Carolina Hurricanes: A Broken Team? Or Ready to Break Out?

The 2014-2015 season was just another in a long list of forgettable seasons in the Carolina Hurricanes franchise history. There were very few bright spots throughout the year: The emergence of Justin Faulk as a premiere defenseman, the first extended look at Jordan and Eric Staal playing on the same line, and the development of many Hurricane prospects that have spent many (some say too many) years in Charlotte.

However, the bright spots were overshadowed by the end result. Yet another missed playoff appearance, this one coming far earlier than most years. After an 0-6-2 start, the Canes were essentially out of the race before it even began. Combine that with a goal-scoring drought that lasted the entire month of December and you get fans researching the 2015 NHL Entry Draft before Christmas.

Photo by Andy Martin Jr
Photo by Andy Martin Jr

That all being said, this year does feel a bit different from the previous few. The end result is the same, but the changes made in the last off-season are already bringing a sense of optimism. Head coach Bill Peters has given the team a sense of direction, one that was sorely missing under the command of former coach Kirk Muller. General Manager Ron Francis has emphasized on rebuilding through the draft, already showing more interest in the team’s picks and prospects than former GM Jim Rutherford ever did. And with a high pick in this year’s draft, considered one of the deepest and most talented drafts in years, the Hurricanes will no doubt add another promising piece for the future.

A Compelling Argument

In an interview with The Hockey News, Francis felt that his team wasn’t too far off from playoff contention. He pointed to injuries and adjustment to a new system that caused the Canes to fall as far as they did this year. He makes a compelling argument.

Carolina’s troubles began in the preseason, where Jordan Staal suffered a leg injury that would keep him out for the first half of the season. A few games later, Jeff Skinner took an elbow to the head from the Capitals’ Matt Niskanen, causing him to miss a few games with a concussion. To top it all off, Eric Staal suffered an upper body injury in the second game of the season, which kept him out until the end of October. For the first month of the year, Riley Nash and Viktor Rask were the top two centers on the Hurricanes roster.

The Hurricanes had 24 points on December 31st, a pace that should have put them in the McDavid sweepstakes. An 0-6-2 October started the team off poorly, and a .500 November couldn’t be built upon in December, where the Canes scored just 18 goals in 14 games. The offense was absolutely anemic by the end of 2014.

“We lost, I believe, 27 one-goal games — 16 in regulation, seven in the shootout, four in overtime. We lost another seven games that were one-goal games that became two-goal games, because they scored an empty-net goal late. That’s 34 of your 41 losses,” Francis said at his end of year press conference.

Jordan Staal returned to the lineup at the end of December, and almost immediately, the team showed remarkable improvement. Despite starting the year 10-23-4, the team went on a 14-7-3 run, lasting until the trade deadline. Being well out of the playoff race at that point, Francis did the logical thing and traded off many of Carolina’s unrestricted free agents, including top pairing defenseman Andrej Sekera. The change in the roster caused the Canes to finish the year 6-11-4.

One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Jordan Staal had remained healthy this year. No doubt his presence would have helped the Canes win a few more games in the first three months of the season. But would it have been enough? Ottawa had 64 points at the trade deadline, compared to Carolina’s 55. Could a healthy Jordan Staal have amounted to 5 more wins in the first 37 games?

The Bad News

Of course, even if Jordan Staal had remained healthy, the Canes would have been a bubble team at best. A team that needs everything to go right just to be mediocre is a bad team at heart, and the Canes proved it this year.

It’s hard to discuss the 2014-2015 Hurricanes without talking about the elephant in the room: The Canes paid 4 players over 28 million dollars to produce a total of 128 points. That’s $218,715 per point earned. Eric Staal, Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal all had seasons they’d like to forget, causing the Hurricanes offense to finish the year ranked 27th at even-strength. Despite a much improved special team presence compared to years past, the Canes were ultimately undone by their inability to bury chances 5-on-5.

In addition, after spending a few years with Andrej Sekera partnered with Justin Faulk on the top pairing, Carolina was forced to trade Sekera at this year’s deadline. While this did open up the opportunity to see some of the Canes’ young defensive prospects play in the seasons’ final games, it leaves a giant hole in the lineup. Ron Francis has already stated that finding a partner for Faulk is a top priority in the offseason, but top-pairing defensemen don’t grow on trees. I think Francis may have more trouble finding that partner than he seems to believe.

The Final Verdict

Hockey is an unpredictable sport. Any team can beat any other team on any given night. So it would be wrong to write off the Hurricanes completely before the 2015-2016 season begins. After all, not many thought that Calgary would be competing for a playoff spot this year, yet they’ve got a date with the Anaheim Ducks in the second round of the playoffs in just a few days. The fan in me says that the Hurricanes are too talented and showed too much improvement in January/February to be a basement team again next year.

That being said, the realist in me has seen it all before. A late-season run where the pressure is off and the team plays better, only to have it mean exactly nothing with regards to the team’s performance the following year. With the Hurricanes missing the playoffs for six consecutive years, their odds are weighed heavily in favor of them missing yet again in 2015-2016. There’s only so many times a team can be given the benefit of a doubt. In addition, I’d struggle to pick any playoff team in the East the Canes could plausibly replace.

Ultimately, it may come down to the little things. A healthier lineup and a bounce or two going in Carolina’s favor could have changed the Hurricanes’ fate this year. Maybe not a playoff spot, but a step in the right direction. The same might be said of next year as well.