'Canes face uncertainty, frustration after missing playoffs
APR 16, 2014 3:42p ET
RALEIGH, N.C. -- After the fifth straight season ended without a trip to the playoffs, yet another underwhelming campaign, it felt like Groundhog Day in the Carolina Hurricanes' locker room this week.
The Groundhog Day movie is about Bill Murray's character waking up on the same day each year, reliving the same experiences; and in a lot of ways, the Hurricanes players are stuck in a similar purgatory.
"It keeps happening and we keep saying coming into the year, 'It's going to be the year we turn it around.' We still haven't done it yet, so," said Jeff Skinner. "It's frustrating for it to keep happening."
Frustration -- that word or some variation of it was used by almost every player made available to the media.
There aren't a lot of synonyms for that word, not many which can properly encapsulate what it means for a group that's tired of the same thing happening over and over again, tired of supplying the same answers to the media every April -- after missing the postseason once again.
"It's kind of like a snowball -- it just keeps rolling. The first time, you're disappointed and by Year 5, you're completely frustrated," said Patrick Dwyer.
"It's tough standing here year after year and having your meetings in April getting ready to go home and watch the playoffs with your son. Eventually, you want to be in it and you want to be playing for that ultimate prize."
Jay Harrison has been around the NHL long enough now to know that nothing is easy, and that talent is only half the equation. Harrison has been with this team since the summer of 2009, coming off its last playoff appearance.
As Harrison sees it, this team had the talent to get there.
That's what makes the end of the season that much tougher to stomach than the previous four years.
"It's probably the worst it's been. It's accumulated, but at this point, especially after the team that we put on the ice this year and the success that we had at certain points, playing against some really good teams this year and being right there with them, beating them on a regular basis sometimes, a couple games in a row, a couple weeks in a row, we really put together a string of games and a body of work that was competitive and comparable to the best teams in the league," Harrison said.
"That's what makes it the most frustrating, knowing what we were capable of."
No one, though, is feeling it more than captain Eric Staal.
"I know everybody's frustrated right now, our fans are frustrated. I know management, staff, players -- everyone is," Staal said. "It's not a secret. That needs to change. So it's a chance for us to regroup, again, this summer. It's the same story. But nothing else you can do, and you look forward to starting next season."
Staal's $8.25 million salary cap hit is the fifth-highest in the NHL. While he led the Hurricanes in points this season, he wasn't in the top 30 with either points or goals.
He's far from the only problem in terms of being overpaid and underproducing -- Alexander Semin's contract is nearly as hefty as Staal's, and he played 14 fewer games and finished with 19 fewer points.
But Staal -- who's been with the Hurricanes since 2003 -- remains the face of the franchise, along with goalie Cam Ward (joined Carolina in 2006).
Staal understands that some of the fans are frustrated with him.
"I think for me, it's because I've been here as long as I have, and I've been the guy that's been counted on to lead this team to the playoffs, lead this team -- night in, night out," Staal said. "For the last few seasons, it hasn't happened.
"Obviously we've added some bigger names here in the last two years, but that doesn't mean I'm out of the woods.
"It means I still need to perform and be at my best. For me personally, I'm just as frustrated with what's gone on here the last year here and the lockout year (in 2013). So the pressure is on, but I enjoy that. I think any time you start winning, you get back in the (win) column -- which I think we can do -- that's all forgotten real quick."
Ward -- $6 million salary -- could never quite get going this season, one that was fraught with injuries and splitting time with backup goalie Anton Khudobin. He could never quite get into a rhythm, finishing with a 10-12 record and missing a month or more twice.
He was disappointed in himself, and disappointed with the way things turned out. And he wished he could have done more. Ward and Khudobin are close, and he was happy for Khudobin's success.
(Khudobin signed a two-year deal with the team and it will likely be a two-goalie rotation next year, too.)
But for the way his own season ended, there weren't many positives. Ward finished with the highest goals-against average of his career (3.06, which put him at 75th in the NHL) and let his save percentage drop under .900 for the first time since 2007.
"I don't know if I could take a whole lot of good, other than the fact that I believe you learn from your mistakes. I think you learn from what's going on. I feel like I said it a lot earlier that I was going through a tough lesson, and this lesson's going a lot longer than I anticipated," Ward said.
"But I do believe that I'll overcome this and I'll get my game back to where it needs to be. I hope that's here in Carolina."
Ward's most interesting response: Answering whether head coach Kirk Muller had a heard time getting his message across to the guys in the locker room.
"Um," Ward said, letting out a nervous laugh. "Wow." He paused for a beat to collect his thoughts. "Yeah, I mean, I'm going to -- for me, obviously, yeah, I'm going to avoid that one."
The younger players seemed to get along with Muller better than some of the older ones did, but Staal -- a veteran in the room -- didn't mind answering the question.
"I think any coach comes in and does his job the best he can. I don't think that's an issue. We're all professionals. You come to work and you do what's asked," Staal said.
"Obviously everybody's frustrated. Everybody's in different positions. For Cam, it was a difficult year. For a lot of guys it was a difficult year. Like I said, I think everybody's going to be looked at as we close out the year and we look forward to next year."
But he also said -- and this will be true moving forward of Muller, of Staal, of Ward, and everyone on the roster -- that no one feels safe at this point, nor should they.
"I think with the situation that we're in now, everybody's going to be evaluated. I'm no different than (the coaches) are. Everyone has to be held accountable and I'm sure that they're in the same position we are," Staal said.
"I think they've worked hard, but when you miss the playoffs that many times in a row, everyone's going to be under the microscope and I'm sure it'll be the same for them."
In spite of that relative unease in the locker room, Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos told John Forslund of FOX Sports Carolinas that no major changes would be made -- "some tweaking here and some tweaking there" -- but it's clear something would eventually have to give.
The players understand that better than anyone.
When asked if he could envision his life as a part of another team, Staal said, "I've never thought that, dreamed that or wanted that."
But he also knows that after five years of futility, everything is on the table. And he's certainly one of the only players the Hurricanes could actually get something for in return.
"Obviously with where we're at and where it's been at the last little while, everything's going to be evaluated and I know that. I'm smart enough to know that everyone's going to be in a position to be looked at and to figure out what's best for this organization and this team," Staal said.
And Staal doesn't want them to blow everything up and start over, either. At nearly 30 years old, he has precious little time to afford to keep missing the playoffs, and starting from scratch would mean a lot more of that.
If it is just "tweaks", as Karmanos said, Staal thinks that could work. Because that would mean the team isn't that far off.
Karmanos said as much, and in spite of the results the last few years, Staal agrees.
"We're not that far off in my opinion, but that's frustrating to say because it seems like we've been saying that for a little while. So we need to find a way to get it done, bottom line," Staal said.
"I think everything needs to elevate a little bit more, no question. I'm not making excuses or standing here saying 'Gey, I did my job'. I know that I need to be better, but I'm not the only one.
"We need a lot of guys to be a little bit better, and I think if we get that and we get some help in certain areas, better in some areas, we can be right there with anybody else."