RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes held player exit interviews and final media availabilities at PNC Arena on Tuesday.
Taking place once again in mid-April, the process has become more of a regular routine than anyone in the dressing room wanted to go through after failing to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
“I know everybody’s frustrated,” captain Eric Staal said.
“I know our fans are frustrated. I know management, staff, players – I mean everyone is. That’s not a secret. That needs to change, so it’s a chance for us to regroup again this summer. It’s the same story, but nothin’ else you can do. You look forward to starting next season.”
The expectation to make the playoffs was there back in August, but as the season progressed, the Hurricanes once again encountered challenges that kept them close, but not close enough, to earn a place in the postseason mix.
That was the goal and they fell short of it – again.
Being in ‘the mix’ seemed to be the team’s mantra that head coach Kirk Muller used and was comfortable with following many nights when the team came up with more losses in close games that ended up with single point accumulations following losses in overtime or shootouts.
As those close-game losses mounted, it was becoming more evident that letting leads slip or falling behind too early and not earning regulation-time wins would work against the Hurricanes.
Not helping the situation, an anemic power play greatly hindered the team’s ability to truly be successful and highlighted the inability of the team’s scorers to not do just that – score.
Thus, many following and watching the team started to mull over the idea that maybe starting over would be necessary.
That thinking increased speculation that focused on the possible movement of franchise cornerstones in Staal and goaltender Cam Ward, the franchise’s leaders in many categories and the two sitting at the top of the payroll list.
They are the key remaining members of the 2006 Stanley Cup winning team, a great accomplishment, but one that has lost its luster, particularly after another lost season.
However, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
“Obviously, we have a strong foundation here,” Ward said back then.
“It’s about having everybody buying into the system and having a winning attitude. Obviously missing the playoffs four years in a row – clearly enough is enough. I think the leaders are going to lead by example with the fire and motivation, and come this camp, we’re not messin’ around. This is a big year for us, and there’s gonna’ be no excuses.”
Ward was right that it was a ‘big year’ and no one could deny that the core of a potentially successful team was there.
The expectations were high and justifiably so, but the finish wasn’t as high for both Staal and Ward who both indicated that they found it difficult to play as they needed and wanted to as both entered the season coming off knee injuries.
Ward’s inability to get to the point where he expected to help lead his team was compounded with more injury problems he encountered during the season.
It was evident that those setbacks impacted his performance and ultimately the team’s, even as then back-up goaltender Anton Khudobin took up the slack and had a career season to keep Carolina contending for a playoff spot.
“Very unusual,” Ward described the past season.
“Personally, for myself, I just struggled to get comfortable all season long. Obviously I had the injury and comin’ back from that, it just felt like I was playin’ catch up. Our margin for error was so small. I wasn’t able to get consecutive games to try to get my game goin’. Anton had a great season, played extremely well for the team, and like I said, I just was never able to get comfortable and get that opportunity to get into a rhyhm.”
As both Staal and Ward may not necessarily know what will come next for them as there is imminent movement expected to take place in the organization, they both still want to be a part of it.
However, they must realize that they will not necessarily be the only faces of the organization as they have been portrayed as in the past.
If they are ready to transition their games’ to the next level in their careers, they must share or maybe give up some of it.
Allowing themselves to help younger and up-and-coming players to realize their potential will actually help them individually to become more successful and more helpful to the organization.
They cannot help their team to just be in ‘the mix’, and instead must push to get to themselves and the team to another level by helping others to get them there.
Staal and Ward don’t need to permanently pass the proverbial torch off, but they must share it and be comfortable with the thought that it may not come back quickly to them.
That’s what veteran players and leaders do.
Ward seemed to get that and stated as much.
“I want to be here,” Ward said.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be in this organization for nine years and it’s something that I wanna’ still be here for with Anton. I think he’ll be able to tell you what a great relationship he and I have. I was very supportive of him and I think he was the same way when I was in the net. If we’re both on our game, I think you can look at us a very good combination moving forward. Obviously, let’s just wait and see what happens.”