It didn’t turn out like anyone had hoped, but there is reason to be optimistic moving forward.
That was the message from Carolina Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford and head coach Kirk Muller, as they addressed the media and closed the book on the 2012-13 shortened season that began with a wave of promise and ended flatly.
“This is a season that didn’t end the way we had hoped it would with the way we started. I feel that we put a good group of players together and had a real good first half,” Rutherford said. “And then we got to the second half, and we couldn’t deal with all the adversity we had to deal with, mainly the key injuries.
“As disappointing as it is and as emotional as it gets … it’s behind us.”
The duo touched on a vast number of topics, and below are the highlights. The press conference, which clocked in at just over 35 minutes, can be viewed in its entirety above.
On the Team’s Second-Half Slide
By now, the story has been relayed and analyzed ad nauseum: the Hurricanes started the season 15-9-1, sitting atop the Southeast Division. From mid-March onward, the team posted a 4-15-3 record, falling to 26th in the league.
Injuries to Cam Ward, Justin Faulk, Joni Pitkanen and others certainly had a noted impact. More telling, however, was what the team had to do to try to make up for these losses, Rutherford said.
“When you saw our team struggle through the second half, what happens is it’s a domino effect,” he said. “Defensemen get put in a position they can’t handle. So the defensemen that are supposed to be playing as the fifth and sixth defenseman and playing 14-15 minutes a game are all of a sudden playing 22 minutes a game and they can’t handle it.”
Despite the roster-depleting injuries, Muller said he didn’t consider altering his aggressive, up-tempo system for a couple of reasons.
“I don’t think we’re going to move forward in the big picture by doing that,” he said. “It doesn’t give us a chance to evaluate players whether they can play it – new guys and young guys. And secondly, there was really no time to tweak it in the season anyway. I believe in the system.”
Rutherford acknowledged the necessity of change in the upcoming offseason.
“Sometimes in this league, teams take a step back to take a few steps forward,” he said.
On the Upcoming Offseason
Changes are on the horizon; that much is clear
“We’re obviously going to have to change some areas of our team,” Rutherford said. “The main priority is going to be the defense.”
Rutherford said he wants to assemble a defense that is tougher to play against. Possible in-house options for next season include Brett Bellemore (who is an unrestricted free agent heading into this summer) and Ryan Murphy, who both made their NHL debuts with the Hurricanes this year.
“Beyond that, we’d like to look at somebody, a veteran player not in the organization now. One or two of those guys,” Rutherford said, noting that a defenseman that fit this billing could become available through other teams’ amnesty buyouts.
Of those that concluded the season on the Hurricanes roster, the unrestricted free agent list includes forwards Tim Brent, Chad LaRose and Tim Wallace, defensemen Marc-Andre Bergeron, Joe Corvo and Bobby Sanguinetti and goaltender Dan Ellis.
“When we talk about changes, a lot of those unrestricted players are going to get caught in the changes we make,” he said. “I’m not saying all of them, but I would say a lot of them.”
Ellis is perhaps one of the more likely pending unrestricted free agents to stick around. Rutherford said he liked the “one-two punch” the team had with Ward and Ellis in net in the first half of the season. Also involved in the goaltendering conversation is, of course, Justin Peters, who has a one-way contract in 2013-14. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee him the back-up job, Rutherford said.
Off the ice, Rutherford said there would be no personnel changes with the exception of the professional scouting department, which will see Marshall Johnston, the current director of pro scouting, take on a reduced role. While no final decisions have been made, Rutherford said the organization would likely promote within.
On the Draft
The Hurricanes will pick fifth overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, which, according to many, is the deepest draft since the 2003 class that produced Eric Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Nathan Horton, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter and Dion Phaneuf among many other established NHL players.
“That pick … is better than any trade that we could have made at the trade deadline,” Rutherford said. “What I’m told by our amateur scouting staff is that the top six players are the elite players. The guy we pick at five could end up being as good of the guy that’s picked at one.”
On Training Camp
Having already coached the Hurricanes in 105 NHL games, Muller has yet to have a true training camp. He’ll get that this September, and he’s looking forward to it, not only for systematic, x-and-o reasons.
“I would really like to give guys a chance to use exhibition games to either win a job or lose a job. Bringing a guy up during the season and having him play six minutes or play this role, doesn’t really give you a good test of whether he can play, and then he’s back down,” Muller said. “Of course we know what our first line is going to be next year and Cam Ward is going to be the goalie, but I would love to see some of these guys come in and say, here are the holes that are open, who wants it? Who’s going to win that battle? That’s when we can make the firm decision of that guy can play that role, and that’s a guy that we need.”
On the Future of the Team
Though this season ended in bitter displeasure, the team – at its core – is positioned for future success. Look no further than what the Canes were able to do in the first half of the season as proof.
“It’s about getting the right players in the right roles,” Rutherford said.
“Eric Staal is the pulse of our team,” Muller said. “Talking to him at the end of the year … his optimism of what he sees and what’s going on, he’s expressed it and it’s sincere.
“That is the most positive things right there, because you’ve got to believe.”