While this year is not the frenzied scramble the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season was, the Carolina Hurricanes are beginning to find themselves in an awkward spot with decisions to make and not much time in which to make them.
The NHL Metropolitan Division has the potential to be one of the toughest divisions in the league. Top to bottom, each of the teams have the ability to dominate at any given moment. Granted that hasn’t always been the case, as the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers have shown some signs of misfire.
The Hurricanes are one of the teams that could easily be a contender. So why aren’t they playing like it?
It isn’t a question of talent. The talent is there. Eric Staal and Alexander Semin alone have the talent to lead a squad to the upper echelon. Not only them, but they’re playing in front of one of the best one-two goaltender punches in recent memory, with Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin.
What do three of those four those players have in common?
Save for Khudobin, they aren’t producing. Khudobin actually won’t be producing for a little while, as he went down injured on Sunday against the Phoenix Coyotes. This ended up happening on a freak situation where he had to come out of his crease to a distance reminiscent of Tom Barrasso during a shorthanded rush by Phoenix. This didn’t need to be happening. The Hurricanes’ defense has been lackadaisical at best, and having allowed as many shorthanded rushes as they have this was bound to happen sooner or later.
With big-time forwards not producing, a goaltending conundrum, and a defense who’d rather wait it out until Tim Gleason returns from injury, none of this paints a rosy picture.
Coming into the second week of October, things were all smiles and sunshine. There were the big wins over Philadelphia and Washington, and a shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings that showed flashes of defensive prowess. Save for the demolishing they took at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was entirely conceivable the Hurricanes were poised to finish October going on a streak.
This can still happen, though it doesn’t seem likely without some big-time coaching from Kirk Muller.
The return of Tuomo Ruutu from his lower body injury shows promise, but it’ll be some time before he’s the Ruutu fans remember. Rookie sensation Elias Lindholm sat out Sunday with an injury, and there’s still no word on Gleason. Injuries can’t be helped, but what can be helped is the disaster that is happening on the ice.
Passing is not happening. While the defense is breaking up passes, unfortunately that includes their own. Shots On Goal Against Per Game (SA/G) has a total far too high for a contender team at 32.3, placing Carolina 22nd in the league. The percentage of time they’ve won when out shot? Zero percent. Never. Can’t seem to do it. Combine all of this with a 44.1 percent faceoff rate, and it paints a photo of a house in chaos.
Muller must take a good, hard look at his team, decide what needs to be done, and do it before the rest of the division passes Carolina by. You cannot allow any goaltender to face an average of 32 shots on the regular. The strategy of ‘just throw pucks on net and think happy thoughts’ isn’t going to work against many teams in the modern NHL. Not to mention the obvious that you cannot score goals if you don’t possess the puck, and faceoffs are step one in that process.
Numbers are numbers, but the intangibles aren’t panning out either. The loss to Los Angeles aside, Muller cannot look at every single loss as something to draw positives from. A loss is a failure to win, and failing to win will immediately proceed an empty PNC Arena in late spring.
Some players are going to need to have heart to hearts with Muller and the rest of the coaching staff, and the coaching staff must take inventory of what they have and where it probably needs to be moved to. The Hurricanes have the skill and talent to make a run at the Eastern Conference. It comes down to making up their mind to use it — or replace it.