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Difficult Season Leads to Bright Future

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes
From high expectations to bitter disappointment to renewed optimism, the 2009-10 season had a little bit of everything.

Paul Branecky
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While it ultimately ended without a playoff appearance, which is nothing to brag about by any standards, the turnaround from the lows of the first half to the highs of the second was striking, not just in terms of the on-ice product but in the way the team was perceived in the community.

”It was an absolutely remarkable scene in (the final home game of the season) with what our fans did,” said General Manager Jim Rutherford. “Our building was full, our fans supported us through tough times and they gave our team a standing ovation for over a minute. If you were coming into our building and didn’t look at the standings prior to the game, you would have thought this team was going on to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs based on how our fans reacted.”

Here’s a more detailed look at how the Hurricanes got to that point after experiencing some historical lows earlier in the season and how they hope to achieve more success in the future.

TOO BIG OF A HOLE

As well as the Hurricanes played in the season’s second half, the playoffs were always a long shot thanks to the team’s dismal first few months. A run of 21-10-3 from January 21 on, a record better than many teams that ended up in the postseason, still wasn’t enough to make the team any more than a long shot down the stretch.

While it didn’t cause mathematical elimination, the team’s chances may as well have ended with the franchise-record-tying 14-game winless streak that lasted an excruciating calendar month from mid-October to mid-November. 

”It’s hard not to look at that 14-game losing streak,” said Cam Ward, who suffered a serious leg laceration in game 12. “Even if we were to have cut that in half to a seven-game losing streak we would have been right in the mix here in the playoffs, especially with the second half of the season that we had.”

For a team that wasn’t expected to do a great deal worse than the group that finished in the Eastern Conference Finals one year earlier, that stretch seemed to baffle everyone at the time. Five months later, the causes still aren’t crystal clear.

“I don’t know if we were hungry enough at that point,” said Tuomo Ruutu. “We had a pretty good last season, and maybe we thought it was going to come easy. It didn’t come easy the last season, and when you forget that and have that 99 percent and not 100 percent, it’s going to make a difference.”

”I felt we tried to do everything,” said Jussi Jokinen. “We had team meetings, Jim (Rutherford) spoke to us, we had meetings with the coaching staff and just with the players. We tried lots of talking and then we tried no talking, but we couldn’t get a win anywhere.”

Possible theories include a shortened training camp with lack of competition for starting jobs, too many slow starts by too many individual players and a failure to cope with the pressure of high expectations built in the offseason. All of those things could have contributed to the slide in some way.

While there isn’t one single answer to the question of what made that streak happen, the streak itself seems to be the universal answer to the question of “What went wrong?” with the 2009-10 season.

”It’s something that you just can’t recover from,” said Rod Brind’Amour.

THE YOUTH MOVEMENT

Conversely, there’s also a consensus answer to the question of “What went right?”

Starting with September’s rookie tournament in Traverse City through training camp, it quickly became clear that Brandon Sutter was good enough to play in the NHL after playing a limited role in 50 games the previous season. A much-improved skating stride and the confidence of being a year older made the player an obvious standout in the preseason.

However, the signings of a handful of veterans prior to that made Sutter, the team’s 2007 first-round pick, a victim of the numbers game. He began his season with Albany of the AHL, where he could further develop while playing a key role.

That initial stint proved to be his last. Recalled to Carolina on October 24 following a Ruutu suspension, Sutter went on to score 21 goals and become a mainstay on the Hurricanes’ second line for the remainder of the year and likely far into the future. His stellar defense and hockey sense came as advertised, but his offensive ceiling, which he has not yet reached, appears to be much higher than anyone had anticipated.

”It was tough not knowing where I was going to be (before the season), but I think I knew I could play if I was given a chance,” said Sutter. “Unfortunately we had kind of a slow first half there, but personally it probably couldn’t have gone any better.”

“Let’s not forget he started the season in the minors and was wearing an “A” in the last game of the season,” said Ray Whitney. “The strides he took are really exciting for this organization.”

Sutter, who is now firmly entrenched as the team’s second-line center in a formidable one-two punch with Eric Staal, was the first player up from Albany, but many more would join as the year went on. Brett Carson and Patrick Dwyer each ended up topping 50 NHL games before everything was said and done. Zach Boychuk, Bryan Rodney, Jiri Tlusty, Jamie McBain, Drayson Bowman, Jerome Samson, Casey Borer and Oskar Osala also spent some time with the Hurricanes and project to have NHL careers ahead of them.

It wasn’t until the team began leaning more heavily on those players, whose ages range from 20 (Boychuk) to 26 (Dwyer), that things began to turn around in Carolina.

”Their focus was maybe on performing and their own game,” said coach Paul Maurice. “They didn’t feel responsible for some of the things that had happened (early in the season), and when they came in they played loose and fast. They played with a lot of energy.”

Despite what they were able to contribute on the ice – Sutter in particular was often the team’s best player when things began to improve – the youthful influence was also evident behind the scenes and at practices, helping to lighten the mood of a by-then downtrodden group of veterans.

”The young guys came out (thinking), ‘This might be my last practice in the NHL this year so I’m going to go, and this might be my last game,’” said Maurice. “That energy you could feel on the ice and in the locker room.”

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Despite signs of improvement, inconsistency was still evident when the calendar mercifully turned to 2010. The final piece of the Hurricanes’ turnaround didn’t come until the end of January, perhaps not coincidentally when the team turned the captaincy over to Eric Staal.

At that time, players downplayed the change, and rightfully so. Staal was already a leader as an alternate captain and one of the faces of the franchise, while Brind’Amour would continue to fill that role in his new position as an alternate.

However, Staal as a player seemed to be energized. On his very first game wearing the “C,” he scored a hat trick in Atlanta. He went on to score 14 points in his first nine games in the new role, finding the score sheet at least once each game. By the end of the season, he had 37 points in his 34 games as captain – a pace that is expected of him but was nonetheless lacking in the first half.

“I was excited for the opportunity,” said Staal. “For myself and for Rod, it never changed our relationship at all, which was great. I thought for me as a player, I started to play a little better when the change happened for whatever reason.”

Health was a big part of his bounce back, as he was finally able to shake off groin, oblique and triceps injures that had plagued him at various points since training camp, not to mention a difficult personal issue with the death of his sister-in-law.

Still, his coach believes there may have been more to it than that.

”He became captain and I think it allowed him to take some pressure off himself and reach out to a few more players,” said Maurice. “I think at that time he maybe realized that this is not just the Eric Staal team.”

Although he’s now a six-year veteran, Staal is still just 25. It’s difficult to believe now, but he was the Hurricanes’ youngest player to start the season until Sutter came up for good. With so many rookies coming in from Albany in the second half, having a younger captain may have helped with that transition.

”He just did a fantastic job helping the kids, and that goes for Ray and Roddy and all of our veteran guys,” said Maurice. “When you bring in the number of kids that we did this year into our team, if your veterans don’t accept them you’re going to have a real problem and we’re not going to win any games. The kids will be in a panic, and the opposite was true.”

Of course, this isn’t the first season that Staal has finished strongly following a struggle in the first half. Still, if he comes into next season healthy, there’s no reason to believe he won’t flourish in his first full season as team captain.

“Moving forward into next year, Eric is going to probably come in and be in top shape because he’s got that kind of work ethic where he can be a leader, not just on this team but in this league,” said longtime teammate Erik Cole. “He’s shown since the lockout that he’s a big part of the top-tier players in this league and he’s certainly a huge part of what we’re doing here.”

MOVING FORWARD

Although last season’s stumble out of the gate was more dramatic, the Canes also started slowly in 2007-08. A particular emphasis will be placed on playing better in October and November of 2010, but a group wary of past shortcomings will be careful not to let bad memories affect their play.

”I think for us next year, we’ve got to make sure we don’t put that pressure on ourselves to start,” said Staal. “We know it’s huge and it’s a big part of it, but those expectations are not going to be as high as with a veteran team that went on to the conference finals. There will be that energy and fire to try to prove that we belong in the top of the Eastern Conference.”

Just how young will next year’s team be? If Brind’Amour and Whitney don’t return, two spots at forward will be open in addition to the semi-regular roles held by Boychuk and Dwyer last season that will have to be re-earned. Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen are the only experienced NHL defenseman under contract, but that could quickly change as the team attempts to lock up restricted free agents Carson, Alexandre Picard, Anton Babchuk and possibly unrestricted free agents Jay Harrison and Brian Pothier.

While McBain is a clear favorite to make the team on defense given what he was able to accomplish down the stretch last year, forward jobs will be wide open. Any number of players that came through Carolina last season will be candidates, as will up-and-comers like Zac Dalpe, Chris Terry and players to be drafted in June, although none of them will be assured of anything based on past performances.

“They’ll come to camp and they’ll be given every opportunity, but it will clearly be up to them,” said Maurice. “I don’t think anybody gets penciled into the top two (lines) now just based on this year’s play, but there are some players that I believe can spend some time there.”

“Lots of times when the kids come up in the situations that they did this year, it’s a little bit easier for them to play a little bit more carefree and there isn’t quite as much pressure on them,” said Cole. “Next year coming in it will be important for the leadership in the room to make sure they understand just how important it is to be winning games in October as it is to win games in March or April.”

As intense as competition in September is likely to be, any jobs earned for the first two regular season games in Helsinki will not necessarily be final, as the team can always rotate new players in if others falter. So many options is a good problem to have, as the Hurricanes don’t have to dive headfirst into free agency if they don’t feel the need.

With so many fresh legs, the Hurricanes expect to be a fast and aggressive team characteristic of when they’ve had their most success. The big question – one Rutherford admits he doesn’t know the answer to – is how long it will take this young group to achieve that success again. The Colorado Avalanche should serve as the model, having made the playoffs with several inexperienced players this season following a 28th-place finish the year before. However, each group is different.

“When you’re making the transition we’re making, I don’t know how this team will come together,” said Rutherford. “I do feel that this team will be better next year than it was this year, but to get to where we want to get to, which is to win a Stanley Cup, that may take us a few more years.

“We have a core of good veteran players now that are actually relatively young,” he continued. “Now we’re going to put these younger players in with them, and at some point in time this team will be very, very good.”


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