Waving the proverbial magic wand, giving the Hurricanes a 40-19-10 record over their final 69 games for a total of 97 points would be nice, wouldn’t it? That’s the point total Carolina needed to make the NHL playoffs last season, and eventually do some damage in the postseason.
Damage has been done, all right. Just 30 days in, a new season of optimism turned sour as the team has limped out of the gate to a 2-8-3 record, including a nine-game winless streak that has everyone associated with the Canes a bit puzzled, a bit angry and a bit anxious as the week unfolds with winnable games at Florida and home Friday night against Toronto.
But it would be presumptuous of any of us to count any game in the win column at this point, since every other NHL club is penciling in the Canes for a “W” these days -- and with good reason.
Carolina is a team with little confidence and even less offense. A quick look at the NHL stats doesn’t paint a pretty picture for a veteran group that expected to contend for another run at an Eastern Conference title and possibly beyond. In addition to being 29th in points, the Canes are last in goals per game (2.08), penalty minutes per game (21.5) after leading the league in fewest minutes last season, second-period goals allowed (20), second lowest in face-off percentage and third-lowest in the NHL in 5-on-5 scoring.
In retrospect, the oldest team in the NHL should know how poor starts in this league are akin to a slow, painful death as February and March games suddenly take on playoff importance each time you step on the ice, creating a pressure-packed atmosphere that can be difficult even on a seasoned bunch.
While the management, coaching staff and players try to shift through the recent carnage to figure out answers, I’ll throw in my two cents on the top five issues facing this team from a bird’s eye press box view:
- Offense: For whatever reason, the team’s forecheck and cycling game, each hallmarks of a run to the Eastern Conference finals last season, are gone. This has allowed opponents to build up speed through the neutral zone and create juicy scoring opportunities against Cam Ward, who until recently has played very, very well.
- Defensive pairings: With three new physical players in the mix (Aaron Ward, Andrew Alberts and Jay Harrison) there has been little consistency and even poorer execution in the team’s zone. Too many turnovers have led to too many easy scoring chances.
- Missed games: Granted, every team has injuries, but Carolina’s have been significant in the opening 13 games, especially on defense where Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason have each missed five games, while Erik Cole was out for 10 with a broken bone in his leg. In addition, Tuomo Ruutu was suspended recently for three games. Now, Eric Staal’s 349-game consecutive streak appears in jeopardy with an upper body injury. What’s next?
- Quick strikes: Opponents have scored consecutive goals in less than two minutes a half dozen times so far this season, many coming soon after the Canes have scored, like the other night after taking a 1-0 lead against San Jose. Such quick hits have killed the confidence of a team that was built by GM Jim Rutherford to have more mettle.
- Power play: The Canes aren’t getting many (just 59 chances in 13 games) and aren’t scoring key man-advantage goals when needed. The point position has been a revolving door since the exits of defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Anton Babchuk. In 11 of 13 games, the Canes have scored one or fewer power-play goals. That’s not going to cut it in a league where good special teams rule.
And few can argue that much more is needed from the team’s top-end talent. Staal has just five points, while Rod Brind’Amour is already a minus-9 and Joe Corvo a minus-8. In addition, producing a solid fourth-line that is more than a group that eats up minutes should be a top priority as the team moves forward.
“Hopefully we don’t get in too deep of a hole where when we do turn it around we’re too far back to where we can’t catch a playoff spot,” Rutherford said. “For the most part, this is the same team that was pretty good in the second half last year and we felt that we added some of the pieces in the areas that we needed. I certainly wouldn’t want to point to the new players as the reason this isn’t going right; it’s the players that we rely on that have been real good for us in the past that aren’t right now.
“I’m totally surprised. I never saw this coming.”
Join the club. Me either.