The losing cycle

A few weeks ago, I said I needed a break from the Hurricanes. So here I am again writing about the Hurricanes. There’s been a lot that has gone down since then, though. After doing nothing at the trade deadline, the team decided to “promote” Ron Francis to Director Of Hockey Operations and will find a new GM in the off-season. Some fans were happy to see some form of change while others weren’t happy. I can sympathize with both viewpoints. The Canes have been spinning their wheels for years now and it’s easy to see why fans want a change with the new owner in town. They got it on one level, even if some don’t agree with it.

That brings us to the next phase, which is deciding what to do with Bill Peters. His timeline is similar to Francis in that fans were on-board with what he was selling for the first few seasons. He wasn’t afraid to scratch players who were higher in the lienup, he had the Hurricanes competing with poor rosters every night and it looked like they were building something with him. Four years have gone by and now the honeymoon is over. The Hurricanes still haven’t made the playoffs under his tenure and the coach is usually one of the first guys to go in this spot.

I have kind of a cynical view on coaching because even on good teams, there always seems to be one, two or twelve things coaches do that annoy the hell out of fans. There’s also a lot that we don’t get to see outside of just systems and lineup decisions. How are they getting their teams prepared? What are they teaching players? etc. Peters has the reputation of being a good coach in some of these aspects. The Hurricanes are consistently one of the top teams in the league at out-shooting their opponents and fans of other teams think pretty highly of him. Watch a Hurricanes game or two on the opposing broadcast and you’ll nothing but nice things about how good Carolina’s breakouts are, how structured their game is and how talented their defensemen are. Hockey nerds love the Hurricanes, it’s true. I’m one of them.

Then there’s the other side of it. Peters has a 131-131-53 record, making his points percentage 6th worst in the league among active head coaches. You can do a lot of good things but if you consistently fail to get results, does the process matter that much? Also how much of it is on the coach? Everybody knows the Hurricanes have two major weak spots. They’re a bad finishing team (ranking in the bottom-10 in shooting percentage again) and their goaltending stinks. These are two problems that have been around years before Peters came to town, so I’m willing to give him some leeway here. Cam Ward’s .910 save percentage in 54 games in 2014-15 was the best goaltending he’s ever gotten and that’s not even league average, so he’s already found himself behind the eight-ball there. The old saying is that if you want to evaluate a coach, just look at how his goalies have played and there’s your answer. The Hurricanes goaltending issues speak for themselves here. There’s an argument that Peters system hurts the goalies but I haven’t really seen a study or proof of it. I’d love to see some further work here, because it could explain some things.

THAT BEING SAID, there’s some blame to go around here. Cam Ward has not been a starting caliber goalie since 2011 and he has gotten a starters workload in every year that Peters has been the head coach. If they had better goalies on the roster, I’m sure this would have never been an issue, but there has been a disturbing timeline with how the goaltending has been handled in Carolina. Anton Khudobin gave the Hurricanes one of the best goalie seasons they’ve ever had in 2013-14 and started the next year as a back-up. He didn’t post great numbers in his first four starts and it took him 14 days to even get another shot. It took him until around January for him to get consistent playing time and he ended up having a sub-par season. He was then traded for Eddie Lack.

It was uncertain if the Hurricanes brought in Lack to be the back-up or spell Ward in a 1 A/B role, but he started the year on the bench had a bad first few games and couldn’t get any starts until December. Last season is a bit of a write-off because of the two concussions, but he couldn’t get consistent playing time even when he was healthy and then there was the whole “make a fucking save” rant which honestly pissed me off more than any lineup decision Peters has ever made. Even if that rant was out of character, it really made me think less of him as a coach. If only because berating your back-up goalie in front of the media when he’s only five games removed from a second concussion doesn’t exactly help anyone. Frustration gets the best of everyone sometimes, but whatever. I wasn’t a fan.

Then you have the finishing problems and a lot of it can be traced back to the talent on the roster. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Jeff Skinner are guys who you can count on for 20 goals and aside from that, the Canes are kind of scraping the bottom. Drafting is the best way to get top-end talent and the Hurricanes haven’t gotten much from here in their history and most of their recent picks are too young to help right now. Every team has a lot of whiffs and sometimes it only takes one or two home runs to turn your franchise around (just look at the LA Kings drafting history). Either way, there’s an argument that Peters hasn’t been given the talent you need to succeed. It’s a fair point, but should they be so bad that they’re consistently shooting at 7-percent? This goes back to the possible “system issues” that I see thrown around all the time and would love to take a closer look at.

It’s also a little annoying to keep seeing how the Hurricanes don’t have the talent to be a “playoff team” when the bar to get in the playoffs really isn’t that high, especially this season. The Metro Division has been painfully mediocre this year and all the Hurricanes had to do is be 5th best out of that bunch, which isn’t saying a lot and they’re struggling to get even to that mark is troubling. This is why fans have been harder on the coaching staff this year and picking apart some of his decisions like playing Jeff Skinner lower in the lineup with guys who can’t get him the puck, giving Derek Ryan top-nine minutes when he has eight points since January and giving Joakim Nordstrom any ice-time at all when Alex Nedeljkovic has outscored him in Charlotte.

They’re all decisions around the edges that add up over time and hurt more when you can’t get a save and average only two goals per game. Replace him with Coach X and he might end up doing the same thing, or he’ll fix one thing and do something else that’s not optimal. It become a case of “he isn’t the only problem, but he isn’t helping.” Which is the argument you’re left with when your team isn’t very good to begin with.

There’s some what-if games you can play with the Hurricanes. Like, I wonder how many more games they would win with .925 goaltending for one season if a goalie is even capable of doing that in Carolina. Would we be having this same discussion or would they be just barely making the playoffs instead of sitting six points out? Would the season be a “success” then? I don’t know. The reality is that the team isn’t in a good spot at this moment and all Tom Dundon has seen is a team that has found different ways to lose and look horrible in the process. So it’s easy to see why they would want some new faces in the building.

I wanted Peters to succeed in Carolina and I’m sure he’ll be a good coach somewhere, but there comes a point where something needs to change if you don’t get results. The constant meltdowns, poor starts and no-shows when the team is on the cusp of making a push don’t exactly reflect well on him either but again, this happened when Kirk Muller was the head coach too. Remember April 2013? I have some time for the argument of getting him a better roster and there’s room to do that. The Hurricanes will have a new boss and loads of cap space. I can also understand wanting a new guy coaching the team because they haven’t been able to win under Peters’ leadership. I’ve also followed the NHL long enough to know that there’s only so much GMs are willing to do in an off-season and a coaching change is the easiest thing you can do. Will that guy end up being better than Peters? He could be! We really have no idea and as Hurricanes fans, we should be prepared for the worst regardless of what they do.


Trusting the Process

The trade deadline is on Monday and the Hurricanes are about where most people expected them to be. They’re a bubble playoff team. Not quite there yet but they can make the playoffs if they finish the year strong. Everything is going to plan. There’s no reason to panic.

Except we’ve seen this movie before.

This is what the Hurricanes do. They always stay close enough to the playoff picture and look like a team that is on the rise. Then they lose a tough game (usually to a division rival) and that sets off a chain of suck. One loss turns into two, then three, then four, then five and the next thing you know, they’ve won two out of their last 10 games and are virtually eliminated from playoff contention. It happened in 2013 when they won a total of eight games in March and April combined, it happened last year when they lost 14 out of 18 games in January and Feburary and they are continuing that trend this year.

The Hurricanes have lost five games in a row (eight out of the last 12) and haven’t won a divisional game since January 11th. The most frustrating part about it isn’t the losing, though. It’s the fact that they haven’t looked remotely competitive in any of these games. They’ve looked disinterested, lazy and have played some truly pathetic hockey. It’s the brand of “Hurricanes hockey” that most people know. Anemic offense, refusal to go to net to score, terrible goaltending and a team that flat out doesn’t win. Last night’s 3-1 loss against the Red Wings was a prime example of it. They started off well, gave up a goal and looked disinterested for the rest of the game.

They’re a frustrating team to root for because they do a lot of the “right” things. They’re trying to build through the draft, they’ve made some smart trades and they don’t get involved in a lot of the desperate panic trades/signings that happen every year. It’s all well and good until you look at the results and see that this team is exactly where they started eight years ago. They’re a 9th-13th place team that NEEDS almost everything to break their way to even sniff a wild card spot.

With that, you have a fanbase that’s apathetic and generally losing interest. This process has been building for years, as Red Seat Night at the PNC Arena has been a common theme for awhile, and it’s reached the tip of the iceberg this year. It’s not fun to watch games even when the team wins because everyone’s just going to be snapping at each other over how Derek Ryan is bad or about how Cam Ward let in another goal high-glove side or how the wrong player was called up from Charlotte or the million other things that seem to set everyone off now. This isn’t even getting to the people who bombard your mentions with their 20 step rebuild plan for the Canes that you absolutely do not care about. Either way, I had enough of it years ago and it’s probably my main desire to see the team win again.

The fanbase is toxic and pessimistic because the team gives them no real reason to think otherwise. When you’re out of the playoffs every year and constantly hear the message of “we like our group” then yes, your fanbase has a reason to be cynical maybe not trust the process anymore. The new owner has talked about not wanting to be patient and while that’s nice to hear, who knows how much of a say he has on hockey operations or if he will change anything. I want to believe that he won’t stay complacent with how the team has performed since he took over, but I’ve also seen this movie before and the ending always sucks.

I started watching hockey because it was a fun sport to follow and escape from general stresses. I used to be able to have a good time watching a game even if the Canes lost but somewhere along the line, watching this team became super stressful. Not sue if it’s the constant losing, the bullshit relocation rumors, getting into arguments everyday when I ran Shutdown Line or just becoming jaded, but watching this team isn’t enjoyable anymore. I want to be around for when (if?) this team ever turns the corner but at the same time, I’m just tired of caring about them and getting upset over nothing every other day or how often it is the Hurricanes play now.

I feel silly writing this because at the end of the day, it’s something I don’t have any control over and no one is forcing me to be a fan of a team that does nothing but frustrate the living hell out of me. There’s still people on the Hurricanes who I want to see succeed and they would need to something really stupid to get me to stop rooting for them, but there comes a time where you just need to step away and take a break.

Mine probably should have happened a long time ago with all of the other stuff I’m doing now, but I still watch almost every Hurricanes game and try to stay optimistic even when shit is bad. It’s just tough to do that now and barring something interesting happening at the deadline, I’m going to need to take a step back for the rest of the year. I don’t know if that makes me a bad fan or whatever, but following this team is a chore and it shouldn’t be that way.

Breaking point

Rooting for a bad team is exhausting. That’s my current feelings on the Carolina Hurricanes. I jumped on the bandwagon during the 2008-09 playoff run and they haven’t been to the playoffs since. I started blogging about them in 2011 and that was when their “dark years” started, finishing in the bottom-ten of the league in almost every season since. Another year without the playoffs is hard to swallow but it wasn’t terribly unexpected. It’s still a young team and their ceiling was probably a wild card spot. That said, this year has been a real chore to sit through.

I’ve spent the previous two seasons working as an analyst for an NHL team, but I never stopped being a fan of the Hurricanes. I watched every game and kept tabs on what was going on with them on a daily basis. I couldn’t say or tweet anything about them, but I always stayed on top of what the team was doing. They weren’t particularly good then either. Their season was over by Thanksgiving in 2014 and they spent most of 2015 trying to reach a playoff spot before falling short & selling everything at the deadline. It looked like they were making progress towards eventually becoming a good team, though and I was expecting more progress this year.

Most of the optimism was due to their coaching staff and Bill Peters. This roster was always short on forward talent but Peters ran a system that kept them in most of their games. The Canes were usually the team controlling the pace of play & while they didn’t have the goal-scoring talent, they had the puck more often than their opponents & were in more games than they should have been. The thought was with a better roster & some experience, this team had a bright future. Well, the future is here and the results are still lousy.

As tiring as it is to be a fan of an awful team, coaching one is probably a million times more draining, so Peters’ rant on goaltender Eddie Lack might not come as a surprise to those who have been following the team. They’ve either had the worst team 5v5 save percentage in the NHL every year since he’s been the coach or in that ballpark. Most would argue that it cost them a playoff spot last year & that significantly hurt their chances this year, as well. When you have only four wins in your last 17, there are a lot more problems than your goaltender, but it certainly isn’t helping matters and it has been a problem for a long time. It’s easy to see why Peters would be frustrating with the goaltending. The way he went about this, however, was wrong.

If you are going to call out the goaltending, going after the guy who has started in only eight games all season and only four since the calendar turned 2017 isn’t a great look. The Hurricanes aren’t out of a playoff position because Lack gave up four goals on 16 shots in a game that was played well after the Hurricanes were effectively eliminated from playoff contention. It’s especially not a good look when the other goaltender, Cam Ward, has played in 50 games, ranks 38th in the league in save percentage among goaltenders who have appeared in 20 games this year and has posted a save percentage below .900 in his last 20 games. If you are going to call out of the goaltending, be fair and point the finger at both guys instead of going after the one who has been injured for basically the entire season.

Doing this whole thing in front of the media is an even worse look. Who does it help? Berating one of your players and telling him to “make a fucking save” isn’t going to make him play better. It’s also not going to make Peters look better as a coach, even if the rant was totally out of character for him. Maybe they’ve had this conversation privately before? Even then, it’s pretty unfair to scapegoat the goaltender who has barely played this year. Not that Lack has been good, but what is there to gain by kicking a player while he’s down? I’m sure Lack knows his performance hasn’t been up to par. If embarrassing him publicly is Peters’ motivation tactic then I’m curious about how good of a coach he is. It’s even worse if he plans not to play him the rest of the year because slamming one of your players on his way out is classless.

When it comes to strategy & systems, I have no doubt that Peters knows what he is doing. He knows how to adapt to the players he’s given & has done a pretty good job of placing guys in positions to succeed. There’s more to coaching than just strategy, though. Motivating your team and getting them ready to play is an underrated part of coaching and it’s something that’s hard to judge from the outside. There’s only so much a coach can do in this instance because the problem might be the players instead of the message being delivered. So it’s hard to get a read on how Peters does in this area. How he handled himself the other day doesn’t exactly paint a positive picture, though. It’s also worth nothing that Hurricanes have come out looking flat in important games this year & their once strong territorial play has torpedoed since January. Their self-inflicted goaltending nightmare could play into this because  It’s easy for a team to break away from their system when every mistake they make leads to a goal against. That’s why it’s hard for me to get a read on how good this team really is right now because everything is a mess.

I’m a hockey analyst but as a fan of the Hurricanes, I’m tired of watching this. It’s hard for me to be positive or rational because the results haven’t changed in almost a decade. Watching the team now just annoys me and talking about them kills my enthusiasm about hockey. I know most people tend to go the objective route once they start covering hockey on a wider scale, but I like being a fan of a team & taking the analyst cap off during games. This season, however, has really tested my limits. Between the lousy results & constant off-ice drama, being a fan hasn’t been fun at all.