It’s not easy to sum up the problems with the Carolina Hurricanes because there has been just so much that has gone wrong in a short amount of time. Everyone likes to point out one person as the “root” of the problem and assume everything will be fine that piece is removed, but it doesn’t work like that. There’s a lot that goes into building a team and sometimes things don’t go as planned. Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, just about everything hasn’t gone according to the blueprint and they are likely heading for another rebuilding period.
So what has gone wrong? Just about everything, when you think about it.
As far as this year is concerned, the Canes biggest problem is that they have a lot of money invested in a core of about 5-6 players and most of them have underperformed from a goals and points standpoint. They don’t have much depth to speak of either, so that’s made the disappointing seasons from Eric Staal, Alex Semin, Jordan Staal & Jiri Tlusty hurt them a lot worse than they would have otherwise. It’s a thin team and when your top guns aren’t scoring, there aren’t a lot of guys who can help pick up the slack. Some say that talent “isn’t a problem” with this team and while that might be true for a lot of players, it doesn’t apply to the bottom of the roster.
However, even with the Canes depth problems, the top of the roster is still fairly good and should be scoring at a higher rate than they are now. This has been a problem for years, with the exception being last season when the first line of Staal, Tlusty & Semin lit it up every night. That said, the Canes didn’t have much beyond those three. They contributed to 42.5% of the team’s goals and weren’t exactly getting a lot of out of their second or third lines. Jordan Staal had only 10 goals, Jeff Skinner was in a shooting percentage slump and they had only five players score 10 or more goals in the shortened year. They also finished in the bottom-half in goals-per-game that year, ranking 16th in the NHL so when their top line wasn’t scoring, no one was there to make up for it.
I’ve seen a lot of folks (writers, broadcasters, coaches to be specific) site effort, work ethic and compete level as the problem, but it isn’t that simple. There are a lot of things that go into goal-scoring and not all of it is under the player’s control. More to the point, when this has been a problem for years, it might speak of some possible system issues and not just effort or bad luck.
Going back to the days of Paul Maurice, the Hurricanes have been a middle-of-the-road team in terms of goal-scoring, ranking 13th and 12th in goals-per-game in his last two full years with the team respectively. In the Muller-era, Carolina finished 16th in his first year, 14th last season and are currently ranked 22nd this year, so they haven’t seen much improvement and have actually gotten a little worse, at least when it comes to goal-scoring. It’s sort of unfair to say that they’re a worse team because going from a territorial standpoint, the Canes gotten better. In Maurice’s final two full seasons, the Hurricanes were one of the worst teams in the league in shot differential and were on-pace to finish there again before he was fired. How much he is to blame for that is up for debate because he didn’t exactly have great personnel to work with. That was when guys like Chad LaRose, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Sergei Samsonov were first line players for various periods of time.
Muller had to deal with a similar situation in his first year, but here have been enhancements since he was brought on-board. Adding Jordan Staal & Alexander Semin figured to improve the offense a fair bit and when you factor in the growth of players like Jeff Skinner & Jiri Tlusty, one would think that the Hurricanes could at least be an average possession team that could score enough to hide some of their defensive flaws. This was the case for some of last year. They had one of the best first lines in the NHL and scored at a high rate for part of the year.. The problem was that their team defense was still terrible (28th in the league in shots allowed/60) and their goaltending was equally bad.
This year, the Canes defense and goaltending is marginally better (improved from 28th to 21st in the league in shots allowed) but their first line has experienced some expected regression and everyone not named Jeff Skinner has had pronounced trouble with putting the puck in the back of the net. They’ve also become much worse possession team at even strength. The Hurricanes overall numbers aren’t terrible, but they were at least breaking even in shot attempts on a nightly basis last year and were in the middle of the league in Fenwick Close. This year, they are a bottom-ten team in Fenwick Close and their possession numbers have been inconsistent to say the least.
The Canes have had periods where they’ve been able to dictate the play regularly, but it’s surrounded by stretches of games where they were dominated at even strength. A big complain twith the Hurricanes is that they don’t have an “identity” and this is part of the reason why they’ve been such a middling team at even strength. They don’t really have one area that they excel at and their game plan is usually based on whatever their opponent is doing. I know every team has to make adjustments, but the Hurricanes don’t exactly have one area of strength that they can use to their advantage. They aren’t overly fast, skilled or physical and don’t score or defend well. They’re just average in every sense of the word and have played up to that billing for the last five years.
It’s not impossible to win while being a middling possession team, but you need a few things to go your way in order to pull it off. One of them is great to elite goaltending. Carolina obviously didn’t get that last year, but they did from Anton Khudobin for most of this year year and Justin Peters also had a decent showing in 21 games (.919 Sv%). Unfortunately, the team’s overall save percentage was dragged down from Cam Ward having a down year with a .896 save percentage in 29 games. In other words, goaltending wasn’t going to save this team. The only other thing that could bail them out was being able to score quickly on the rush and we all know that’s not the Hurricanes strength. Muller’s teams have generally never shoot at a high percentage and they’ve fallen into a bit of a rut this year when it comes to shooting percentage at even strength.
The Hurricanes overall shooting percentage has hovered around 7-8% for most of Muller’s tenure, averaging at 7.9% this year and their conversion rate at five-on-five is an even worse 6.7%. So Carolina is essentially a mediocre possession team with a weak defense that also has trouble scoring. Sounds like a recipe for trouble to me.
This brings us back to the earlier question. Why do the Hurricanes struggle to score so much? Shooting percentage is a factor of luck, but when the entire team is struggling to score, and has been all season, it begs some questions about the system. “Shot quality” is usually the answer for questions like this and according to the scoring chance data I have tracked all season, it appears to be somewhat of an issue.
It’s uncertain how good or bad these numbers are without league averages but from my point of view, the Hurricanes don’t have much of a problem with converting on chances. It’s just that they aren’t generating enough of them. Jeff Skinner is the only one producing a high volume of chances and the next closest player (Semin) is creating three fewer chances than him per 60 minutes. Although, the Canes also have a problem with generating shots on goal in general, as they only have two players generating more than 10 shots on goal per 60 minutes and one of them is Nathan Gerbe, who is a career 6.8% shooter. You can stem this back to the team’s possession issues since it’s hard to score at a high rate when you are always trapped in your own zone, but even some of the team’s better possession players are struggling to create chances at a high rate, Jordan Staal in particular, so it’s probably deeper than that.
When you look at all of the Hurricanes failures under Kirk Muller, it really just leads to more questions than answers because it seems like just about everything has gone wrong and it’s hard to say how much of it falls on him. In the end, this comes down to the players being able to execute and that clearly hasn’t happened. However, it’s the coach’s responsibility to get the most out of the roster and put his players in the best position to succeed and most would agree that Muller hasn’t gotten the most out of this group of players. It’s a flawed roster, but this is the case for almost everyone in the Eastern Conference, this group competing for a playoff spot shouldn’t have been completely out of the question. Despite that, the Canes are now on the outside looking in for the fifth year in a row and it’s going to take more than one post to analyze everything that went awry.