Another season's gone by in Raleigh. Another spring's gone by without playoff hockey. Another summer's scripted for redundant quotes about being better next year.
Do the Carolina Hurricanes play hockey, or do they, in fact, play golf?
Too often, it can be hard to tell.
The 'Canes were routed, 8-3, by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday to conclude their fourth straight season without a playoff game. After a promising 15-9-1 start, this multi-sport franchise won just four of its final 23 games to fall to 13th place in the conference.
Monday, three Staal brothers and many of their teammates will watch to see how the 'Canes fare in the 2013 NHL draft lottery. But their 8.1 percent chance at the No. 1 pick—the fifth highest in the league—will be more of an illustration of failure than a reason for future optimism.
What can this miserable Hurricanes club learn from the great train wreck that was the 2013 season that could, dare it be proposed, make them better in 2014? We point out and break down four ever-crucial lessons on the coming slides.
As Kevin Westgarth's shot "in the general direction of the net" (as he said in a post-period TV interview) deflected off Paul Martin's shoulder, Marc-Andre Fleury's glove and across that elusive red goal line Saturday in Pittsburgh, the scrappy 29-year-old had suddenly scored more goals in one period than in his entire previous 120-game career.
It was a sweet and rewarding moment for Westgarth, and undoubtedly one he, for all his hard work and persistence, fully deserved.
It was also a perfect example to the entire Hurricanes franchise of what an effective bottom-six forward can provide. No one expected Westgarth to do anything, and yet he, at least at the time, made a huge impact on the momentum and score of the game.
As 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford seeks to remake his team's cast of third- and fourth-line players this summer, he must keep that epiphany completely engraved in his mind.
Neither Westgarth, nor teammates Tim Brent, Tim Wallace, Drayson Bowman and Chad LaRose, fit that mold. That's why the 14 'Canes forwards cycled through those lines this season accounted for just 18 goals while the six first- and second-line forwards accounted for 77.
Having two blockbuster trios at the top of the depth chart cannot single-handedly make an offense good—the 'Canes didn't just learn that lesson this year, they learned it 48 times over.
Indeed, every player matters. Next year, perhaps they can all matter in the box score, too.
The Carolina Hurricanes defense was downright horrendous this season, and there's no other way to put it. No team can ever expect to make the playoffs while getting blown apart for 160 goals in 48 games, the second-highest total in the league.
That dreadful statistic is even more infuriating, however, when considering that the 'Canes knew their defense would be bad before the year even began.
They knew Jamie McBain would make his usual dose of terrible reads; they knew Bobby Sanguinetti would make some rookie mistakes; they knew Joe Corvo would get caught pinching far too often; they perhaps even knew Joni Pitkanen would get injured again.
Yet they also thought a good offense would make up for all of that uncertainty and instability in the back end.
And, for that overly hopeful false hope, they were burned.
Jim Rutherford, fortunately, has emphasized repeatedly that improving the defense will be a critical focal point this offseason. Corvo, Sanguinetti and Marc-Andre Bergeron will be free agents, and McBain seems almost guaranteed to be traded, leaving plenty of room to bring in more responsible rearguards.
In addition to 2011 first-round pick Ryan Murphy, who will likely enter training camp penciled in for a roster spot, UFAs Rob Scuderi and Robyn Regehr (Kings), Ron Hainsey (Jets), Andrew Ference (Bruins), Douglas Murray (Penguins) and Michal Rozsival (Blackhawks) could all be potential additions to next autumn's "D."
With the Carolina Hurricanes leading the Florida Panthers 3-0 on March 3 and 11:05 left in the second period, no one knew the 'Canes were playing their final second of the 2013 season with franchise cornerstone Cam Ward in goal.
If they had, it's doubtful the 'Canes would've had the motivation to hold on for a 3-2 victory that sunny Sunday afternoon.
Ward's MCL tear refocused the spotlight on former second- and third-string goaltenders Dan Ellis and Justin Peters. For two weeks, that inexperienced and unusual tandem held the ship together surprisingly well.
And then the wheels fell off.
Ellis, a free agent come July, finished the year with a 6-8-2 record, .906 save percentage and 3.13 GAA. Peters, under contract for one more painful season, finished the year with a 4-11-1 record, .891 save percentage and 3.46 GAA.
It appears as if the 'Canes' endless quest for a reliable backup goalie—a quest that has, over the years, yielded only such disasters as Brian Boucher, Manny Legace, Michael Leighton and John Grahame—is set to continue.
If Peters does not suit up for Carolina next season, minor league up-and-comers John Muse and Mike Murphy and 2013 UFAs Ellis, Ray Emery (Blackhawks), Anton Khudobin (Bruins) and Richard Bachman (Stars) would be the most likely goaltenders to take his place.
There were plenty of other problems and concerns, sure, but injuries—good ol' injuries—really killed this latest Hurricanes' campaign.
Tuomo Ruutu missed 31 games. Joni Pitkanen missed 26 games. Justin Faulk missed 10 games. Jeff Skinner and Tim Gleason missed six games. Alexander Semin missed four games.
Over the first half of the season, the 'Canes averaged 2.78 man-games lost per contest. Over the second half, they averaged 4.08 per contest. Looking at those numbers, it's not hard to tell one reason why this lockout-shortened season went downhill so suddenly.
But can injuries truly be a legitimate excuse? Two of those five teams with more MGL than Carolina still made the playoffs; the other three, meanwhile, beat the 'Canes in six of 10 combined meetings.
Other than possibly Florida, all of those clubs fought through their bad luck and found other ways to win.
The 'Canes, conversely, cried and complained and lost 19 of their last 23 games.
That simply cannot happen in 2014, no matter how the injury situation shapes up next season. Both the Hurricanes' inexperienced coaching staff and "fragile," young roster must be tougher, physically and mentally.
Bad luck happens. The Carolina Hurricanes must learn to deal with it.