This season didn't go nearly as well as most Carolina fans thought it would. Instead of competing for a playoff spot, the Canes finished with a bottom-five record in the NHL and the only thing they have to hang onto is that they'll probably get a good building piece in the upcoming NHL Draft. The team was in a good position for awhile but they ended the season going 4-16-3 which effectively removed them from contention both in the Southeast and the playoff race. This team was far from perfect and struggles were going to happen, but I don't think anyone predicted a fall from grace like this happening. The popular explanation from most pundits are that the injury to Cam Ward sunk their season since the team went 10-19-3 without him, but there have been a lot of other different reasons drawn up, too. The Canes have been described as a team that is "soft," "fragile" with their biggest criticism being that they aren't "tough to play against" and that is ultimately why they aren't in the post-season.
I'm not doubting any of those claims since this team has a tendency to unravel once things started going wrong but I felt that there were other factors that contributed to this team falling apart down the stretch. Some of which they had control over and others they did not. There were going to be a lot of strange things happening in a shortened season (The Leafs are in the playoffs for starters), and things like injuries, luck and hot streaks were going to play a role in which teams made the post-season. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, they were on the negative end of just about all of these things which magnified the flaws they already had. Thus, they find themselves waiting for the Draft Lottery announcement on Monday instead of preparing for a playoff series.
As far as the Hurricanes collapse goes, there are five things in particular that I feel contributed to it.
Team defense was everyone's biggest concern coming into the year and it proved to be a huge problem. Only the Oilers, Sabres and Maple Leafs gave up more even strength shots on goal per 60 minutes than the Hurricanes and only one of those teams made the playoffs. They ended up being a positive team in terms of puck-possession for most of the year, but that was mostly because they were creating enough offense at the other end to break even. In many cases, that's good enough to make you at least a bubble team but it's still a risky strategy because it puts a ton of stress on the goalies and we saw that with all three of them this year. Cam Ward, Justin Peters & Dan Ellis were all heavily scrutinized whenever they had bad games, but the fact that they were relied on to steal so many games for the team is a problem itself.
The Canes defensive issues relate both to their personnel and system. The Hurricanes went into this year with only three defensemen playing tough-minutes in the top four (Gleason, Faulk & Pitkanen), three third-pairing defensemen who could play bigger minutes if needed (McBain, Corvo & Harrison) and one rookie (Sanguinetti). On paper, there are worse defense corps you could send out there, but the Hurricanes were short one top-four defenseman all-season and it eventually became two with Pitkanen battling injuries for basically half of the year. Those third-pairing guys that the Canes were over-populated with were then forced to play bigger minutes and I think everyone knows how this story ended up. The bright side is taht they found out the limitations of McBain & Harrison but it played a role in their season falling apart.
Part of the blame here goes to Jim Rutherford for not developing a contingency plan for the defense. We all know how good Joni Pitkanen is and how much of an impact he has on the defense, but how many times is Carolina's defense going to suffer because he can't stay healthy? Hoping for the best-case scenario is a poor way to run a team and that's exactly what Rutherford did with the Canes defense. That being said, I think Muller's system is partially to blame for this, too. He runs a high-risk, up-tempo system that places a lot of emphasis on defensemen pinching. This can lead to sustained offense but it can also lead to odd-man rushes the other way if not executed well. Fans remember more of the latter.
I actually think this is why Rutherford elected to let Bryan Allen walk and be replaced with Joe Corvo. Allen was relegated to third-pairing duty on a lot of nights after Muller took over, if you remember right. With so much emphasis being placed on puck-possession, a defensive d-man would be an anchor in Muller's system and that's why I think Corvo was acquired over someone like Greg Zanon or a stay-at-home type player. Corvo obviously wasn't the right option to fill this void, but inserting a shutdown defenseman into Muller's system isn't magically going to fix Carolina's defensive woes. They need to find a defeseman who can play top-four minutes while playing a strong-possession game. Finding one this off-season, however, is going to be a challenge.
You're not going to fix any team's defense overnight, especially one that's in the state Carolina's is right now, but I think steps can be made to make this team's D less porous than it was this year. If anything, I would love it if the system was changed up a little to put less pressure on the goalies. I'd still like for puck-possession to be the key, but with less emphasis on defensemen and high-risk plays. Maybe then there can be a place for a guy like Rob Scuderi in the lineup without him being a boat anchor.
2. Special Teams
Both Carolina's powerplay and penalty kill ranked in the bottom-five of the NHL and that's simply not going to get it done. Strong even strength play usually paves the way to success in the NHL but in a shortened year, there is a ton of emphasis on special teams and the Hurricanes failed miserably in that area. The penalty kill was a much bigger problem than the powerplay, however since the Canes were in the top-half of the league in shots per 60 minutes during 5-on-4 play. The problem was that they had the lowest 5-on-4 shooting percentage in the entire league, so you could partially blame their struggles with the man-advantage on bad luck. Gaining the zone was also a problem, though as they seemed to have trouble with entries.
The penalty kill, however, was just abysmal in all facets. No team in the league gave up more shots on the PK than the Hurricanes and their goaltenders couldn't bail them out enough to make a difference. This relates to the Canes defensive problems since they didn't really have a "shut-down" option other than Gleason (although Faulk is slowly turning into that) and their second PK defense tandem was usually atrocious. One way they attempted to alleviate the pressure was by pairing up Alexander Semin & Eric Staal on the second PK unit and sometimes it worked, as they usually created rushes the other way, but they weren't used often enough. It wouldn't hurt for Semin to be utilized more on the PK since Muller likes to play an aggressive style and he fits it well. Still kind of a risky strategy and it didn't work out so well with the other forwards. Regardless, I think special teams need to be a priority this off-season with the penalty kill being at the top of the list.
3. Scoring Depth
The Hurricanes first line had an amazing season. Only Sidney Crosby scoring more 5v5 points per 60 minutes than Eric Staal and his linemates, Alex Semin & Jiri Tlusty, were also in the top 25 of the NHL in this category. They did everything you could ask from a first line, but no one else picked up the slack. Jordan Staal was the only other forwards to score at a top-six rate during 5-on-5 play and the Canes received a grand total of nine goals from players who weren't in the top-six. I've talked about what has contributed to Jeff Skinner's scoring slump this year and I think both he and Jordan Staal will rebound, but the rest of the team is a bigger concern. The Canes got only one goal out of their fourth line on the entire season and their third line barely produced any offense either.
Granted, they were doing other things to contribute even when they weren't scoring but when one line scores 42.7% of your team's overall goals, it makes it tough to deal with whenever they have an off-night. Scoring depth was something I thought wouldn't be an issue since they were coming into the season with Jussi Jokinen centering their third line, but everyone in their bottom-six was either snake-bitten or constantly getting pinned into their own zone during even strength play. Teams with scoring depth are usually the ones who end up going far into the playoffs, the Hurricanes were not one of those teams this year.
I know the "injuries aren't an excuse" crowd isn't going to buy this as a reason, but the injury bug hit the Canes hard this year. However, the problem was more related to when the injuries occurred. In the middle of February, they had five players miss about two weeks with various injuries and that alone was probably manageable since they didn't miss that much time. However, what wasn't easy to recover from was losing Cam Ward for the year on Game 21 against Florida and then Dan Ellis getting hurt nine games later. The Hurricanes goaltending plummeted after that and it's tough to win games when you are getting replacement level goaltending on a nightly basis. There were some games where Peters played well but for the most part, the Canes goaltending was very bad down the stretch.
The first line is when Ward got hurt (Game 21) and the second line is when Ellis got hurt (game 30) and you can see here that the Canes goaltending was satisfactory until the second injury happened. Once Ellis got hurt and subsequently rushed himself back from said injury, the Canes goalies could barely give their team a chance to win, as the team's save percentage never went above .900 during this time. Now, I think a healthy Ellis is a fine back-up for the Hurricanes next year, but I would still be weary of his injury history because you can see how much he struggled when he wasn't at 100%. As for Peters, this was his chance to prove that he could be an NHL goaltender and he didn't live up to that task.
I know people want to believe that injuries aren't an excuse, but when both goalies go down in the same year and the replacement perform this bad, they play a huge impact. The Hurricanes defense was also beaten up this year, since they went through 12 different blue-liners and had to make do with AHL-level pairings on a lot of nights. Couple that with replacement level goaltending and it makes a recipe for some ugly games. Yes, other teams had to go through injuries too and Ottawa managed to make the playoffs despite losing their two best players, but they also had one of the best team save percentages in the league. The Hurricanes did not. That's the difference. The Canes just weren't deep enough on defense and their goaltending couldn't bail them out.
5. Bad Luck
This is probably the last thing that anybody wants to hear, but luck plays a huge role in a shortened season and the Hurricanes were on the losing end of it for most of the season, mostly during the last two months. I've recently talked about the Hurricanes PDO decline went on and here's how things ended up.
PDO is a measure of luck that is found by taking a team's shooting and save percentages during five-on-five play and the Canes PDO started going southbound around Game 31 and never picked back up. In a full year, PDO usually regresses toward the mean of 1.000 but there are cases where it doesn't. For instance, if a team filled with poor shooters or AHL-level goaltending, then their PDO will obviously be a lot lower. The goaltending that Carolina was getting since Game 31 was below NHL-quality, so that obviously had an impact in how much their team PDO could regress.
As for the team's shooting talent, I would say that they have plenty of good finishers in the lineup between their top-six, Jeff Skinner & Jordan Staal. However, outside of the top-line, just about every Carolina forward shot poorly this season. There are some players on here that don't having much finishing ability and not much can be done about their low on-ice shooting percentages but that isn't the case with others. For instance, you really think the Hurricanes would have continued to shoot at less than 6% when Jeff Skinner was on the ice. Or that Jordan Staal will score on only 8.8% of his shots when he has a career shooting percentage of 12.6%? Riley Nash & Zac Dalpe also suffered from poor shooting percentage and the latter actually did a great job at driving the play forward when he was with the Canes.
Luck is something that a lot of fans don't like to accept as part of success/failure, but it plays a pretty big role in hockey where a lot of the results are determined by bounces, moreso in a shortened season. Sometimes the bounces go your way and sometimes they don't and it was more of the latter case for the Canes this season. There were plenty of games where they managed to control play & dominate territorially but had one slip up and it led to the opposing team scoring on their first foray into the offensive zone. Those types of games happen sometimes and it's frustrating because there isn't a lot you can do about it.
Now, this isn't saying that the Hurricanes would be a playoff team if they did get a few bounces, but I think most would agree that this team isn't as bad as where they ended up in the standings. They really need to tighten up defensively and add more depth, but the core pieces they have are good and need to approach this coming off season by looking at the process and not just the results. In other words, don't go into Paul Holmgren mode and deconstruct the team because of how a 48-game season ended.
What the Canes do this off-season will be interesting because they don't have a ton fo cap space and the free agent pool is very shallow. The most you can hope for them to do is draft well, hope the new core stays in-tact and that they make smart, well-informed moves to help bolster this team's depth. As much as I don't want to see the core of the team dismantled, a lot of the problems with this season are related to Rutherford not developing a contingency plan on defense. I'm hoping something is done to change that for next year.