There are only seven games left in the Hurricanes season and they are likely going to miss the playoffs for sixth time in the last seven years. Things looked promising at the beginning of the season but all hope went down the toilet a few weeks ago when the Hurricanes went on a disastrous stretch losing fourteen out of sixteen games and now they are in a race for the draft lottery instead of a playoff spot. Shortened season or not, this isn't the result that fans were hoping for. Accountability is a phrase we've heard a lot this year regarding the Hurricanes players, but my question is who is going to be held accountable for this season? We just saw a team with playoff-caliber talent go 2-13-2 in a pretty important stretch of the season. As much as I don't' want to get hung up on the results of this weird season, that is unacceptable and I'm wondering how the organization is going to respond to it. The problem is that I don't know how exactly you respond to it in terms of holding someone accountable.
There have been a lot of critics of the coaching of Kirk Muller and while some of it is deserved, pinning all the blame on him isn't entirely fair. I really hate pointing to injuries as an excuse because just about every team has to deal with these types of struggles but let's face it, the Hurricanes have been destroyed by injuries this year, especially on defense. Muller has had to use 37 different skaters this year and has been forced to juggle the lines almost every game since it seems like a new player gets injured every game. Some teams like the Senators have been able to get by despite losing key players, but they also had some of the best goaltending in the NHL. The Hurricanes haven't had that luxury all season and it reached a new low after both Cam Ward & Dan Ellis went down. Is it Muller's fault that the team's shooting luck and save percentage bottomed out for a span of three weeks? Again, it's not an excuse for the team's struggles since there have been some games where they have looked awful (most of which coming during the time when Justin Faulk was hurt) but it certainly didn't help and it put the Canes into a hole they couldn't get out of.
Some might point to the job that Charlotte Checkers coach and GM Jeff Daniels did with his team as a way to show that injuries aren't an excuse. He has had to deal with so many roster changes this season that the team looks completely different from the one they iced on opening night. Despite this, the Checkers just clinched a playoff spot and are having a very successful season. There are going to be a lot who point to this to say "if the Checkers can get by with their injury problems then why can't the Hurricanes?" It's a fair question, but the talent gap between the AHL and the NHL is pretty large so I'm not going to write off Muller as a coach because of this. I also don't see what good firing him would do since it would give the Canes their third coach in two years. What good can come from that?
Muller likely won't be the scapegoat for this season because firing him wouldn't solve any problems. The team's General Manager Jim Rutherford, on the other hand, is a much more interesting case. The old saying is that "you can't fire the players, so you fire the coach" but a lot of fans would rather blame the guy who assembled the roster that has failed many times this year. Rutherford has been with the Hurricanes since their move to the Carolinas, which makes judging his complete body of work a tough task but as far as the "what have you done for me lately" argument is concerned, the bad has outweighed the good.
Winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-06 can earn you a lifetime pass with many fans and I am forever grateful for him bringing us that moment since it's something you'll cherish for a lifetime. However, the Canes have made the playoffs only one time in the seven years since then and have been knocked out of the race early in three of the last four years. Being a small-market team, Rutherford has had to deal with some financial restrictions and this is where good drafting comes in handy. His performance in that regard has been lacking to say the very least.
Don't get me wrong, Rutherford has delivered the Hurricanes some gems in Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Brandon Sutter and Jeff Skinner but since the year 2000, only two Carolina draft picks have played at least 100 games for the team. Adding to that, only seven Hurricanes draft picks have played at least 10 games for the team this year and includes fringe-NHLers like Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe. I think the Hurricanes drafting has improved in recent years, but they still haven't been able to get much out of their picks after the second round and even then that's kind of a stretch. I've talked a lot about some of the team's promising younger players such as Dalpe, Keegan Lowe, Ryan Murphy and Austin Levi but who knows how good they will be in the NHL? I remember when many were talking about the future of Jamie McBain and now he is the resident scapegoat among Canes fans.
Whether you want to blame Rutherford or the scouting staff, the Canes drafting hasn't been great but one way they have been able to make up for this is by making shrewed trades for younger talent. Players like Tim Gleason, Dennis Seidenberg, Joni Pitkanen, Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen, Matt Cullen and Jiri Tlusty all played important roles here over the year and were obtained via trade. This has been a good way for Rutherford to make up for his poor drafting and stockpile the Hurricanes with young talent that was closer to being NHL ready. Waiting on draft picks is always tough, so these trades have helped over the years.
Free agency and contracts, however, are a place where he has been hit-and-miss in. Rutherford was restricted by the team's spending budget in past years, but it didn't stop him from giving Eric Staal and Cam Ward top dollar. Those are the two franchise players so Rutherford was in a rock and a hard place when it came time to extending them, but having at least $15 mil. in cap space and salary locked up in two players means that you'll be strained to fill out the rest of the roster if your team is on a budget. Because of this, we've seen a lot of good players leave Carolina via free agency, the most painful departures being Ray Whitney, Dennis Seidenberg and Erik Cole. Rutherford attempted to replace them with cheaper players such as Andrew Alberts, Alexei Ponikarovsky and rookie call-ups and those didn't quite work out so well. Having an elite talent like Staal locked up is good, but it's tough to build around him when you draft poorly and strike out in free agency. This year, however, was much different.
Rutherford aimed to be much more active this off-season in an attempt to get this club back to the playoffs and while the final result wasn't what we hoped for, he was able to add much more top-tier talent to this team by acquiring both Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin. Both players have added a lot to this team and have made the Hurricanes a better club overall, but building around them is still going to be a challenge. Rutherford already extended them both and when you factor their contracts in with the deals given to Staal, Gleason, Ward, Skinner and Ruutu, you have a lot of money and cap space committed to only eight players. That doesn't leave a lot of room to build a top-tier defense like many are clamoring for and it's going to be a tough job for years to come unless they can build around younger pieces like Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy.
Rutherford has put this team in a tough position to improve unless he can shed some salary in the off-season but even with the Canes' defensive issues I think he built a good team this year. I keep coming back to this, but the Canes have been a good team at even strength this year and this will lead to more successful seasons than not. Even after replacing Bryan Allen with Joe Corvo, the Hurricanes have been winning the shot battle in close game situations.
The team is bad defensively and those issues became even greater when Justin Faulk, Joni Pitkanen, Cam Ward and Dan Ellis went down. How they were able to make up for it was that they produced a ton of offense. The Hurricanes produce more shots during 5v5 play than any other team and are creating more than they are giving up. The team's recent shooting percentage rut would like you to believe otherwise, but these have been the facts this year. I'm not so sure if it's a winning formula because of how much strain it puts on the goaltendiers and defensemen, but I also think that the Canes would have more of a shot in a full season than they do now.
Rutherford had a few missteps this year like failing to have a contingency plan for when Pitkanen inevitably got hurt, placing most of the faith in the defense in 20-year old Justin Faulk and trading a good player in Jussi Jokinen away for pennies on the dollar. The popular argument against him is that he "ignored the team's defensive needs," but I think it was more of an issue of him trying to find the right pieces for Muller's system and placing too much faith in the team's prospects. With that said, there have also been a lot of things that went wrong which were out of his control (injuries, terrible shooting luck and the whole nature of shortened season), so it might be wrong to label him as the scapegoat for this year. The Hurricanes had a good looking team going into the year and should next season, as well with the addition of a high draft pick and some off-season moves.
42 games isn't enough to label Rutherford's moves for this off-season as failures and fire him solely based on that. However, Rutherford hasn't exactly done enough for me to feel confident in him going forward, so if he is the one that is held accountable for this season then it may not be the worst thing in the world for Peter Karmanos and the Hurricanes ownership to start a new chapter. I don't think it's completely fair for JR to be the scapegoat here, but his performance over the last half-decade is something that the Hurricanes organization are going to have to evaluate before they begin making any other moves this summer.
Standing pat after a season like this isn't the message you want to send to fans since they are going to want someone to be held responsible for this season. At the same time, the Hurricanes have to be smart and should not overreact to what happens in a shortened season, either. Finding scapegoats is an easy job for fans, making the next moves after removing said scapegoat is what is the difficult part.