The Carolina Hurricanes have not made the playoffs in a very long time. For five straight seasons, and seven times in the past eight years, the organization has missed the big show. This offseason, the organization is hoping to make the moves that will end that streak before it gets too much longer. The 2013-2014 NHL season has not ended yet, but the team has already changed much of their management team. Long time general manager Jim Rutherford stepped down from his position, allowing the legendary Ron Francis to fill that role. In his first move as the new general manager, Francis fired head coach Kirk Muller along with two of his assistant coaches. With less than a month before the NHL Entry Draft, Francis and the Carolina Hurricanes continue their search for a new head coach.
Despite firing Muller, Francis has stated that much of went wrong with the team this past season could not fall on the coach. He said the decision was not made lightly, but felt that the team needed a fresh start in order to begin his “long-term plans to make the organization better.” He also stated that Muller and his crew worked hard and that Muller would make a good coach in the NHL. Only weeks after being let go by Carolina, Muller was hired by the St. Louis Blues as an assistant coach.
As for what Francis is looking for in his new coach, he has a long list of traits that he would prefer his perfect candidate to have. The new coach must be a “teacher, good communicator, strong leader, and someone able to handle different personalities.” He also added that it was important the new coach “get everyone in the right spots” in terms of putting the forward lines together.
“Ideally it would be good to find the right three and then keep the line together for a long time,” he said. “Sometimes that’s not the way it works out, and it may be keeping two together and adding a third based on injuries or matchups. But you need that continuity on the ice.”
The emphasis of finding three players with chemistry and sticking them together permanently stems from the success that the Semin-Staal-Tlusty line had in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 NHL season. During those 48 games, the line was one of the most productive in the league, but ultimately, they were unable to carry the team into the playoffs.
This aspect might be the most difficult for the new coach, as many of Carolina’s star players are wildly inconsistent in their play. Eric Staal and Alexander Semin both have the ability to take over games by themselves, but both have also been criticized by a perceived “lack of effort” that they have shown for long stretches of their seasons. In addition, stars Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm have shown flashes of brilliance in their play, but injuries have ravaged their young careers. Between the injuries and the inconsistent play, asking for a steady lineup every night might be asking for the impossible.
Francis is hoping one of the six candidates he has narrowed his list down to will fit the bill of what he is looking for. Though he has not named any names, he has stated that three potential hires have already been interviewed, while he will have to wait on three others. Based off that criteria, it may not be difficult to judge who these six candidates are.
Given the organization’s history of staying in-house with a lot of their hires, Rod Brindamour and Jeff Daniels are likely two of the three candidates already interviewed. Brindamour was the only assistant coach not fired by Francis when he made the decision to fire Muller, claiming that “he did not have, in my estimation, a prominent role on this staff.” It may be possible that Francis wants Brindamour to take that prominent role to see what the veteran can do. Brindamour retired from the NHL only a few seasons ago, and has played with many players on the Hurricanes roster. Jeff Daniels is the current head coach of the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina’s AHL affiliate. Daniels has never had a lot of success with the Checkers, but he has been a part of the organization for many years, and his hiring may be one of simply “paying his dues” than meeting any criteria.
The third candidate already interviewed was likely former Nashville Predators coach, Barry Trotz. Trotz was considered among the best NHL coaches for many years, but the Predators’ recent absence from the playoffs forced the organization to fire their long-time coach. Trotz likely received a lot of interest from many teams looking for a new coach, and Carolina would have been foolish not to throw their name into that hat. Ultimately, Barry Trotz was hired by the Washington Capitals, a divisional rival of the Hurricanes.
It is also relatively easy to guess the three coaches that have not yet been interviewed. If the coaches have not been interviewed, it is likely because they are currently tied up in business elsewhere. Chip Alexander, beat writer for the Hurricanes in Raleigh’s News and Observer, has suggested that Ulf Samuelsson, current assistant coach for the New York Rangers, could be one of the three candidates Francis would like to interview. Samuelsson is a former teammate of Francis, and he is credited with the stingy defensive system that the Rangers implement. If there is one thing Carolina has struggled with for years, it is their defensive breakdowns. The Rangers are currently in an Eastern Conference Finals series against the Montreal Canadiens.
Scott Walker would also be a likely candidate for Carolina’s head coach position. Walker is a former Hurricane, playing with the team for four seasons. After his retirement in 2010, he was hired as head coach for the OHL’s Guelph Storm. Since his hiring, the Storm have made it to the playoffs for four consecutive years, their latest season ending just short of the Memorial Cup. His success in turning around a struggling team will no doubt have a lot of teams calling about Walker’s services this offseason, and Carolina will likely be one of them.
The last candidate may not ever be available. Dan Bylsma is the current coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and while it was rumored that he would be getting the axe after Pittsburgh’s early elimination from the playoffs, the organization instead decided to fire their general manager Ray Shero and allow Bylsma to stick around. However, every indication has been that it may be a temporary stay of execution for the Pittsburgh coach until their new general manager can settle in and ultimately determine his fate. If Pittsburgh does fire Bylsma, expect Carolina to come calling.
The Hurricanes are looking for a way back into the playoffs, and it all starts with a new head coach. A new coach will also determine what other moves, if any, Carolina makes in the offseason. Goaltender Cam Ward has a hefty price tag for his new backup role, and the fanbase’s displeasure with Eric and Jordan Staal have caused a lot of smoke to surround rumors of their names being added to the trading block. As the Carolina Hurricanes continue to search for a new coach, the fate of these players and the future of the organization ultimately hangs in the balance.
This article is one in a series, providing coverage, analysis, and predictions to NHL fans.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner
News and Observer