Don’t Blame Paul Maurice for the Canes’ Struggles
By Alexander Monaghan
This morning the Carolina Hurricanes announced the firing of head coach Paul Maurice for the second time. Through 25 games, the long-time Cane was en route to his third straight season without a playoff berth. Something needed to give and GM Jim Rutherford was not willing to blow up an entire team in order to spare his friend.
On paper, the Canes are an awful team. Their 60 goals forced rank dead-middle at 15th in the League while their 81 goals allowed are worst in the League. The goals allowed can’t even be blamed on luck as their even-strength save percentage is right in the middle as well. Their time of possession ranked a below-average 21st mainly due to a poor, but somehow improved 49.5 faceoff percentage. On paper, this team needed to be fixed.
Nevertheless, Rutherford chose not to make a single personnel move with regards to his players. Instead, he told Maurice to make good with the parts given to him. To employ 5-goal scorer Alexei Ponikarovsky on the top two lines, rely on grinder Chad LaRose to score goals (which he actually did) and to shuffle Anthony Stewart — whose scored all of 22 goals in 206 NHL games — around the lineup.
Last season, LaRose was able to help the shutdown process with Patrick Dwyer and Brandon Sutter. This season he was forced to step up due to the inconsistency of Stewart, Ponikarovsky and prospects Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk. When questioned, Rutherford acknowledging that he would need at least another two forwards to slot into the top nine in order to get back into the mix. “We look at it a lot harder when things aren’t going good. In an ideal world we would like to have one top-six forward and one top-nine forward. If we can trade a defenseman for a top-9 forward, we will do that.”
So why was all of the onus put on arguably the best coach in franchise history? Likely because budget constraints simply would not allow Rutherford to make the necessary changes.
One of the bigger problems was letting go Erik Cole this past offseason. As one of the top producers over the last couple of seasons he no longer slotted into their budget. While he may seem like nothing more than a gritty and speedy winger who tops out at 25-30 goals, his chemistry with captain Eric Staal is clearly missed. Playing in the South with a constrained payroll, Rutherford could not offer his unrestricted free agent the money he needed, keeping the Canes at the bottom of the salary cap standings.
When Maurice took the reigns back from Peter Laviolette, he coached a much more skilled team. While current Canes like Ruutu, Staal, LaRose, Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Cam Ward remain on the roster, skilled players like Rod Brind’Amour, Ray Whitney, Sergei Samsonov, Dennis Seidenberg, Joe Corvo, Anton Babchuk and Matt Cullen have all left or retired. The departure of these players left a gaping wound, one that Maurice or any other coach simply could not put a bandage over.
Rutherford thought he filled a reasonable amount of holes with his offseason moves. “The new guys for the most part have filled the roles that we wanted them to. Adding the backup goalie [Brian Boucher] and fourth line center [Tim Brent] and Ponikarovsky. [Tomas] Kaberle started slow but his game has been better the last three weeks or so.” At this point, he can’t be happy with the veteran players the team has lost. Due to budgetary constraints and inability to get quality players at a discount rate this team would have a problem winning with any coach.
Firing Paul Maurice is the first step for Rutherford to assess exactly what he has. Hiring Kirk Muller is all about a change in culture. The Canes have won in the past and they certainly are a team that wants to win as soon as this season. And nobody wants to win more than Rutherford. “From a team concept point of few even in years where we haven’t made the playoffs and some of those years we’ve been close and we’ve been real very fortunate with real character guys who want to win at all costs.” As currently constructed, they simply don’t have the team they want.
“Can Kirk pull these guys together and get them to step their game up? If he can thats good for this group. if that doesn’t happen, we have a lot more work to do,” Rutherford later explained. That question is apropos: If Muller can instill a winning environment, there will be some changes made. If he can’t there will be some wholesale changes.
Unfortunately, a good hockey guy in Paul Maurice falls victim to a poorly constructed team whose top guns could not step up this season. He will surely catch on with some team very soon as coaches with his track record don’t last too long on free agency.