Barring a miracle, the Carolina Hurricanes are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season and the fifth time in seven years.
Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006 and advancing to the 2009 Eastern Conference final, the Hurricanes have struggled to put together a consistent playoff contender.
A 4-10-1 record in November effectively doomed their season, resulting in the firing of coach Paul Maurice, who was replaced by Kirk Muller Nov. 28.
Muller improved the morale of the Hurricanes, who gradually improved under his coaching, with an 18-16-11 record since his takeover, including an 11-5-7 stretch through January and February.
The Hurricanes offense increased under Muller, rising to 15th overall in goals-per-game average and 17th on the power play.
That’s also due in part to the improved performance of captain Eric Staal, who by early December was on pace for his lowest offensive numbers since his 11-goal, 31-point debut in 2003-04. Staal is now on track for 70 points, which would mark his sixth consecutive season reaching that number.
The return of left winger Jeff Skinner, who missed 16 games to a concussion from early December to mid-January, also provided a significant boost.
Staal’s early difficulties and Skinner’s absence, however, highlighted the fact the Hurricanes lacked the scoring depth to help the pair carry the offensive load, or pick up the slack if they struggled or were sidelined.
GM Jim Rutherford attempted to resolve this issue in November, but to no avail and will hope for better luck via trade or free agency in the off-season.
Muller came to the Hurricanes as a defensive specialist, and while there has been some improvement in that regard, there’s still room for more.
The Hurricanes are currently 26th in goals-against per game, while their penalty kill sits 26th at 78.5 percent. While their struggles and poor play in the opening three months contributed to those numbers, the fact remains their defensive game must get better if they hope to reach the playoffs next season.
The loss of puck-moving defenseman Joni Pitkanen for most of the season to a concussion didn’t help things, as his contributions were missed at both ends of the ice.
A healthy Pitkanen and the steady improvement of Jamie McBain (a restricted free agent) and rookie Justin Faulk would help turn things around next season.
Goaltender Cam Ward has once again done his best, posting solid numbers (24-21-12, 2.82 goals-against average, .911 save percentage, three shutouts) despite the poor defensive support.
Brian Boucher was signed to a two-year deal as his backup, but missed 36 games to injury. Call-up Justin Peters showed promise, but with Boucher signed through next season, it remains to be seen if he’ll dislodge the veteran for the backup role.
Whoever gets the job must prove capable of spelling the over-worked Ward throughout next season, especially if the Canes’ defensive game fails to significantly improve.
Rutherford began fielding offers by mid-season for pending free agent defensemen Tim Gleason and Bryan Allen, as well as right winger Tuomo Ruutu, but by the February trade deadline opted to re-sign Gleason and Ruutu to long-term deals and could do the same with Allen prior to July 1.
While Rutherford touted the play of those three as a factor behind their re-signings, it was also indicative he couldn’t find any suitable returns for the trio via the trade market. It would also suggest Rutherford didn’t hold out much hope of finding better replacements in the off-season via free agency.
The lack of depth in this summer’s free agent market could make Rutherford’s efforts to improve his scoring and blueline difficult.
A full season under Muller’s coaching, a more consistent effort from Staal, a healthier Skinner and Pitkanen, healthier backups for Ward, as well as the improvement of McBain and Faulk could certainly lift the Hurricanes.
Ultimately, Rutherford’s off-season moves will determine if their current playoff drought ends or continues.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.