Justin Williams has had enough. Cam Ward too. And, for that matter, so has Tom Dundon.
As the Carolina Hurricanes closed out their season Monday, cleaning out their lockers in early April for the ninth consecutive year, the disappointment and the dejection of years past was replaced by palpable anger. It was evident throughout the locker room, but it was most notable in the voices and on the faces of the Canes’ lifers, those who know what this group was capable of and know that the underachievement of the team is going to be its lasting impression.
“It’s a complete and utter disappointment,” said Williams. “I came into this season assuming that we were going to take the next step, and we didn’t. It’s a failure. Enough said.
“We clearly didn’t rise to the occasion when other teams did. To watch playoff hockey right now, it’s going to sting. I hope it hurts for everybody. But I think probably the same old story has been going on a long time here. People are fed up with it. This is my first year back here, and I don’t accept it.
“I know that once you make the playoffs and you get a taste and you get that winning attitude with your teammates, and you have that taken away, it’s different than not feeling that in the first place. It certainly hurts a lot more.”
It was clear from the players that the way this season ended was unacceptable, but more than that, even getting to this point was a challenge. Bill Peters referred to this season as “a grind” after the loss to the Rangers nine days ago, and Ward said that he also felt that way at times.
“I think that’s fair. It’s tough to go back and assess the whole situation, but it did feel a little bit of a grind. I don’t think we were always reaching the full potential of our hockey team, and that’s frustrating for players, for coaches. You feel that it’s in the locker room. When you’re not getting all of it, it’s frustrating.”
But the sharpest words were spoken by the owner who, it is glaringly clear, does not see shades of gray in his black-and-white world.
“Everything we did was wrong,” said Dundon bluntly. “Whether or not we should change that is a thing that there’s a whole bunch of people talking about right now. It’s reasonable to believe, after you fail, that you should be more aggressive in reconsidering whether or not you made the right decisions.”
It was Dundon - not Peters, Ron Francis, officially-designated interim GM Don Waddell or anyone else - who conducted the exit interviews with the players, and he said that for the most part, the players all had varying degrees of the same evaluation of the season. Dundon said he challenged them, telling them that they can assume nothing about their roles on the team going forward — with one exception.
“We need it to be hard to be on this team. There’s no number of spots [available]. We may have 19 new players next year, and we may have zero. It’s unlikely it will be either of those things, but I think every spot is open.
“It’s our job to find players better than you, and it’s your job to make that hard. There isn’t anyone I’m trying to replace. The players understand this is a business, and there are a bunch of them we’re not going to be able to replace. We aren’t finding better players than Sebastian Aho; we’re just not. We’re not finding harder workers and we’re not finding more committed hockey players. But if I could find twelve of them, I would do it - but I can’t.”
Dundon wouldn’t commit to Bill Peters’ future with the organization, saying that “he has some options to consider - and so do I.” He also declined to put a timetable on the hiring of a new general manager, but reiterated that he’s comfortable with the current setup of Waddell, Ricky Olczyk, Mike Vellucci and others serving as a braintrust for the time being.
And while things went a little haywire following the reassignment of Ron Francis, Dundon said that it’s calmed down and he is still finding his way through what he wants the next Hurricanes general manager to bring to the table.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I have a lot more information now, but I don’t have clarity on what I think is the right long-term decision,” he said. “Whatever I did was wrong, because we didn’t win, but I don’t know how correlated GM searches are to winning in the short term. I don’t think I put a lot of weight in the timing of things, other than making sure we make the right decisions.”
One of those decisions is who the leaders of the team will be going forward. Despite the fact that the Canes had two co-captains, it was obvious who Ward saw as the key member of the Hurricanes’ locker room.
“What didn’t [Williams] bring back to this room? He was the leader. He’s a guy who I respect a ton - I’ve played with him, won the Stanley Cup with him, and he’s Mr. Game 7 for a reason. Thank God we had him. There are times where things weren’t going well, and he’s the one guy who will step up and say something and try to make a difference. You respect a guy like that. He’s a guy that they can lean on here to be a good veteran leader, both on and off the ice.”
With the changes forthcoming, it will be the last time that this group of players graces the door to the Canes’ locker room. Next year will be different. And Williams made it clear that the narrative around the team needs to change.
“You can’t say we’re young forever - ‘hey, we’re young, we’re learning.’ Eventually you’re a senior, you’re a junior, you’re not young anymore. It’s time, as I thought it was this year, to take that next step and become a relevant hockey team in terms of making the playoffs.
“It wasn’t all a failure. A lot of guys made strides to become better hockey players. But we certainly need everybody to do that for us to get better. We’ve had enough disappointment in terms of playoff success that we need to get going.”
If you missed Dundon’s press conference, here is the video.