If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, why then do the Carolina Hurricanes continue to rotate through the same 24 guys that have failed to live up to the mediocre expectations set upon them this season?
It’s been nearly a month since Jim Rutherford’s patience has been “wearing thin” and yet the most significant thing he has done is to call up Zach Boychuk. Although he’s played well, Boychuk is not going to single-handedly turn the ‘Canes season around.
Something else needs to happen. But what?
The problem with the Hurricanes isn’t a single one. Over their first 20 games of the season (8-8-4), they were playing well enough defensively (2.75 goals against per game) but were scoring fewer than 2 goals per game. Over their next 19 (6-8-5), they found their offensive touch (2.74 goals per game), but it came at the expense of a porous defense (3.11 goals against per game).
Odd man rushes have been the theme of the second half of the early season, and not the good kind. But more than that, it’s the inability to properly defend them. It’s common knowledge that the defender must either take care of the shooter or the passer, allowing his goaltender to focus on fewer variables. Such has been far from the norm this year.
Here, Tim Gleason does neither. Mason Raymond is able to make an uncontested pass to Phil Kessel, forcing Cam Ward to make a difficult stop, though spitting out a rebound into a prime scoring spot. Later in the period Kessel would score anyway on another bang-bang two-on-one featuring multiple passes.
Rutherford upgraded his defense in the offseason so things like that wouldn’t happen. Newcomers Andrej Sekera and Ron Hainsey — though Hainsey was the victim on the aforementioned Kessel goal — have played most of the season like the top-four defensemen they were acquired to be. Justin Faulk has also played well, giving the Hurricanes three legitimate top-four defensemen, if not a true number one, though Faulk is getting there.
The bottom half of the defense, however, has been a nightmare.
Rookies Brett Bellemore and Ryan Murphy have looked good at times, but both are erratic and tough to rely upon, each landing in the press box in recent games. Gleason has regressed to become a shell of his former self, even being outshot despite getting sheltered minutes against easy competition. Jay Harrison can’t keep up with the speedy Murphy, falling on average once per game, and Mike Komisarek hasn’t been anything more than a spot-start sixth/seventh defenseman, though that’s all he was really signed to be.
Bad defense has led to mediocre goaltending which has led to a perceived lack of confidence between Justin Peters and Cam Ward. Both have allowed soft goals, but both have faced high-quality chances, if not quantity.
But it’s too easy to rest the blame solely on the defense and goaltending. Though the Hurricanes are scoring more, it’s largely come from only a handful of players. Despite Jeff Skinner’s torrid December, Tuomo Ruutu only has 3 points in the month, despite playing most of it on the top line with Skinner and Eric Staal.
Alex Semin has been one of his team’s best possession players, but he’s not being paid $7 million a year just to play “keep away”. The scoring combo he forged with Jiri Tlusty — also struggling to find his game — a year ago has been non-existent in 2013-14.
Third line center has been a hole all season. In fact, calling it a third line may be overstating things. Many nights, Manny Malhotra’s “fourth” line has gotten more even-strength minutes, though both pale in comparison to the amount of time that the Staals are on the ice.
Nathan Gerbe has been a pleasant surprise, but outside of his story, unexpected success from depth players has been virtually non-existent.
When more than half of the lineup is full of so many question marks and disappointments, it’s tough to get consistent results. Though they’ve been the better team in most of their recent matchups, the ‘Canes have only one win in the last nine to show for it.
On slide, Rutherford said, "It's got to stop now. We need more to contribute. … A handful of players are not playing to their potential."
— Chip Alexander (@ice_chip) December 30, 2013
Throughout the season, Kirk Muller has spoken of “passengers” and being pleased with his team’s efforts — statements seemingly at odds with each other. It’s clear that this team is talented and not too far off, but with so many players not pulling their weight, a shakeup has to be made. Unfortunately, Rutherford has handed out so many no-trade clauses in recent years that his options are limited.
What, if anything, Rutherford is able to pull off in the next few weeks will define the season, and perhaps future, of the Hurricanes. It’s not time to panic — yet — but things are slowly slipping away. The Metro won’t stay bad forever.