It would take a few pages to explain all of the problems with the Carolina Hurricanes this year. Their payroll suggests that they should be a playoff team, but the reality is they have a lot of money tied up in players who are either overvalued and/or injured. It's been this way for a couple years now and they'll likely miss the playoffs again, barring a great run to end the season. Above all, something a lot of people point out with the Hurricanes is that they're a team without an "identity."
Every team has something they're known for. The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings thrive on their skill and ability to wear team down by making them play in their own end. The Los Angeles Kings are known for their size and physical play, the Boston Bruins bring a good combination of both to the table and the Pittsburgh Penguins are known for their high-powered offense. You don't need to be an overly skilled or physical team to be a contender, but most clubs have a blueprint of what they want to base their team around and how to execute it.
The Hurricanes identity is kind of tough to figure out. One thing they're known for is their resilience and how they've rallied their way back into games after falling behind early but the fact that they start games slow is a problem. Even when the Canes won the possession battle, they've let their opponents take the play to them and they always seem to match whatever game their opponents are playing instead of forcing them to play their game. There have been a few times when the Canes have dictated the play from the opening whistle, but it has usually come against bad teams and it's been a rare occurrence overall.
Carolina doesn't have an ideal roster, but they should be a lot better than what they've shown. They have enough play-driving forwards to be at least an average possession team and their defense & goaltending have been much better than last season, as well. Even with their depth and goal-scoring woes, this team shouldn't be barely breaking even in 5v5 shot differential and they certainly should not be in the bottom-ten in the league in close game situations. So what's the root of the problem? Are the players not being used the right way or is the roster not as well-constructed as we thought? The team doesn't have a lot forward depth, so the latter is an issue but I can't help but question Kirk Muller's system just a little bit.
Muller and his coaching staff have been given a mulligan by most fans because they haven't had a lot of time with the club. He took over in the middle of 2011 and has been given one full training camp with this team and has also had to deal with some major roster turnover and injuries on top of that. So when taking those into consideration, it's fair to give Muller more time before looking for an improvement. However, what he is going through isn't different from what other coaches had to deal with. Every team has injuries and every team last year had to deal with a lockout and some of them had less time with their club than what Muller had with the Canes.
I don't want to point fingers and say that this is all coaching but I always hear about "Muller hockey" and I honestly don't know what that is. When he took over, he was credited with getting the most out of the roster by installing a sense of accountability and getting everyone to work hard. Basically what the Calgary Flames are this year. Since then, the Hurricanes can be summed up as "inconsistent" and "mediocre" under his tutelage and I think their work ethic gets questioned after every loss. His system also seems to have changed quite a bit over time and I think that's one of the reasons why the Canes are chasing so many games.
When Muller was hired, there was a lot of talk about him wanting to get the Canes to run an up-tempo system and I think he did an okay job early in his tenure. Carolina wasn't blessed with a lot of talent, but they had some skilled forwards and their best asset was their speed. The problem was that they couldn't score enough or defend. General Manager Jim Rutherford tried to help out the scoring issues by bringing in Alex Semin & Jordan Staal and it partially worked. Semin made the top line lethal and the Hurricanes became a good puck possession club but the defense issues were still present and the goaltending couldn't bail them out. This year, Rutherford's helped the defense while keeping Muller's system in mind by adding Andrej Sekera & Ron Hainsey, both of whom are steady and mobile, yet the team has still struggled and have been even worse at controlling territorial play.
As far as them playing an up-tempo system goes, I haven't seen a lot of it since around March of last year. Their possession numbers kind of tanked around that point and teams with speed usually give them a lot of trouble. The injury to Justin Faulk probably affected their system last year but with him healthy, teams like Colorado, Columbus and Tampa Bay have given them trouble and puck-possession clubs like Detroit and Boston had their way with Carolina. Sometimes a coach wants his team to play a certain way but doesn't have the right players to accomplish it and some may argue this is Muller's problem with the Hurricanes but I still think that they should be better than what they have shown this year.
I mentioned the improvements made to the team over the summer and while the Canes have their flaws, they should at least be a better puck-possession team than they've been this year. There are nights where the Hurricanes can take it to their opponents and be a team that's all over the puck, but we've only seen that in maybe 10-12 games this year. They seem to be playing a lot more passive than they were early on last season, when they were first in their division, and it makes me wonder if Muller adjusted his system and is playing away from the team's strengths.
There was a bit of a shift going on last year when the Hurricanes went on their horrid losing streak in the middle of March. For most of the year, the Canes were playing a quick, up-tempo brand of hockey and were recording a high number of shots on a nightly basis. They were also winning the battle in the neutral zone, carrying the puck in on over 50% of their 5v5 entries for most of the season. Once March hit, they started dumping the puck in more and that has continued over into this year. They've had control of the puck on 47-48% of their entries and it's done a number on the team's offense, both in terms of shots and goals.
Adjustments had to be made after the way last season ended, but making the Hurricanes play more of a dump-and-chase game wasn't the way to go. Not that it's impossible to win like this, it's just that the Hurricanes aren't very good at it and this has been evident for awhile. They're prone to less turnovers and defensive breakdowns by playing this way, but they are also producing nearly three times less offense off dump-ins than they are off controlled entries. With as much skill as there is on this club, that shouldn't come as a surprise.
It's entirely possible that this doesn't relate to coaching because it's hard to carry the puck in more than 50% of the time if your opponent clogs the neutral zone and defends it perfectly. It's made even more difficult if you can't move the puck out of your own zone quickly and cleanly, which is something the Hurricanes have had a lot of trouble with until they acquired John-Michael Liles. The team has also done a lot more collapsing around their own net in the defensive zone this year and while that's helped prevent chances, it's really put a clamp on how much offense they can produce. They're basically forced to react to whatever their opponent is doing rather than being the team in control of the puck, which is kind of the point of hockey.
This isn't to say that Muller has been an awful coach because there have been times during his tenure when the Hurricanes have played better than they have in years.
Muller has gotten the Canes to be a much better territorial team than they were under Paul Maurice and he got them playing this brand of hockey for most of last season. Adding Jordan Staal and Alex Semin probably helped here, but it is a little interesting to see how poorly they started out this year even when those two were healthy. The Hurricanes were a terrible possession team until about December and they've been playing pretty well since then.
Should this continue, is it enough to give you a vote of confidence on Muller even if the team doesn't make the playoffs? The Hurricanes being a stronger possession team is one of the reasons I was higher on this year's club than most and the way they started the season kind of nullified that. What's to say that it won't happen again? Until the last couple of months, the Hurricanes seemed to get progressively worse under Muller and I haven't seen anything that suggests he is a long-term solution, either.
It's tough for me to evaluate coaches because there's a lot going on that I'm not sure about. I don't know what he's saying to the players in the locker room or what kind of a coach he is during practices. What I do know is that the Hurricanes haven't seen a lot of improvement since he took over and this is with the team getting better on paper every year. The magic he worked with the Montreal Canadiens power play has also yet to be seen and that's with him having some pretty decent talent to work with. Then there’s the whole Jussi Jokinen debacle which resulted in the Canes losing a good player for nothing.
This was terrible asset management on Rutherford’s part, but Jokinen saying that he was “relieved” to be traded kind of makes me think Muller had a role in this, too. Pigeonholing him into a third-line center role and scratching him after a string of poor puck luck may have not been the best thing to do. The argument against this is that “Jokinen didn’t fit Muller’s system,” but I’m of the belief that good coaches can fit good players into their system and not shove them aside if they don’t fit your mold. Jokinen’s clearly a good player and Muller wasn’t exactly using him to his strengths by playing him on the third line with grinders.
Playing the blame game is easy when you have a losing team and I’m not trying to pin all of the Hurricanes struggles on Muller because it’s hardly ever just the coach’s fault. However, something has to be done if progress isn’t being made. Rutherford’s made his mistakes and while the Canes are still paying for a few of them, he’s done a fair amount of work over the last couple of years to get this team in more of a “win now” mode. The wins haven’t been coming and it’s really a combination of everything that’s gone wrong. Rutherford assembled a top-heavy roster with not much forward depth and Muller could be guilty of trying to get the Hurricanes to play a style they aren’t suited for.
Between the team’s transitional game falling apart and them trying to play dump-and-chase hockey for a good part of the year, I can’t help but wonder if Muller’s style works best with the current roster. Things have been better since the calendar turned to 2014, so Muller might have figured things out, but is it too little too late? Firing the coach and/or the GM isn’t going to solve anything, but if things continue to stay as they’ve been for the last 4-5 years, it’s probably time to move on.