Canes changes will have to come from within
Posted March 2
Updated March 3
The numbers are bleak. However, the reality and the rebuild might be worse.
With 22 games left to play, the Carolina Hurricanes are not only seven points out of a playoff spot, but they're in 13th place in the Eastern Conference. That means there are five teams to leapfrog over the final six weeks of the season. Under normal circumstances, the task would be daunting, but it's the secondary numbers that tell the true story.
When the Canes went to bed January 31st, they were sleeping on a 3-1 win over the St Louis Blues -- one of the best, and toughest teams in the Western Conference -- and in prime position. Carolina was third in the Metropolitan Division, winners of five of their last six and looking at three more home games before players scattered for the Olympic break. It looked as though, finally, Kirk Muller had his team playing his brand of aggressive, attacking hockey. It was almost a shame that the team had to sit on the euphoria of that win over St. Louie, maybe their most complete game of the year when you consider the opponent as well as the performance.
Three nights later central division, cellar-dwelling Winnipeg came to town and beat the Canes 2-1 on a goal with just over a minute remaining. And even though Carolina would bounce back a few days later with an easy win over Florida, the damage was done. Dominated and lethargic in a 4-1 loss to the Canadiens, the Canes ended the pre-Olympic schedule with a thud, dropping two of three, and falling three points out of the final playoff spot.
Unfortunately, it was more of the same after the closing ceremonies.
Carolina played well Tuesday night in Buffalo, but nonetheless dropped the opener of a five game road trip. Thursday in Dallas they weren't ready to play and paid the price, losing 4-1. Then Saturday afternoon they fell 3-1 in Los Angeles. Four goals in three post-Sochi games, and a total of five in their fourth consecutive loss. The offense that looked more than adequate since a New Year's Eve comeback win over Montreal had suddenly gone dry. From December 31 through the end of January, Carolina scored 52 goals, roughly 3 1/2 per game -- and that's with being shut out three times -- in going 11-4 over that stretch.
Those were the days.
The Canes offensive woes are evident throughout the line up. They're 22nd in the NHL in scoring, and a lot of that is due to a power play so impotent, no yellow pill could get it going. Carolina is 29th in the league with the man advantage having scored just 28 power play goals all season -- or, a little more than half as much as Pittsburgh's 50. In today's NHL, you have to get something out of your special teams and the Canes just don't.
Carolina is only slightly better at killing penalties, ranking 21st, which isn't a whole lot to text home about. But, we could lament the scoring woes all night long and it wouldn't really begin to tell the story of the future of this team. Because the truth of the matter is that if this franchise is going to get back into the playoffs, this is the group of players that is going to bring it there.
Carolina does not have a player coming up in the system that resembles a top-six forward or a top-line defenseman. Elias Lindholm, this year's fifth round pick, has proven that he wasn't really ready to play with the men in the NHL. I'm not doubting his future, most of the people who know better than I, think he's a very good player who may eventually be a second line center. Ryan Murphy, the 12th pick in the 2011 draft has had a tough first full year in the league and, in-fact, has been sent to the minors.
Those are the two best prospects in the Hurricanes system. After that, there are a few solid blue liners, but no one thought to be a player you could slot into the top four. No high-scoring wingers, no physical defensemen and no goalie-of-the-future.
This is the team you have unless team president Jim Rutherford can figure something out on the trade market. But, what does Carolina have to offer that would bring back a significant return? No one is trading for ANY of the Canes' high-dollar players. Cam Ward, even when healthy, wasn't playing well enough for a team in need to roll the dice on a $6 million price tag for two more years. Alex Semin and his 5-year albatross of a contract? Even if he was producing like a $7 million annual player, who among the few teams with that kind of salary cap room is going to take that chance. What about Jordan Staal? 27 points in 59 games doesn't exactly put him in Lee Majors territory.
So what does this team have to sell? Ron Hainsey? I'd just as soon sign him to an extension than send him somewhere for a 4th round pick. He's a good player, shouldn't be too expensive, and as I pointed out earlier, there isn't exactly anyone coming to push him out of the line up. Jiri Tlusty? Tuomo Ruutu? Patrick Dwyer? You might find suitors for one of them -- though the $10 million owed to Ruutu over the next two seasons could be an obstacle -- but what would you possibly get in return?
The Carolina Hurricanes have but two viable assets that might bring something valuable in return. The first is Anton Khudobin. Even though Khudobin is the best goaltender in a Carolina sweater right how, and gives this team the better chance to win on any given night, Cam Ward is going to be the goalie next year. Unless Cam is more Rick DiPietro than Martin Brodeur, Ward will be the number one net minder for the franchise until he proves that he can't. But Khudobin, with his $800,000 dollar price tag and no commitment for next year, that's easily a tradable commodity for something of value.
The other asset would hurt, at least with a certain segment of the fan demographic. Jeff Skinner hasn't come close to returning to the player he was as a rookie, though he flashed signs that it was coming about a month ago. But, if you could turn Skinner into a couple of upper echelon prospects, you'd have to consider the move.
Other than those players, I fail to see a move of significance for the Canes. Trading anything else wouldn't bring enough in return. And, it would seem, well, let's just say unlikely that there's another team to bail Carolina out of payroll jail like the Dodgers did for the Red Sox two years ago. Make no mistake, Carolina is in a bad way with their roster when it comes to salaries, with nearly $50 million committed next year to just 12 players.
Well, there's always the draft. Yeah, about that…..
The Hurricanes have just two players from the last six drafts that have made a significant impact on this -- or any other -- franchise; Skinner and Justin Faulk.
On the bright side, there isn't any reason why this team, with these players, no matter how over valued they might be, can't be a productive team that makes the playoffs and is dangerous once they're in the field. All they really need is a healthy dose of nasty to their line up. Or they could change head coaches again.
I'm not advocating for firing Kirk Muller, I think he's a good coach. But, this team sure doesn't play with the consistency, and tenacity necessary to do what's needed to earn one of those eight playoff spots. Maybe he's not the right guy after all. Too bad Paul Maurice has a gig right now.
It's been a long time since the Carolina Hurricanes were in a playoffs. While it's possible that changes could be in the offing, the more I look at it the more I believe that this is the team, for better or worse. They'll either dig their way out of this hole, or we'll dance to the same music a year from now.