Despite collapse, Hurricanes will stay course

RALEIGH, N.C. — Standing in the Carolina Hurricanes’ locker room one recent April night waiting for a player to come out for another series of questions about what went wrong made January seem like eons ago. Three months ago, when the team’s practice facility was as cold inside as it was outside, optimism fueled the Hurricanes’ seven-day training camp. The franchise was ready to put on the ice a collection of players it felt could lead the team to a memorable season.

Instead, Carolina has six games remaining in a dismal campaign that can’t be discarded too quickly on April 27. 

“It’s been difficult, not doubt,” defenseman Jay Harrison said a few weeks ago before the Canes’ ship had fully taken on water. But back in January, Harrison and his teammates couldn’t have imagined their current plight.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Usually a stand-by during the wheeling-and-dealing phase of the offseason, general manager Jim Rutherford traded for 24-year-old Jordan Staal and inked him to a 10-year extension and also signed Washington Capitals’ sniper Alex Semin. The Hurricanes wanted more offense, so they went out and got it.

They went into the lockout-shortened 48-game season with two powerful lines and a third many teams wouldn’t turn away. With All-Star goalie Cam Ward in net and the return of defenseman Joe Corvo along with bringing in Kevin Westgarth from the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings for depth, the Hurricanes were built for sustained success. This was the franchise’s time to end a streak of three years without reaching the postseason and reward its fans for embracing hockey along college basketball-crazy Tobacco Road.

Carolina was dealt quite a few early injuries, but chugged along enough that on March 3 it was the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference by virtue of leading the Southeast Division with an 11-8-1 record and 23 points, two more than Winnipeg, which held the ninth spot in the East, just missing the playoff line.

Ward suffered a knee injury that night, however, and hasn’t played since. The Hurricanes beat Florida that evening and then won three of four contests, giving the illusion all was well, perhaps even fooling the brass some, as they didn’t bring in another goaltender even though it was known Ward’s injury would shelve him for most of or the remainder of the season. So, while local eyes were on the ACC and NCAA tournaments, the Hurricanes began to unravel.

An innocent 3-2 home loss to Washington on March 14 was about as competitive as this team would be for the next month aside from a surprising 3-1 victory at Winnipeg on March 30.

And by the time the Hurricanes ended their second seven-game losing streak since Ward’s injury by defeating Boston last Saturday, the final weeks of the season had morphed into a mere formality for the Hurricanes.

Six games now remain, and sitting 10 points and six teams below the playoff line, Carolina stands basically zero chance of reaching the playoffs.

Ask the players and they do their best to avoid excuses.

“Guys are working,” said 20-year-old defenseman Justin Faulk, whose March injury may have been the team’s back-breaker. “I don’t want to necessarily make excuses or say we’re not getting bounces or saying aren’t necessarily going out way, obviously they’re not. But, I think we’re working, we just have to find a way to get out of this slump.”

Credit head coach Kirk Muller and the players for taking things seriously every time they step onto the ice. Part of it is the hockey culture, but part of it is because they see a breakthrough coming. It may not be until next October or December or January, but they see it.

They believe in the system, and it’s pretty clear Rutherford and the ownership have faith in each other, too, because it’s unlikely any of the suits will lose their jobs over this collapse. In part, it’s not their fault.

To this day, the Hurricanes have lost 139 man games because of injuries. Tuomo Ruutu has missed most of the season, but Tim Gleason has also been out, Joni Pitkanen is on his second stint out and he is gone for the year. Jeff Skinner suffered a concussion for the second straight season, Jamie McBain has been shelved and even backup goalie Dan Ellis has been out, forcing the team’s primary goaltender at AHL Charlotte into significant action. There have been more.

Goaltender Justin Peters was Carolina’s primary backup in net two years ago, but he’s hardly someone an organization is going to build around at this point.

Yet, in spite of everything, Muller sees the positives, though at times he delivers them quite solemnly.

“We have to look at the big picture here, we have got a great nucleus of guys,” Muller said. “Their compete level is high, they give it everything they’ve got. We’ve hit the major injury bug going the second half of the year and it’s hurt us.”

Muller also has repeatedly maintained the team deserves better, they should have been rewarded more, but is that really so accurate? Playing hard is their responsibility as well-paid professionals and injuries are part of the game and must be dealt with. But if you objectively look at the results, it’s hard to continue identifying a turnover here or a poor faceoff there as why the Canes recently lost 14 of 15 games.

The reality is this: Since Ward’s injury, the Hurricanes are 5-16. They were 5-4 at home when he went down, but are 3-8 at home since. The win over the Bruins last Saturday ended an 8-game home skid.

But most disturbing is that going back to March 14, when the first seven-game losing streak and stretch of 14 losses in 15 games began, the Hurricanes were outscored 60-24. That’s an average score of 4 to 1.6. That’s hardly competitive.

During the period in which Faulk was out after suffering an MCL injury on March 19, Carolina went 1-9 in his absence – including the game he was injured – and was outscored 39-14.

Injuries to big-time players is clearly at the root of the problem, but that high-flying, highly-compensated offense, which is ranked 24th in the NHL on power plays, hasn’t exactly done its part, either.

That said, maybe Muller’s greatest success this season has been selling the team just how close they are to turning the corner, injuries and all.

“That seems to be kind of a theme here the last (few) weeks,” captain Eric Staal said after a 4-1 home loss to the Rangers. “We came ready to play, we came to compete, we came to work and play for each other and played a good game. Didn’t get the result we wanted.

“Losing is not fun for anybody to watch and not fun for anybody to play. I think to start pointing fingers, start blaming certain things, that’s not going to make you a better person or a better player. We’re after something bigger here.”

And that’s the other selling point. Perhaps secretly they understand this season is a lost cause but it can also be a bridge to next season. You can’t suffer injuries to multiple key players in a season where each game essentially carries the meaning of two games in a normal season and survive, so the team doesn’t believe this is who they are.  

The fans don’t, and haven’t lost faith. Last Saturday’s sellout was the team’s eighth this season. Maybe they are also buying into what Muller is selling.

“We’re in a process here with young guys and a nucleus that we want to get better,” the second-year coach said. “And I think we’re in the right direction and we definitely deserve a different fate from these past 12 of 15 games. It’s not there, but this is a learning thing for them. They just have to stay the course.”

And that’s what the Hurricanes will do. The organization believes this team as is can win. Maybe they will add some toughness on defense and must make a decision regarding Peters as a backup to Ward. Peters is on contract for next year, but with Ward turning 30 next February, getting a reliable backup may be a priority, as well.

But overall, the 2013-14 Carolina Hurricanes likely will look a lot like the current version, healed and healthy, of course. And that’s what the brass is banking on and why the leaders here are remain optimistic about the franchise’s immediate future.