The Carolina Hurricanes' 2011-12 season has been anything but what they hoped it would be.
Every part of the team has collapsed.
The offense, defense and special teams have all fallen to league's basement.
Star goaltender Cam Ward has suffered through the most horrendous season of his career. Captain and franchise centerpiece Eric Staal has abruptly taken a sharp turn for the worse. And injuries have struck other cornerstones like Jeff Skinner, Joni Pitkanen and Jussi Jokinen at the worst possible times.
In fact, it's not simply that the bad moments have overshadowed the good moments; rather, there simply haven't been all that many good moments.
Carolina's 12-19-6 record is dead last in the Eastern Conference and only inches above dead last in the entire NHL. Of those 37 games to date, the seven that were tied after 60 minutes have translated in merely one win for the Hurricanes.
A late-November coaching change to first-time head coach Kirk Muller has resulted in increased enthusiasm, but not so much increased success, for the 'Canes.
Since Muller's introduction, the Hurricanes have been outscored only 40-35 but have just four wins in 12 games over that time period.
For more on the Hurricanes' struggles this season, read our team assessment from last week.
However, Carolina will have to recover, and the first step to do so is to develop a reformation plan to return the 'Canes to contender status.
We've set out three radically different plans—from the extreme apocalyptic changing-of-the-guard to the low-key rebuilding movement—to project where this train-wrecked squad will be heading next.
Departures: Tuomo Ruutu, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Bryan Allen, Zach Boychuk
Arrivals: Prospects, Draft Picks, etc.
The NHL's favorite backup plan has been implemented time and time again by struggling teams as their season slips into despair.
Shipping off older players to make room for promising youngsters is an oft-practiced and generally efficient plan when compared to the more drastic alternatives.
The 'Canes are already young, of course—their average age of 26.8 is the ninth-youngest in the league, according to NHLnumbers.com. But that statistic is lowered more by of the lack of elderly statesmen on the roster—just four players in their 30's—rather than by the presence of prospects receiving top-level playing time.
Actually, the Hurricanes' plethora of up-and-comers have been, for the most part, relegated to the AHL. Carolina has a full roster of 12 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies with one-way contracts. So, except for the anomaly of Justin Faulk, much of the youth in the system has seen only spotty injury replacement call-ups.
As 28-year-old Tuomo Ruutu and 31-year-olds Alexei Ponikarovsky and Bryan Allen approach the final half season of their contracts, they could be enticing options for teams on the playoff bubble and also quick fixes to free up a few spots in the nightly lineup.
The forwards, Ruutu and Ponikarovsky, have combined for just 20 goals and 14 assists so far this season but have both have multiple 20-goal campaigns in their past.
Allen, meanwhile, is an experienced, hard-working blueliner who's been a decent support beam for the porous Carolina 'D' this autumn.
Boychuk, a former first round pick who's never clicked with the 'Canes, could serve as valuable trade bait for Carolina, too.
This relatively minor cleaning-of-the-pipes would open the holes for prospects such as Drayson Bowman (eight appearances, two goals), Zac Dalpe (nine appearances), Brett Sutter (eight appearances, three assists) and Riley Nash (two appearances, one assist) to work their way into the lineup day-in and day-out.
Perhaps a mere rebuilding will solve the problem, or perhaps it won't.
The uncertainty surrounding the strength of this club will most certainly remain—a definite drawback to the youth movement strategy—but the rising talents of the Hurricanes farm system may be potent enough to jumpstart the entire organization.
Youth movements are boring, unsatisfying and often inconsequential.
Caniac Nation is evidently restless. They want change, and lots of it.
Could franchise keystone Eric Staal fall victim to that desire for such an outlandish refurbishment? It's certainly possible.
Departures: Eric Staal, Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason, Chad LaRose, Jussi Jokinen
With Staal stumbling to a league-worst minus-20 rating as mid-season approaches, rumblings regarding his future in Carolina have increased exponentially.
If GM Jim Rutherford was to open Staal to trade offers, the market for the 27-year-old center would potentially encompass the entire league.
Conversely, his contract—carrying an annual $8.25 million cap hit through the 2015-2016 season—will be a momentous hindrance for many possible suitors. Only deep-pocket teams like Montreal, Buffalo, Minnesota or Toronto could handle that bank-breaker while they seek an X-factor capable of boosting them over the playoff bubble.
If Staal is dealt, then a number of other high-value players will surely follow.
Twenty-eight-year-old defensemen Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason, both in the middle of their prime years, have the well-rounded resumes and highly-touted reputations that could make them alluring trade items.
The two former first-round picks would function as solid top-four D-men that could even help the Hurricanes acquire a big-fish forward like Bobby Ryan or Zach Parise, if such a desire arose.
The unit of forwards will also get somewhat picked over, even outside of Staal.
Energy winger Chad LaRose is second-to-last on the team and fifth-to-last in the league at minus-17, nearly duplicating his club-worst minus-21 mark from 2010-11. LaRose, generously marked at 5'10", does have nine goals and 10 assists. But he also has a wasteful 8.3 shooting percentage—leaving him quite precarious to a secondary trade.
Fan favorite Jussi Jokinen, in the midst of a 16-game scoreless streak and a humongous shootout slump, may be vulnerable, as well.
One thing is nearly certain, though—Cam Ward is just as safe and sound in Carolina as always.
The numbers aren't great—an .898 save percentage and 3.19 goals-against average—but when terrible defense and a good ol' slump are combined, it's fair to say that he's just in a momentary downturn.
The most sensible and necessary decision would be, in our perspective, to take the middle road.
The influx-of-youth tactic has been resorted to more than once over Carolina's ongoing three-year postseason drought, and has proven difficult to execute and often insignificant on the ice.
On the other hand, a complete reconstruction of the entire club is simply too risky and dicey to warrant the elephant-sized distraction it would surely cause.
The solution? Take inspiration from both ideas, and implement a system that would both build on players already in the Hurricanes system and employ a few new stars from around the NHL.
Departures: Alexei Ponikarovsky, Tim Gleason, Chad LaRose, Zach Boychuk
Whether in one or two headline-making trades or several mid-level exchanges, the 'Canes could reasonably mix up their roster and re-touch on needy areas.
The hole that Erik Cole left alongside Eric Staal, once expected to be filled by Ponikarovsky, would function much more preferably if occupied by Tyler Bozak, T.J. Oshie or Chris Stewart. Boychuk, as previously noted, would be the trade bait.
Furthermore, Gleason could also draw something of a crowd on the trade market. The sizeable enforcer is somewhat inconsistent, but clearly has the capabilities of a physical, shut-down defenseman. The Philadelphia Flyers, now without Chris Pronger for the rest of the season, might consider him a juicy target.
A minor LaRose deal, likely for a B-grade prospect or mid-range draft pick, could similarily be in the works.
Moving some of these players would not only free up space for acquisitions to move into important roles but also make the Hurricanes slightly more prospect-friendly.
Drayson Bowman or Zac Dalpe could receive permanent one-way tickets to Raleigh, and under-25 blueliners Justin Faulk and Derek Joslin might be able to avoid the "healthy scratch" list on most evenings.
With this well-balanced combination of up-and-coming youngsters and proven additions, the 'Canes could, at last, be able to regain the strength they anticipated possessing back at the start of the season.
There's a lot of the 2011-12 season left undetermined, so the direction in which the Carolina Hurricanes will go might yet be hanging in the balance.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his 39 months so far with the site, he has written over 330 articles and received more than 390,000 total reads.