Even Late in the Season, the Canes Are Searching for Answers

There’s not been a lot to cheer for in Carolina this year. The bad games heavily outweigh the good ones, the offense is non-existent, and the goaltending has been inconsistent (at best). What might be most concerning, however, is the fact that there’s 5 games left in the season, and the problems and issues that the Hurricanes struggled with early in the year are still present in April.

When the team went 0-for-October, it was difficult to overlook the extenuating circumstances. The team didn’t have either Staal brother in the lineup, leaving Riley Nash and Viktor Rask to play as the top 2 centers. That, combined with the adjustment period to head coach Bill Peters’ new system, and it wasn’t hard to see why the Canes were never really involved in many games before November.

However, 6 months later, the team is relatively healthy, Peters has implemented his system effectively, and whatever issues that surrounded the likes of Alexander Semin and Jeff Skinner in the early months seem to have been resolved. Yet the end results are the same.

Flashes of Brilliance Surrounded by Despair

Since March 1st, the Hurricanes have lost 12 out of the past 16 games. That number sounds worse than it actually has been for the team. That statistic is simply black and white, wins and losses, without taking into account how the team played in any of those games. In the end, wins and losses are all that matter, but I’m struggling to call the recent games against the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks a failure.

By all accounts, the Hurricanes outplayed both teams. They outshot Chicago 44-25, but couldn’t find a way to get past Corey Crawford, despite controlling the puck for much of the night. Against the Bruins, they fell behind 1-0 early, but against a team that was desperately fighting for their playoff lives, the Canes matched their intensity and will to win all throughout the night. Boston Bruins head coach, Claude Julien, said he was surprised to see the Hurricanes play as well as they did that night.

“They’re a good team. They play hard, they skate well, they close quickly and they don’t give anybody easy games. It’s a little mind-boggling for me to see them in the position they’re in right now,” said Julien.

Bill Peters echoed the statement, saying that he was “very happy” with the Canes homestand and found “tons of positives” to take away from it. “We played well against some of the upper-echelon teams in the National League. We matched their intensity today, if not exceeded it at times.”

The Other Side of the Coin

Unfortunately for the Canes, for every game that could be considered a success story, there are three more that couldn’t be called anything but an abject failure. The recent games against the Washington Capitals and the Florida Panthers fall under that category. Carolina was outscored 10-3 in the two games and were never really present in either game.

They fell behind 2-0 against Washington before coming back to tie the game in the second period. However, Carolina allowed two goals in just over a minute at the end of the second to lose that game 4-2. Sadly, this was still more competitive than their performance against Florida, which saw the Panthers score 6 unanswered before Chris Terry broke Luongo’s shutout bid with 1:19 left in the game.

Just a few games after being “very happy” with his team’s performance, Peters was anything but after the losses to Washington and Florida.

“We need to continue to play properly. I didn’t think our effort was where we wanted it to be,” Peters said. “I don’t think the guys will be very happy with the way they played, and we need to bounce back. We go back home to play Philly, and we need a better effort.”

Effort and Starting Games on Time

The theme of effort and slow starts has haunted the Canes all year, and it’s one thing that Peters and general manager Ron Francis absolutely need to address in the off-season. Peters is running a system very similar to the Detroit Red Wings, which should come as no surprise, considering his time spent as assistant coach there. But in order for that system to have success, puck possession is key and puck possession does not happen if the players aren’t willing to put it all on the ice every night.

The Canes do have players willing to do that. Players like Nathan Gerbe, Brad Malone, and Chris Terry rarely take nights off. However, those are the Canes depth players, and they’re called depth players for a reason. If those players are the only ones who show up on a consistent basis, the team is going to lose a lot of games. And the Hurricanes have.

Inconsistency is the name of the game when it comes to Carolina’s star players. Eric Staal has been hounded with the accusation for years, to the point where it’s become an inevitability among Canes fans. Eric Staal will show up in games when he wants to, and the Canes will generally win those games. In games where he’s seemingly not invested, the team suffers and often loses. Alexander Semin has had his effort questioned for most of his career, even among some of his teammates. His performance this year for the Canes hasn’t helped that reputation. And Jeff Skinner tries, but it’s obvious the numerous concussions he’s suffered in his young career have put a fear in him that keeps him out of the dirty areas on the ice.

The Hard Truth

The Carolina Hurricanes can’t build a successful team with so many passengers taking up such a large amount of cap space. Between the three players mentioned above, the Canes have $21 million tied up on players that can’t be counted on night-in and night-out. For a team that runs on a very limited budget (and this year’s basement finish won’t help that), that’s entirely too much money to spend on too little production.

Unfortunately, the Canes don’t have much choice. All three players are immovable for various reasons, and the team is still better off having them play at 50% than not having them play for the team at all. So the responsibility falls to Peters. He will have to do what many coaches before him have failed to do and put some consistency and accountability among Carolina’s star players. It’s not going to be an easy task, but based on Peters’ attitude and approach this year, it doesn’t seem like an impossible one. Even Eric Staal is saying the right things.

“It’s just about playing the right way, the way Bill wants us to play…You need to bring what you do and what you’re asked to do to the best of your ability.

“It’s just about playing the right way, the way Bill wants us to play. We want to continue to try to establish a foundation that we can trust and rely on starting next season,” Staal said. “You need to bring what you do and what you’re asked to do to the best of your ability. We want to continue to build something for next year, and that’s what we’re focused on for the rest of the way.”

Talk is cheap, but if Peters can get the team to buy into that message, really buy into it, the same problems that plagued the team this year may be a thing of the past.