It was a long shot, but they weren’t going to quit.
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With the odds stacked against them, the Carolina Hurricanes mathematically remained in the playoff race until the last four games of the season. Following elimination, the team won two of its last four games to wrap up the 2011-12 campaign.
It was a bittersweet ending to the season; despite the fact that the Hurricanes missed the playoffs for the third year in a row, there was an air of optimism about next season.
“It’s disappointing we’re here this early and not in the playoffs,” president and general manager Jim Rutherford told the media. “I feel we have made some strides forward here in the second half of the season, and that’s what we have to build on now.”
||vs. NY RANGERS
||vs. TAMPA BAY
||at TAMPA BAY
||at NY RANGERS
||vs. ST. LOUIS
||vs. NEW JERSEY
||2-1 W (SO)
Building Toward the Future
After taking over the team with a losing record, head coach Kirk Muller guided the Hurricanes to a 25-20-12 (62 points) record in 47 games. The team had a 20-12-10 (50 points) record in their games after the start of the calendar year.
After the transition period of December, what changed?
“How consistent we were, how determined we played,” Rutherford said. “It’s almost what I said when Kirk first came in: that we wanted a very strong work ethic game after game, to be very hard to play against and be in every game.”
That standard of play continued into a tough March and April, which featured just over five weeks of road-heavy action. The Canes played 12 of their 19 games away from PNC Arena and had 10 games in five back-to-back scenarios. The team went 9-7-3 (21 points) in the final two months, finishing with an overall 33-33-16 (82 points) record, 10 points shy of a playoff spot.
“No one wants to be in this position,” Eric Staal
said on Monday. “No one wants to be out of the playoffs.”
That said, don’t expect to see the roster blown up in the off-season. The team believes it has a strong core of players it can be successful with going forward.
“Patience [as a GM] isn’t fun when you’re not reaching your goals,” Rutherford said. “You’ll see changes this year, but I think a lot of the structure of our team is in place to have a winning plan. So to just tear it all up doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
If the Canes were to play a full season at the same pace in which they did after Jan. 1 this season, they would finish with 97 points, which would likely earn them a playoff spot. That alone should be motivation enough to not dip again in November.
“There’s no excuses for next season’s start,” Tim Gleason
said on Monday. “Knowing that we didn’t make the playoffs should be an automatic feeling that we have to come out with a better start.”
Areas of Improvement and Areas Needing Improvement
The Hurricanes undoubtedly became more consistent after Jan. 1. A handful of games aside, the effort and compete level Muller demanded was present, even on the road.
“You’re not going to win on the road unless you’re competitive and confident in your game,” Muller said. “I think we did a much better job competing on the road and earning points. I think they did it on a good, consistent basis.”
In March and April, the Canes compiled a 6-5-1 road record, finishing the season under .500 at 13-19-9. Next season, Muller said he would like the team to be at least .500 on the road; Washington and Detroit were the only sub-.500 road playoff teams this season.
If you ask what needs improving, everyone is quick to answer.
“Obviously, the start,” Muller said. “It’s easy to be really into the games from the All-Star Break on, because it’s all written out there where you stand, they’re playoff-type games and it gets intense. We’ve got to have that mindset in September.”
“I think you can’t really point to any other point in the season where we were that bad,” Skinner said of the start. “I think everyone understands that we tried our best to get back in it in the late parts of the season, but it was just too much to overcome.”
Muller said he’d also like to see improvement in the team’s goal differential and special teams numbers. The Canes finished the season with a -30 goal differential; they were -26 in five-on-five situations and -6 in four-on-four situations, due in large part to their 10 overtime losses. Only two playoff teams this year had negative goal differentials: Florida (-24) and Washington (-8).
The Hurricanes finished the season with the 18th-ranked power play (16.7 percent) and 22nd-ranked penalty kill (80.6) percent. Muller said he’d like to see the two percentages add up to at least 100, the benchmark for special teams success.
“Anything over 100 and you’ll be winning special teams games, and that alone will win a lot of games for you,” he said. “100 is the magic number, and 100-plus would be even better.”
By comparison, Nashville had the League’s best power play at a 21.6 conversion percentage. Combined with their 10th-ranked penalty kill (83.6 percent), they totaled 105.2 in special teams percentage. New Jersey had the League’s top penalty kill at a staggering 89.6 percent. Combined with a middle-of-the-pack 17.2 percent power play rate, they totaled 106.8 in special teams percentage. Both teams qualified for the playoffs with over 100 points in the standings.
More of the Same and Something New
For the fifth time in his eight-year career, Staal led the Hurricanes in scoring with 70 points (24g, 46a). Though he didn’t reach the 25-goal plateau – a mark he’s achieved in each season since the lockout – he has recorded at least 70 points each season in the same stretch.
Though March and April weren’t as productive for Staal as February, in which he put up some incredible numbers, he still paced the team in scoring. His 12-game point streak, which dated back to Feb. 6, ended on March 6 after he compiled 7 goals and 14 assists. He also logged a franchise-record 11-game point streak in that time.
“When you have a player who had a career like Kirk did, and he’s basically walked that path prior to Eric Staal
, that seems to be a perfect fit of communication,” Rutherford said. “When Kirk tells him something, he can tell him firsthand … and I believe that made a huge difference.”
“He’s really honest with himself,” Muller said, adding that he believed Staal’s early lack of production “ate at him.” “I just said, ‘I need you as much as you need me, so let’s work at this together.’”
Staal’s performance earned him the Steve Chiasson Award, as voted on by his teammates, for best representing leadership and perseverance.
has played seven seasons in the National Hockey League, all for the Hurricanes. In five of those, he has been a healthy starting goaltender, and in all five he has earned 30 wins. Ward finished 30-23-13 this season with five shutouts, one shy of his career season high. Two of those shutouts were in March alone, the last one being the 21st of his career, which surpassed Arturs Irbe for the franchise record.
“I’ve played seven years now and been in the playoffs twice, and all you want to do is get back there and have the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup,” Ward said. “I don’t think we’re far off. I think the potential is there.”
For the second season in a row, the Hurricanes have seen a teenager rise up in the lineup to be among the League’s elite. Deserving of a Calder Trophy nomination, Justin Faulk
paced Hurricanes skaters in ice time per game with 22:50, a mark that’s also top among NHL rookie defenseman. In 66 games, Faulk recorded 8 goals – five of which were on the powerplay – and 14 assists, firmly cementing his role on the Canes’ blue line in the years to come.
“[He] gave us a chance to strengthen and restructure our defense in a much better way that gives our team a chance to be a good team,” Rutherford said.
Perhaps a signal of the aggressiveness to come in the off-season, the Canes made a splash in the college free agent market, signing 24-year-old center Jeremy Welsh
out of Union College on April 5. He played in the Canes’ final game in South Florida, centering Tuomo Ruutu
and Jeff Skinner
Though it’s too early to project where Welsh will end up on the depth chart in the 2012-13 season, he left a good impression with the coaching staff and front office. With 16:32 of ice time in his NHL debut, he had two shots, three hits, four penalty minutes and was 31 percent in the face-off circle.
“Based on a one-game snapshot of Welsh, he looks like a real good player based on what we’ve seen of him when we’ve scouted him,” Rutherford said. “That gives us another big center-ice man.”
The Summer Ahead
A long summer awaits the Hurricanes, something they’d rather not experience. With it, as with every summer, will come changes.
Rutherford previewed a few possible changes in his end-of-season availability: Rod Brind’Amour is expected to be a full-time assistant coach next season; the Canes will pursue a top-line winger to accompany Staal; the team might look to structure its fourth line; and, Bryan Allen
has been identified as a player that “fits with our team.”
Perhaps the news stirring up the biggest intrigue is going after a top-tier forward. Rutherford said the team has the budget for it, and it’s a decision that could pay off in the long run.
“At the end of the day, it’s not just about money,” Rutherford said of negotiating with a player. “It’s a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and that’s going to be a big part of their decision.”
Should the Hurricanes make the identified improvements to the team and continue to play with the consistency, aggressiveness and accountability that Muller stresses, next summer will hopefully be much shorter.
“Our expectation is to make the playoffs every year,” Rutherford said.
March-April record: 9-7-3, 21 points
Overall record: 33-33-16, 82 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 12th in Eastern Conference (For full standings, click here.)