"I believed we had a good product. As we speak today we don't." – Jim Rutherford
This is what Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford had to say after the trade deadline yesterday regarding the current state of his team. Things looked promising heading into the year with the team adding two top-tier forwards to their roster and the Canes were sitting at the top of the Southeast Division for a good chunk of the year. Then they went through horrible ten-game stretch, winning only one game and earning three points in the standings during that time. The Canes are now basically hanging onto dear life for a playoff spot, which is disappointing because everyone was expecting better things this year, including Rutherford.
If the Hurricanes don't pull a miracle in the last 14 games, it will be the fourth season in a row where they have missed the playoffs and the 7th time in nine years. That doesn't reflect well on Rutherford, but how much of this season is his fault? Looking at how the team has played the last three weeks, it's easy to say that he didn't do enough to improve this team over the season. The defense had problems from day one, scoring depth has been an issue all season and the special teams have been just wretched on all accounts. Some of that responsibility falls on Rutherford's shoulders, but I still think that there were plenty of things that went wrong that were out of his control. Most of it relates to how different the roster is now compared to the beginning of the season.
Here was what the Hurricanes depth chart looked like entering the season.
Personally, I was somewhat confident with this team heading into the season. The defense was going to take their lumps but it certainly looked like the Canes had enough offense to help off-set things a little. Tlusty, Semin, Skinner and the Staal brothers were going to provide most of the team's offense with Jokinen, LaRose, Dwyer and the kids from Charlotte (Dalpe, Boychuk & Bowman) providing the secondary scoring. On paper, this looks like a decent forward corps and the Canes should have had a relatively balanced lineup.
Tlusty-Staal-Semin have been one of the best scoring lines in the NHL and Jordan Staal has been good, but the rest of the group didn't pan out as well. Boychuk was benched after one game and waived about a week later, Dalpe was sent back to Charlotte after 7 games, Bowman and LaRose have only 4 combined goals on the season, Jokinen had only 10 points and Dwyer has been occupying a top-six spot for most of the year. I suppose you could fault Rutherford for putting faith in one of the Charlotte kids to take over a top-six role, but can you really blame him for that? Bowman, Dalpe and Boychuk all performed very well during the lockout and deserved a chance there. None of them ended up working out for different reasons.
Bowman's two-way play has been very bad this year and he isn't exactly proving himself to be a capable top-nine player like I thought he could be, Boychuk ended up being waived by two other NHL clubs and is now back in the AHL while Dalpe was sent back to Charlotte after seven games and has spent most of the season on IR. The only mistake made here was sending Dalpe back to Charlotte even though he had played very well in a top-six role with the Canes. The rest of the fault can go to the players for underperforming, and the same can be said for guys like Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose, who produced at much lower rates than normal this season. Both of them were slotted into bottom-six roles for most of the season and given their history, they should have been able to thrive in this setting but did not for whatever reason. Some of it was due to bad puck luck (Jokinen) while others simply did not play up to their standards (Bowman & LaRose). Factor in Jordan Staal having a revolving door of linemates along with Jeff Skinner's shooting percentage slump and you have a team that's currently starving for offense outside of their first line.
Most of what went wrong with the team's forwards were beyond Rutherford's control aside from the mistake with Dalpe, but he isn't as innocent with the defense. Rutherford tried to build a team that could fit Muller's up-tempo system and that involved letting Bryan Allen walk and replacing him with Joe Corvo. While Corvo has been good and a nice surprise this season, he isn't a top-four defenseman anymore and he, along with many others, were forced into that role because of the lack of depth on Carolina's blue line. Entering the year, this defense corps was probably average in terms of puck-possession combined with the forwards in front of him. The major issue with this plan is that Rutherford was placing a ton of faith in a 20-year old defenseman in Justin Faulk and a player who was healthy for only 30 games the previous year in Joni Pitkanen. Both of them ended up getting hurt and Rutherford did not have a contingency plan for this. Injuries are injuries and it's tough to replace two top-four defenseman, but I think Rutherford should have had some kind of back-up plan for Pitkanen given his recent health.
On that note, injuries are something that has been a really big problem for the Hurricanes this season. There are other teams who have lost more man games, but Carolina certainly has had a lot of impact players go down. Both Cam Ward & Dan Ellis got hurt, Tuomo Ruutu was out before the season even started, Jeff Skinner suffered another concussion, all but one defenseman has missed considerable time and Carolina had a to make due with a depth chart that looked like this for a couple weeks. Every team has to deal with injuries, so I'm not going to say that it's the only reason for the Hurricanes struggles, but I do think it's pretty crazy that they have gone through 32 different skaters this year, 12 of which were defensemen.
The whole nature of this shortened season has played a role in Carolina's struggles, as well. It makes injuries that much more difficult to overcome and each good/bad streak ten times more important than usual. Every team goes through streaks, but this recent skid the Hurricanes have been on could put them out of the playoffs because there is less time to make up ground. A team that goes 1-8-1 through 10 games at this time of the year probably doesn't belong in the playoffs but even good teams have their struggles (see Chicago & LA last year) and Carolina's underlying numbers still speak in their favor. They are in the top-half of the league in terms of controlling possession, which is generally a good sign for a team making the playoffs but I'm not sure if it will matter this season. There are only 14 games left, the Hurricanes roster is still pretty banged up and they just dealt away one of their better puck-possession forwards for basically nothing, so the most they can do now is just play out the rest of the season and see what happens. The horrific state of the Southeast Division has kept them alive in the playoff race, so there is some hope for the playoffs but it's very small.
If the Canes end up missing the playoffs yet again, I think all three parties are to blame. Rutherford accomplished his goal of improving the team but they still had major flaws on defense that became exposed once the injuries piled up. You also have many players who underperformed and there was nothing he could do about that and the coaching staff hasn't exactly gotten the most out of this squad either. I'm not in the locker room and don't know what goes on in there, so I'm not going to question the team's effort & work ethic, but the Canes have been playing lower than their ability in a lot of games this year and that doesn't exactly reflect well on the coaching staff.
At the same time, there have been a lot of things that have gone wrong for the Hurricanes this year, too. Between the widespread injuries, inability to score on the powerplay and the poor puck luck of players like Jokinen & Skinner, you could say that the Hockey Gods have not been completely on their side this year. In a full season, there is usually time for things to normalize, but it's very different in a condensed schedule so I'm going to refrain from over-reacting to what the results are this year and I'm hoping the higher-ups in the organization do as well. Long-term, the Hurricanes appear to be in decent shape assuming Rutherford doesn't go all Scott Howson and blow everything up. The defense needs to be re-tooled a bit, obviously but the top-six should stay in-tact and acquiring better depth forwards will also be a priority. This has just been a crazy year all around, so it's going to be important to keep a level head when analyzing this season regardless of what happens the rest of the way.