2013 was a painful year for the Carolina Hurricanes and it had an appropriate ending with the team losing 8-3 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. During that game, I remember the Root Sports Pittsburgh commentators saying that the Hurricanes were "making it too easy" for Pittsburgh. The Pens were skating circles around the Hurricanes for most of the game doing basically whatever they wanted while Carolina didn't do anything about it. Part of that is because the Canes were playing with only 16 skaters, but that game wasn't a unique case.
Whether they were getting beat up in the trenches or dominated on the scoreboard, other teams had their way with the Hurricanes this year. Everything came easy for their opponents while everything seemed twice as hard for the Canes. This was especially true during the latter half of the year when the Canes won a total of four out of 23 games. The team was said to have a "fragile" mindset where they fell apart at various stages of the game and couldn't handle adversity. They were also criticized for being too soft after getting pushed around by teams like Ottawa, Washington, Boston and a few others. In the end, the general thought was that the team needed to be "tougher to play against" overall. How do you accomplish that, though?
Personally, I think everyone has a different definition of which teams are "tough" to play against. To me, teams like Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Detroit are very difficult to play against. Not all of them are physically intimidating, but what makes them so difficult to play against is the fact that they always have the puck. It's hard to generate offense and control play if you are getting trapped in your own zone all the time. These teams are very good at doing that and it makes them tough and frustrating to play against in my opinion. Moreso than teams with bigger players who are more known for their physical play.
This isn't to say that physical teams are bad territorially because hitting can be a way to separate players from the puck but generally, players who have a lot of hits are those who are chasing the puck all the time rather than driving the play. Do I think the Hurricanes need to be more effective physically? Yes, but if they had to sign one of two players for the bottom-six, I would lean towards them adding towards a more skilled two-way forward rather than a big, "energy" type player whose only purpose is to add "grit" to the team. He would fill a need, but the former player would be more beneficial to have.
Plus, adding a "gritty" player or two isn't going to result in much if he is just going to play on the third or fourth line. The Hurricanes found this out last year when they added Tim Wallace & Kevin Westgarth to the fold. Both guys are what most would consider "tough" and they are known for throwing their weight around, but how much of an impact did they have beyond that? Not a whole lot. Wallace's willingness to hit everything in his sight was nice and so was Westgarth standing up for his teammates, but they weren't enough to make the Hurricanes a tougher team. Wallace couldn't be trusted to play more than fourth line minutes and most of the times Westgarth fought came after one of their players got hurt., which mitigated his "presence" as an enforcer.
If the Canes want to get tougher, it is going to take more than adding a few big guys to the third and fourth lines or a physical defenseman. The Hurricanes also have players who are capable of being more effective physically than they are right now. Both Eric and Jordan Staal are big centers who are capable of leaving a physical presence, Tuomo Ruutu is the hardest hitter on the team, Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison and Justin Faulk are also very tough players and all of them play significant minutes. Why can't these guys get the job done?
Part of the reason for the Staals not being more effective physically is because the Canes usually have the puck whenever they are on the ice, which means they are going to throw fewer hits. However, I think the team's mentality also has to change. I mentioned earlier that the word "fragile" was thrown around a lot to describe this team and while I don't think that's the best word, things always snowballed once they fell behind. Their starts to games were fine, but the second after they gave up a goal they would get overly cautious and played way too safe. This meant more dump-and-chase play, less players finishing their checks and a lot of guys making too many passes instead of just getting pucks on goal.
When the Hurricanes are healthy and on their game, they can be a tough and very frustrating team to play against, as we saw during the first part of the season. However, once things went awry, they usually spun out of control and the Canes were always taken off their game. This is what needs to change and it's going to take more than adding one or two body bangers up front or on defense to fix it. The team itself needs to become stronger mentally and that change has to come from within. Confidence is something that usually follows results and the Hurricanes weren't getting any for the last month of the season and in turn, their confidence looked completely shot.
A new year, a fresh start and some new teammates can do wonders, so what the Hurricanes do over the next few days will be important. The make-up and game plan of this team isn't bad, but that will only take you so far if the execution isn't there, as we saw plenty of times last year. Being able to finish and not let one mistake snowball into five different ones and let the game get out of hand is what ultimately needs to stop and it will take more than a couple of free agent signings for this team to get away from these bad habits. Fans can talk about how the team needs to hit more and while that might be true, if it doesn't result in more wins then it doesn't matter that much.