Hurricanes’ Old Habits Die Hard

The Carolina Hurricanes returned from the NHL’s league-wide holiday break Thursday night to face the Washington Capitals in D.C. It was not pretty as the Capitals beat the Hurricanes 3-1. What is compelling about the Hurricanes is not that they lost or that they lost on the road, but that they looked so lethargic…again.

A Peters’ Problem?

One of the most reiterated and frustrating points when former head coach Bill Peters was at the helm was the constant “we did not start on time” mantra. It was a constant throughout his tenure with the Hurricanes and never made any sense. It was an inexcusable characteristic of the team in 2014-15, and in Jan. 2018 it was still the albatross around the team’s neck.

Bill Peters Hurricanes
Bill Peters, former head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“You got to give yourself a mental break, and then you’re going to have to wrap your head around the identity of our team and how we have to play to be successful,” Peters said. “The nights that we’re not the hardest-working team, and I don’t know our record, but it wouldn’t be flattering. So, if we’re not going to wrap our head around the fact that we have to start on time, each and every night, and outwork our opponent, then it’s going to be a frustrating second half.” (From “After Dismal Loss and Aho Injury, Canes Deed to Do Some Soul-Searching During the Break,” – News & Observer – 1/4/18).

Can anyone explain how highly paid athletes, most of whom by nature are highly competitive or they would not be playing at the professional level, can “not start on time?” It’s a ridiculous thing to admit by a coach or players that slow starts are a characteristic of their team. Yet time and again during Peters’ tenure, the Hurricanes went out and started a game flat and lethargic with no sense of urgency.

A Brind’Amour Problem, Too

At first, it seemed that Peters’ replacement Rod Brind’Amour would be able to make not starting on time a part of the team’s past. On Oct. 11 of this year, I wrote “The Carolina Hurricanes have eradicated at least one phrase from their vocabulary. ‘We did not start on time’ has yet to be heard…What had been a staple statement during the four years that former head coach Bill Peters was at the helm has suddenly disappeared.”

Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind'Amour
Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Those early-season words of enthusiasm for the team’s high-energy play may have been prematurely penned. As recently as Thursday night, the Hurricanes once again looked like the embodiment of “old habits die hard,” with their lackluster outing against the Capitals. Even Brind’Amour admitted that there was a serious lack of energy when interviewed after the game. He said,

They had the same break. I think we just weren’t ready to go like we needed to be. That’s on me. I saw it and talked about it, but I should have done something different. I don’t know what, but we were not ready to go like we needed to be against that team at this time of the year.

Unfortunately, that statement is glaring in its implications. The team was not ready and the coach did not know what to do about them not being ready to go. Perhaps “I don’t know what” is not something a head coach should be saying, especially one in his first gig. Brind’Amour is learning the nuances of being a head coach in the NHL as he goes. But there is no sense in giving critics fodder by admitting when he is in a situation that for which he has no answer.

The Washington Post had this opening paragraph to describe Thursday night’s contest: “After four days off — three without practice — the Washington Capitals shook off some expected rust Thursday night in one of their most balanced performances of the season.” (From “Carlson, Oshie Lead Caps to 3-1 Win Over Canes,” – Washington Post – 12/27/18).

Rust from the break was to be expected for the Capitals as well as for the Hurricanes. That is normal. But winners shake it off. The Capitals did just that while the Hurricanes did not get going until late in the game and lost as a result.

The bottom line is that there is a systemic problem in the culture of the Hurricanes. It reared its ugly head under Peters and is still embedded under Brind’Amour. Many thought that naming Justin Williams captain would eradicate the lethargy. So far that has not been the case.

Carolina Hurricanes Justin Williams San Jose Sharks Martin Jones
Carolina Hurricanes right wing Justin Williams (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Where’s the Hurricanes’ Chaos?

When the season started it was easy to write that Brind’Amour had the team starting on time. They were like the cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil, whirling and buzzing all over the ice. They were shooting and forechecking like it was playoff time. That chaotic brand of hockey has not been seen in some time. What happened?

Rod Brind’Amour – Photo By Andy Martin Jr

The criticism was that the Hurricanes were just blasting away and not scoring. But, at least they played with more energy and brought it to the opponent every night. Perhaps Brind’Amour needs to bring back the chaos and go from there.

Or, perhaps he needs to bring a little Peters to the practice ice, as The Hockey Writers’ Ian Pham wrote recently: “Wake-up calls have been consistent with Peters throughout the season when the Flames are caught napping. Last Friday during practice, ‘Peters blew his whistle, spit out a few words unsuitable for young children,’ and made the players do some punitive ‘extra skating,’ according to The Calgary Sun’s Kristen Anderson (from ‘Flames Notes: Backlund Looks Ready for Action,’ – The Calgary Sun – 12/14/18). What ensued was a weekend of winning, as the Flames topped the Minnesota Wild 2-1 on Saturday before smashing the St. Louis Blues 7-2 on Sunday.”

Peters is old-school, and extra laps around the rink are right up his coaching-style alley. And, this season he’s not talking about his team not starting on time. His Calgary Flames are winning.

The difference is that the Hurricanes, to a man, need to decide that they want to win. It’s gut-check time. It’s “lace ’em up and go like your hair is on fire for 60 minutes” time. If the players cannot summon the energy or the will to win, then nothing Brind’Amour does will matter. The puck is in the Hurricanes’ players’ court so to speak. Will they respond?