Three games into the 2011-2012 NHL season, the Carolina Hurricanes are still searching for their first victory.
The team swore revenge on the Tampa Bay Lightning in their season opener after the Bolts knocked the Hurricanes out of a playoff berth on the final day of last season, and with a sellout crowd of 18,680 behind them at the RBC Center, that seemed a likely outcome.
Tampa Bay 5, Carolina 1.
It was off to Washington D.C. the next day, where the team would start fresh with Brian Boucher in goal and get the competitive juices flowing against the rivaling Washington Capitals.
Washington 4, Carolina 3.
Then there was the Columbus Day battle against the New Jersey Devils at The Rock, where the 'Canes have had fond memories of crucial victory after crucial victory.
New Jersey 4, Carolina 2.
Now standing at 0-2-1, despite having played the most games in the NHL, the Hurricanes have no one to blame but themselves. They've showed some decent stretches, but also killed their chances with timely stupid mistakes, ridiculous penalties and woeful breakdowns.
Who will pay the price? We'll have to wait and see. But, for now, the 'Canes must simply change things up in a major way to recover and begin to find success throughout the rest of their brutal October schedule.
They'll need to focus on four modifications in particular if this club really wants to save their '11-'12 season. And they'll have to implement them now.
With 9:31 remaining in the third period of the home opener and the Hurricanes looking to even up a 2-1 deficit, Dwayne Roloson came out behind his net to make a simple around-the-boards pass to jump start another harmless Lightning rush.
But Eric Staal had other plans. He raced down the boards, lowered his shoulder and smashed the now 42-year-old goalie flat on his back. It was a inane, childish and utterly stupid decision, and it gave Tampa Bay another power play to work with.
Two minutes and three seconds later, the score was 4-1 and the 'Canes were down and out in their season opener.
Staal's mindless foul hasn't been the only dim-witted yet costly penalty Carolina has punished themselves with during opening week.
Earlier in that game, Jussi Jokinen's backhanded bullet straight for referee Greg Kimmerly's knee (after the whistle was blown, no less) gave the Bolts the 5-on-3 which resulted in the game winning goal. A boarding call to Joni Pitkanen and a tripping foul by Brandon Sutter also gave the Capitals a two-man advantage 24 hours later and Brooks Laich scored a goal which ended up allowing Washington to earn the two points in overtime.
Even on Monday in New Jersey, a blatant Alexei Ponikarovsky interference infraction blew the Hurricanes 6-on-5 attack with 90 seconds remaining dead and the Devils tallied moments later to seal the deal.
In fact, after committing the sixth-fewest penalties in the league last season, the Hurricanes have absorbed the second-most minor penalties of any team so far in '11-'12, and their 68.8 penalty kill percentage is making them pay even more.
This issue shouldn't be too hard to avoid in the big picture, but flaring tempers have played a role in all three defeats to date. Levelheaded play from this squad is a necessity in the days moving forward or their continual Plaxico Burress-esque moves will hurt their chances more and more.
Since the 2011 preseason began in mid-September, the Hurricanes have played nine official games—six in training camp and three that truly count.
For eight of those contests, Carolina's scored the first goal. That's certainly a good sign, considering the team got on the board first in only 45 percent of their games in 2010-2011. However, there's also a disturbing side to that statistic: the Hurricanes record in those games is a pathetic 1-6-1.
Plus, there's even more alarming news of the like. For three of the six goals scored by the 'Canes so far during the regular season, their opponent has answered with a strike of their own less than four minutes later on three separate occasions.
This abrupt response has halted the Hurricanes momentum every time and been a major factor why they've still failed to come away victorious in anything and have totaled just six lit lamps in over 180 minutes of hockey.
Last year, it was the complete opposite, as it was Carolina who always seem to have a response up their sleeve as the season wore on. A reversal in fates could be a major problem for the hunger-driven 'Canes, for whom success is often synonymous with team spirit and team spirit alone.
A sizable number of the line combinations, on both offense and defense, composed by head coach Paul Maurice so far this year have been perplexing at best, and it's severely cutting down on the chemistry within the roster.
We said it in August, and we're going to say it again now: Joni Pitkanen and Tomas Kaberle are just too offensively focused to work together as an adequate line pairing. Ill-advised puck-seeking pinches by one or the other have given up countless chances to opportunistic Lightning, Capital and Devil forwards over the past week and have left the duo of power play quarterbacks sitting in a pool of red ink...and a combined minus-four rating.
Meanwhile, one of the team's better all-around defensemen from last year, Jamie McBain, has sat on the bench as a healthy scratch every match so far. This reasoning defies all logic, considering McBain is 23, a former second round draft pick and scored 30 points in 76 appearances last year. Along with him on the bench are teammates Derek Joslin, one of the better surprises of the 'D' last spring, and Ryan Murphy, the 12th overall draft pick last June for Carolina.
On offense, more confusing pairings abound.
The clear-cut top line of Staal, Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Skinner have combined for 10 points already, including four of the six goals by the unit, yet were broken up against the Devils by energy winger Chad LaRose, a minus-21 third-liner from last season. Although LaRose did earn a surprising goal to his name, he not only chopped apart the best three-way punch the Canes' have found so far but also bypassed hard hitting Tuomo Ruutu, promising youngster Zac Dalpe and productive veteran Alexei Ponikarovsky for the role.
Actually, Dalpe's placement as a whole has been odd. The 21-year-old center, a fruntrunner for an NHL job since training camp began, received 10:38 of ice time against Tampa Bay, then 7:50 against Washington and, lastly, only 6:42 against New Jersey—by far the lowest on the team. This is a very unusual strategy with this experience-desiring youngster, who many expected to play along with Staal, in truth, during the early season.
The bandwagon to fire coach Paul Maurice has been heating up in Raleigh for two years, but we've held out and given him a chance. Now his leash has run out, and, even with his contract ending at the end of the season, it's time to give someone else a chance at the job before the campaign goes down the drain.
Whether he was the one dreaming up those line pairings or not, he'll have to take the blame for at least allowing such terrible decisions to be employed on the ice. His reluctance to allow younger players (like Dalpe, McBain, Joslin, Murphy and even Jiri Tlusty) much exposure may or may not help in the short term, but it'll severely hamper the Hurricanes hopes as the team wears down later in the campaign.
His long-term track record also falls short of the standard. Fans love to call him a .500 coach—although that's not much of a compliment in its own right—but that number excludes his 64 overtime losses. In fact, Maurice has a 47.1 career winning percentage and a 47.2 mark all-time with Carolina and has coached a team all the way to the playoffs only once in his past seven seasons.
Furthermore, a plethora of quality candidates exist as his replacement.
Current "Assistant GM" Ron Francis served as assistant coach last season and is clearly destined for a high-end staff job somewhere. Defensive coach Dave Lewis, hired this summer, has three seasons of head coaching experience, including two where he took Detroit into the playoffs, under his belt.
Our favorite candidate, though, is the organization's AHL coach, Jeff Daniels. The 43-year-old longtime NHL player is beginning his third season leading the Hurricanes' minor league affiliate, and holds a 120-96-24 career record with the team, which played in Albany, New York, in '09-'10 and has been in Charlotte, North Carolina, since.
Daniels knows a number of current Hurricanes—Dalpe, Tlusty, Brandon Sutter, Justin Faulk and Patrick Dwyer—and is familiar enough with the franchise to step in efficiently and effectively if he's called upon. After hints of his hiring during last May's inconclusiveness surrounding the future of Maurice, Daniels should also feel confident that he'll be a top runner for the job when (and not if) it opens up.