The Blame Game in Carolina

Carolina Hurricanes
It has been a frustrating month for Head Coach Kirk Muller

“…like poop through a diarrhea infested goose”.

Those are the words Dallas Stars color commentator Daryl “Razor” Reaugh used to describe Jamie Benn cutting through a lackluster Carolina defense on his way to score a goal Thursday night.  Not very kind.  Not very clever, really.  But, with the downfall the Carolina Hurricanes find themselves in since their return to play following the Olympic break, probably fairly accurate.

The Carolina Hurricanes started the week just two points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the final playoff spot.  Most of their stars were rested, with only four players making the trip to Sochi.  Their starting goaltender was just returning from injury, and their backup was playing the best hockey of his career.

And, despite having to participate in a five-game road trip, the schedule did not seem all too daunting.  What looked like an easy trip to the league’s worst team in Buffalo, was followed by a stop in Dallas to face the Stars, then a quick California tour, beginning with the suddenly slumping Kings.

How quickly a season can unravel.

The Hurricanes found a way to dominate and lose to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night.  They then gave up two shorthanded goals and the aforementioned “diarrhea” goal in an embarrassing loss to the Stars, which also saw Carolina lose forward Alexander Semin to injury.  Follow that up with a 3-1 loss to the L.A. Kings on Saturday, and the ‘Canes find themselves seven points out with 22 games remaining in the 2013-2014 NHL season.

While it may not exactly be time for Eric Staal and his red and white sweatered companions to turn their skates in for the season, it is probably safe to assume a trip to the playoffs is a long shot.  Which begs the question; who is to blame for this fallout?

Jim Rutherford Can’t Sign ‘Em

Jim Rutherford, who is the only General Manager the Carolina Hurricanes have ever known, has been with the organization for twenty-years.  He has been with the team since they donned the Green and Blue and blasted the Brass Bonanza from the Hartford Civic Center as the Hartford Whalers.

And, while longevity and consistency in the front office is a great, rare commodity in sports, sometimes a change of scenery is needed.

The Carolina Hurricanes are home to some of the worst contracts in the NHL.  Their top paid players such as Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, and Alexander Semin are far from performing up to their contract numbers.  Their 29-year old goalie, Cam Ward, has a $6.3 million dollar cap hit and is nearly untradeable; and unplayable with Khudobin outshining him this season.

Carolina Hurricanes
Alexander Semin is not playing up to his $7 million cap hit – Photo Credit: Andy Martin Jr

Furthermore, the ‘Canes future is not looking too bright from a prospect standpoint.  Currently, the Hurricanes rank 28th in Hockey Future’s Prospect Team Rankings, with only Elias Lindholm projecting as a top-six forward on the NHL level.

However, as overpaid as some of Carolina’s stars may be, there is no denying their talent level.  They are also all locked up for the foreseeable future.  Forgetting whether or not Jim Rutherford can evaluate prospects or negotiate contracts, he does have the Carolina Hurricanes in firm, stable shape moving forward.  And there is no arguing has put the talent on the ice.  But has it been utilized properly?

Kirk Muller Can’t Coach ‘Em

The talent is there.  Eric Staal and Cam Ward have won a cup before.  Four other Hurricanes’ players just returned from representing their countries in the highest honor in the Olympics.  There is no denying the ‘Canes have the talent to compete with the best teams.  So, what is the problem?

Kirk Muller took over coaching duties in 2011 after the firing of Paul Maurice.  Since then, he has compiled a record of 70-70-25 with exactly as many coaching playoff appearances as I have, and came into the season with one of the hottest seats in the NHL.

From an outsider perspective, his stretch-passing plays out of the break seem to be ill suited for the team as presently

Carolina Hurricanes
Can Eric Staal really fit in Kirk Muller’s system? – Photo By Andy Martin Jr

constructed.  His defensemen cannot seem to make the passes, and his forwards, who are more physical and powerful, do not seem to have the speed to execute through the neutral zone.  However, he has not adapted his coaching style to the players on his roster in his third season as Carolina’s head coach.

However, Kirk Muller is well-liked and well-respected inside the Carolina Hurricane locker room, and after taking over halfway through the 2011-2012 season and coaching through the strike shortened 2012-2013 season, is really in his first full year of implementing his system.

* * *

Pointing fingers has rarely ever produced results.  Instead, it usually leads to well-publicized drama within the organization and can leave a black eye on the front office as a whole (just ask the Miami Dolphins after their GM/Coach feud).  While there is no reason to believe Rutherford and Muller do not see eye-to-eye, the fact remains that if the Hurricanes cannot turn this season around, someone has to take responsibility.

So, is it the chicken or the egg?  The guy who brings in the players, negotiates their contracts, evaluates talent and has been with the organization for twenty years?  Or, the new guy with a different attitude who coaches the players, motivates them to perform, and is ultimately responsible for the performance on the ice?

Whoever it is needs to cure this Goose.  And fast.