The Carolina Hurricanes announced today that head coach Kirk Muller has been relieved of his duties, along with assistant coaches Dave Lewis and John MacLean. This move comes just a few weeks after the organization cut ties with long-time general manager Jim Rutherford, putting the legendary Ron Francis in his place. On the surface, the changes to management the Carolina Hurricanes have made over the past month appear to be moving the organization in the right direction, but in all likelihood, these changes simply mask the real problems the organization faces.
Last year, Carolina paid almost $27 million spread out among four forwards: Alexander Semin, Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, and the team captain, Eric Staal. For that price, the four forwards combined for less than 200 points, producing well below their expected numbers. Even those numbers pale in comparison to the play of goaltender Cam Ward, whose $6.3 million price tag hindered the team both on and off the ice. Ward was outplayed this year by the Hurricanes backup and third string goaltender, both of whom make less than $1 million each. All of these players have been through multiple coaching changes, yet because of the money they make, rarely seem held responsible for their actions.
Most concerning for Hurricanes fans should be the play of the captain, Eric Staal. Staal has long been criticized for his inconsistent play and lack of intensity on the ice, leaving many to question his effort level on most nights. To his credit, Staal is not unaware of these criticisms, addressing them after a late season loss to the Washington Capitals.
“Whether people think that or not, I’m out there competing as hard as I can,” Staal said, apparently unaware that the eye test for many fans has said otherwise.
Most nights, he seemingly floats on the ice, struggles defensively, and spends much of his 22 minutes of ice time contributing nothing to help his team win. On other nights, he will take over the game, scoring goals and dragging his team to victory, kicking and screaming if necessary. This inconsistency is what drives many of the fans of the team up the wall. Unfortunately for the teams’ fans, Staal is what he is. He has been in the league too long to change his style of play and it is unlikely that any amount of coaching is going to make a difference.
Another problem the organization faces is the presence, or lack thereof, of the owner. Peter Karmanos Jr. moved the team to North Carolina in 1997, but maintained a long-distance relationship with the team as he remained in Detroit to serve as CEO and executive chairman for Compuware, a company he founded. He has had a very “hands off” approach to the Hurricanes, leaving many of the decisions in the hands of the team’s general manager. After the underwhelming season the team had, and changes in management within the organization, he could no longer maintain that distance.
During a late season interview with the Hurricanes’ play-by-play announcer John Forslund, Karmanos addressed many of the issues that were on the minds of the team’s fanbase. His answers, however, were not what many were expecting, and showed the alarming issue of just how out of touch the owner was regarding the team.
“I think we have all the pieces in place,” Karmanos said. “We might have to do some tweaking here and some tweaking there, change some attitudes here, some attitudes there, but all in all, I think we got a good thing going.”
While that answer may have been fine for the team in many seasons past, this past season for the Hurricanes was an abject failure. Rather than address the poor performance of some of the team’s highest paid players, Karmanos instead seemed to repeatedly put the blame on the play of the team’s third string goaltender, Justin Peters. Suggesting otherwise seemed to spark some passion in Karmanos’ response.
“Look, this team is good enough to win the whole damn thing, OK?” he said. “If we didn’t have both our goalies out for umpteen games…We were at the (salary) cap, we had some outstanding hockey players, we had some tough injuries.”
The response should worry Hurricanes fans, as anyone watching the team this past season could tell you the problem was more deeply-rooted than injury troubles. Certainly, Peters record of 4-6-1 was not the only reason the team missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year. He added that the team was “just a few points away from a playoff spot”, apparently unaware that the team finished 13th in the Eastern Conference and 10 points out of the final playoff spot.
To have an owner so blatantly out-of-touch regarding the state of his team does not bode well for the organization. To his credit, Karmanos is attempting to change that, announcing at Ron Francis’ hiring that he would be moving to Raleigh to keep a closer eye on the team. The Carolina Hurricanes have made a lot of changes to their management this offseason, but whether those changes bring about real change or simply mask the real problems has yet to be seen.
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Commentary by Jonathan Gardner