Something can be said for treading water, although it's what you do right up until you drown.
On the verge of the season's midpoint, the Carolina Hurricanes are gulping mouthfuls of seawater between gasps for breath. Losers of eight of their last nine games at this writing (not including the New Year's Eve tilt against Montreal, which occurred after we went to press), they've tumbled to the bottom of a five-team heap of contenders for third in their division, a slot that carries an automatic playoff berth.
True, they've cobbled together six points in this stretch to stay within striking distance. But they'll never strike. If you can sincerely smile and say, "Hey, the Canes are only three points out of third," then I'd like to know what meds you're on.
The Canes sat third in the Metropolitan Division after a rousing 5–3 home win over the San Jose Sharks on Dec. 6. Since then, the Devils, Flyers, Blue Jackets and Rangers have passed them. Only the lowly Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres have fewer points in the Eastern Conference. Six points in eight games isn't treading water; it's the frantic splashing before losing consciousness.
January promises to do to the Canes what speedboat propellers do to manatees. The compressed schedule is nightmarish, with 15 games—including five sets of back-to-back games—heading toward the Olympics break in February. That win over San Jose could be the last glimpse of sun before sinking into the aphotic depths.
Strange thing is, the Canes haven't played so differently from the 5–2 stretch before this plummet. Justin Peters remains stalwart in net. Jeff Skinner still has a hot hand. Defensemen are still showing up on the score sheet, along with depth forwards like Drayson Bowman and Riley Nash.
The difference is the Canes' lack of finish. With nine losses in overtime or by shootout, no team in hockey has more losses beyond regulation time than Carolina does. There's no killer instinct in this happy-to-be-here crew. There's no drive, no higher gear.
Leading after two periods in Tampa, the Canes somehow let enforcer Radko Gudas beat them in overtime. Then they gave their fans a migraine for Christmas by letting Columbus score twice in the final four minutes to steal a regulation win. Then, a depleted Penguins club came from behind in the third period to force overtime and win on a James Neal goal.
Three one-goal losses that could have been three one-goal wins. A seventh-place team that could be in third.
Will we always be here, hovering on the edge of contention? Will we always be one goal, save or lucky bounce shy, game after game? This year, we are. There's no reason to believe these Canes will suddenly win eight of nine. They've been pumping quarters into the jukebox to play "Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda" since 2007.
So why not shake the franchise up? Why not do something drastic, even at the risk of stinking on ice the rest of the year? Look at the Buffalo Sabres, a team that's spent a few years in the same limbo as the Canes, winning just enough to miss the draft lottery but not enough to get that elusive eighth seed. For the first third of this year, Buffalo still looked like a minor league club.
But then they started making drastic changes on and off the ice. "So what?" you may cry. The Sabres are still in last and will most certainly stay there. But at least the moves have made for hockey buzz in Buffalo. At least they're getting younger and faster, stockpiling draft picks.
There's no such buzz in Raleigh. Here it sounds more like your father snoring in front of Jay Leno's monologue.
It's time to tear this thing down. If the guys on ice don't keep the fans awake, maybe the front office should do it.
Trade any and all pending free agents: Tim Gleason, Jiri Tlusty, Tuomo Ruutu. Or what about moving the again-average Cam Ward before his stock dives completely? Cut the unimpressive coaching staff loose. Heck, change the team colors to green and blue and call them the Whalers—anything.
The Canes need a Heimlich to get all the losing out of their throats.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Break the ice."