The Carolina Hurricanes began to establish an identity at home during the month of December, and now heading into the New Year, they’ll look to play that same game on the road.
The Canes have won four of their last five games at the RBC Center, the latest of which saw the team win in overtime after scoring two goals to tie the game in the third period. That kind of confidence wasn’t evident in the team in October or November and is still spotty on the road. Tied heading into the third period in Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve, the Canes surrendered three unanswered goals, losing 5-2.
“We’re still not happy with the way we’re performing on the road,” said head coach Kirk Muller. “We’ve got to have that competitive level on the time. If you don’t compete, you don’t win your battles and you don’t play hard, it doesn’t matter what your X’s and O’s are.”
All things considered, the Canes had a decent December. They settled into a new system under new coaches, struggled with injuries and consistency and still finished with more wins than they had in November. If nothing else, there are encouraging signs as the better half of the season begins.
|DATE ||OPPONENT ||RESULT |
|DEC. 1 ||vs. NY RANGERS ||5-3 L |
|DEC. 3 ||vs. PITTSBURGH ||3-2 L |
|DEC. 6 ||at CALGARY ||7-6 L |
|DEC. 7 ||at EDMONTON ||5-3 W |
|DEC. 9 ||at WINNIPEG ||4-2 L |
|DEC. 13 ||at TORONTO ||2-1 OTL |
|DEC. 15 ||vs. VANCOUVER ||4-3 W |
|DEC. 18 ||at FLORIDA ||3-2 OTL |
|DEC. 21 ||vs. PHOENIX ||4-3 L |
|DEC. 23 ||vs. OTTAWA ||2-1 W (OT) |
|DEC. 26 ||vs. NEW JERSEY ||4-2 W |
|DEC. 27 ||at PITTSBURGH ||4-2 L |
|DEC. 29 ||vs. TORONTO ||4-3 W (OT) |
|DEC. 31 ||at TAMPA BAY ||5-2 L |
“We’ve beaten some strong, top teams so far,” Muller said. “Everyone has the ability to work hard, compete and play hard, and I think that’s what we have to do more consistently.”Adjusting to the New Faces Behind the Bench
December marked the first full month of Muller at the helm for the Hurricanes. Over the course of the 31 days, his systematic tweaks and coaching philosophies became evident. The team still has strides to make, yet.
“We’re still working on it, but we’re starting to find a little better of an identity,” said Eric Staal
, the team's leading scorer in December.
“We’re making progress. We’ve competed real hard in all games that he’s been here,” said Jim Rutherford, president and general manager of the Hurricanes. “You can see some of the changes he’s worked on and the team’s working on to improve and give us a better chance to win.”
The Hurricanes bolstered their coaching staff with the addition of assistant coach John MacLean, a longtime friend and teammate of Muller’s. The MacLean hiring signified another attempt to bring in a fresh perspective behind the bench.
“I feel very, very strong about our coaching staff,” Rutherford said. “John [MacLean] brings a lot of experience and falls into that mold of a character-, leadership-type player that went on to get coaching experience. He and Kirk are familiar with each other, and that really helps.
“And on top of that, we have Roddy [Brind’Amour], Dave [Lewis] and Tom [Barrasso]. A lot of new ideas, different ideas, new drills for practice, new things for players to work on in the game and extremely good communication with Kirk and John with the players, which is so important.”
The main message Muller and his staff have been communicating to the players is accountability – it’s what Muller talked about in his introductory press conference and has spoken about since day one.
“With Kirk, we’ve been trying to stress accountability with each other and establish an identity of a team that comes to compete no matter what,” Staal said. “I think we’ve still got to get better. When bad happens, you’ve got to collectively regroup, be tough and stay with the game. I think our players are working on that. It comes from Kirk and we’ll keep trying to improve in that area.”Injuries
The Canes limped through December with a number of injuries, two of which sidelined key players in Jeff Skinner
and Joni Pitkanen
. Both are out indefinitely with concussions. Skinner has missed the team’s last 10 games, and Pitkanen has missed 11.
Skinner practiced with the team on Monday, his first time doing so since suffering the concussion in the third period of the Edmonton game on Dec. 7. Though it is a step in the right direction for the 19-year-old, his return is still unknown; he’ll undergo more testing and evaluation before being cleared for contact and then will work to get back into game-shape before re-entering the lineup.
Pitkanen has not progressed at the same rate as Skinner and remains day-to-day in his evaluation process. The team has handled this issue with precision to ensure that both are at 100 percent before playing in another game.
“They won’t be hurried in any way,” Rutherford said. “When we’re dealing with concussions, we leave it in the doctors’ hands. We’ve been one of the teams that have felt very strong about the safety of the players and head injuries. We’ll just take the proper steps laid out by the league and doctors and be very, very careful.”Jay Harrison
returned from a concussion in the latter half of the month, and Patrick Dwyer
is currently out with an upper-body injury. Injuries have opened the door to younger players to see playing time. Derek Joslin
, a healthy scratch for most of the season, stepped into the lineup with Harrison out. Drayson Bowman
and Zac Dalpe
have seen significant ice time since Skinner and Dwyer have been hurt. Riley Nash
played in his first two NHL games and recorded his first NHL point in a brief stint in Raleigh.
All the while, the team has played relatively well with all of this roster movement, a good sign for the depth and talent within the organization moving forward. Trades Coming?
With the Hurricanes milling around the bottom of the standings, trade rumors have been swirling. Some may be accurate, while others (Staal to Toronto) are wildly erroneous. The Canes have a number of upcoming unrestricted free agents that have “rental” potential for Stanley Cup contenders. As the trade deadline nears and playoff races heat up, Rutherford suspects the prices for these rental players will become steeper.
But don’t expect the Canes to be sellers just yet.
“We want to be cautious as to what we do now,” Rutherford said. “Obviously, the odds are against us making the playoffs, but until it’s absolutely impossible, we’re trying to be careful on the deals we consider making.
“It’s certainly not a time to have a fire sale and just start throwing players away. We’re still competing here and trying to move up and see if we can get back in the race.”
So, for now, the Canes are still buyers, assuming the right deal is available. Rutherford has previously said that he’s in the market for a top six or top nine forward.
“Nothing’s changed, in my opinion. I said this earlier in the year prior to the coaching change: we’re 1 or 2 players short of being a good team,” he said. “And then when you take Skinner and Pitkanen out of the lineup, you’re down to 4 players. We have to build towards where we’re going next year in a very tough conference and try to add a couple of forwards and defensemen – the right ones.”
One move the team has already made brought 37-year-old Jaroslav Spacek
onto the blue line in exchange for Tomas Kaberle. Kaberle signed with the Canes on July 5 for three years and would earn $4.25 million per year. With Kaberle’s less-than-stellar start to this season, Rutherford quickly looked at moving his cumbersome contract off the books. He found a taker in the Montreal Candiens and pulled the trigger on the defenseman swap on Dec. 9.
“We made a good deal in that case,” Rutherford said. “One, because of where the team was, how the team was playing and Tomas’ slow start, we were trying to clean up that contract going forward.
“But at the same time, that deal brought us back a very good defenseman, and [Spacek] has played very consistently for us in all situations. He’s a player that came around the same time as the coaching change, and you saw some change in the team from the coaching change but also from the change in those two defensemen.”
Spacek will be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of this season, but he’s already someone that Rutherford would consider bringing back.
“He’s a player that’s still got some time in him. I really like him as a team player, I like what he brings to our team, and I like him as a player,” Rutherford said. “We have a very young team. So, we’re going to need to keep some of those older, character guys and he’s certainly one of the guys that fall into that category.”The New Year
The Hurricanes come into 2012 well back of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Though 11 points might not seem a lot to make up, the amount of teams they have to jump over makes the situation that much more difficult.
However, the team isn’t going to count themselves out until the mathematics makes it official.
“We’re still competing here and trying to move up to see if we can get back in the race,” Rutherford said.
Forty-two of the team’s 82 games will be played in January, February, March and the first week of April. The Canes will play 20 of those 42 games at home, a majority of which in the first two months of the calendar year; the Canes will play just seven home games during March and April. March will be a particularly difficult month, as the team will play 16 games over 31 days, 10 of which are on the road.
If the team can find the consistent compete level that Muller has been preaching, they might be able to make things interesting heading down the stretch. In any case, Rutherford believes success is not too far off.
“Despite the fact that we’re having a bad year, we have a lot of good structure in place to go forward,” he said.December record:
5-7-2, 12 pointsOverall record:
13-21-6, 32 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 15th in Eastern Conference (For full standings, click here