in his career he surpassed 30 goals and recorded his first hat trick in Nashville as well as a second in the nation’s capital. An early concussion may have altered his production numbers by a tad, but it wasn’t significant. He led the team in goals(33), shots on goal (274), and was second in points (54), despite playing in only 71 games.

Anton Khudobin was the first star of this team. He stood on his head the majority of the season allowing the ‘Canes to have a fighting chance in games they had no business being in and won games they could have easily lost. Khudobin came in and took charge recording six wins in his first six starts. He finished this season 19-14-1 recording a .928 save percentage and 2.30 goals against average. Khudobin signed a 2-year $4.5 million contract extension in March. He was the Hurricanes best player only hoping for more support and a better outcome next season.

Kirk Muller is determined his system works. Muller has seen success with it, but it hasn’t been consistent. He now has only one full training camp under his belt, which is why he deserves another chance to finish up his last year on his contract.

A coach must be able to be willing to find a common ground in his system among his players in order for the system to be successful. There needs to be breathing room and flexibility instead of making the players fit the system. Having the system fit the players would seem more effective than shoving a system down their throats that they don’t adapt to well. The urge is to find consistency in his system or it’s going to be a short-lived season for Muller next season (assuming he returns).

"I’m optimistic. I’m disappointed, I’d much rather be starting in the playoffs." Muller said. "But I really believe we’re going to have a good hockey team ready to go next year." ‘Ready to go’ are the key words bearing in mind their lagging start this season.

Fans patience is slowly regressing and what the ‘Canes need in able to fix their identity crisis is a winning record and a trip to the playoffs. Five years on the outside looking in is long enough, six could possibly the final match in the powder barrel.

Personnel changes are coming, a new general manager is expected, and the future for the Hurricanes is uncertain. Will the offseason entail once keystone players to be relocated in order to rebuild?