‘Canes face uncertainty, frustration after missing playoffs

Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, one of the NHL's highest-paid players, hasn't tallied 70 or more points since the 2011-12 season.

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.

That’s what makes the end of the season that much tougher to stomach than the previous four years.

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.

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. 

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."

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.

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.

"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.

"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.