'Groundhog Day' becomes reality for Canes
Posted April 10, 2013
Updated April 11, 2013
Kirk Muller has to feel like he has been cast in the sequel to “Groundhog Day."
Since March 14, it has been pretty much the same thing over and over for his club. Good effort, high compete level and a loss. There are lots of reasons why the Hurricanes are in this spot. The tough thing to fathom is that this is the same team that a month and a half ago – the fans thought – had the front office executive, coach and player of the year with a team that was going to win the division.
Of course no one saw that team going through a stretch of 1-12-1. There is no one explanation to say how this happened. Injuries, lack of depth, lack of confidence, lack of scoring and a lack of big saves has added up to the lack of wins.
So how, in a few weeks, did the team go from penthouse to the well, you know…?
Losing Cam Ward to what equates to basically a season-ending injury jumps out. If this season does show anything, it is the value of goalie play. Goaltending in the NHL is like pitching in MLB and quarterback play in the NFL – if you don’t have it, it is hard to win trying to find it. This isn’t to put all the blame on Dan Ellis and Justin Peters, however, the save at the crucial time in the game has been missing in this streak.
That doesn’t mean that either player needs to be perfect, but making the save to keep a game tied or within striking distance has not been there. NHL teams have confidence from the net out, and when that confidence is lagging other parts of the game suffer.
The team was OK at the start of the season as Ward began to find his game and Ellis provided solid back-up play. No revisionist history here, the back-ups needed to step their game up. Ellis has been a stand-up guy when he struggled, and the same can be said for Justin Peters. The Hurricanes thought they could get by without Ward for the interim, but the lack of a number one and addressing that when Ward went out has haunted the team.
The team on most nights has been one dimensional on offense. If points aren’t coming from the Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin line, they aren't coming. The baffling struggles of the power play also have led to this slide. The man-advantage was suffering before the team went into this dip, but this has been the biggest head scratcher.
The lack of power play production during long stretches has spilled over to the five-on-five play, which leads into some players trying to do too much. The lack of special teams play isn’t the main reason, but for a team that has confidence issues, the poor power play has had an effect.
The second line has not been the point producer that was shown at the start of the season. Jeff Skinner hasn’t been the same player since his second concussion in as many years, although his play has been better of late. Jordan Staal has been dealing with adapting to a new role and a new right winger almost every night. The combination of Skinner and Staal that was clicking at the start of the year has struggled to find that fit. That isn’t on one player more than the other, but each player has been trying to find a way back, the offense has struggled since then.
The team was counting on young players to step up, and when things are going well, it is easy to overlook lack of production in those spots. The lack of consistent offense from those groups has contributed the slide, but when the third and fourth lines aren’t producing points, they still have to find other ways to be productive by being physical or provide energy. Again injuries have taken a toll on these lines, but that should have opened the door for other players to make an impact. The top teams in the league can count on a level of play out of forwards 7-12. That is something that needs to be addressed in the off-season by the front office.
The revolving door on defense due to injury hasn’t helped during this time, but the unit has struggled for an identity. This group that was built on the premise of puck movers and point producers being the trend of the NHL, but that point production has been missing since mid-March. The group could be worrying about the puck in their end rather than the offensive zone and trying to do too much is usually a recipe for problems.
This was not a normal year for any NHL coaching staff, with a lack of practice time, recovery time it was going to be difficult to put the brakes on any kind of skid. Let’s face it Kirk Muller has to feel like Bill Murray, the team is doing the same things it was doing that put the club in the division lead. He has tried to stay positive and while fans don’t want to hear that that the Canes are playing well, even though most nights the effort has been good enough to win. The execution however is what everyone is judged on, and when a bounce has gone against the coach’s club it seems the players just wait for the inevitable.
Jim Rutherford’s trade deadline press conference where he called out the performance of the club hasn’t helped either. When the public message from the front office is that the product isn’t good enough, it will have an impact and from the results it hasn’t been positive. The General Manager will have a big role in preventing this kind of collapse next season by bulking up the blue line and third and fourth lines. It won’t take a major overhaul, but he has to retool the depth of the Hurricanes. This might most important off-season that Rutherford has had since the team relocated to the Triangle.
The entire organization needs to learn from this collapse and find a way to prevent it from repeating itself again and again and again.