DeCock

Canes coach on a tight schedule

Staff WriterOctober 7, 2011 

— Beware the Ides of ... December?

In his career as an NHL general manager, Jim Rutherford has only fired a coach three times. The first, when he replaced Paul Holmgren with 28-year-old Paul Maurice, came a mere month into the 1995-96 season.

Rutherford and new Hartford Whalers owner Peter Karmanos had inherited Holmgren when they bought the team in 1994, so that change was more or less inevitable. After that, Rutherford didn't make a change for more than eight years. By then, the team had moved south and become the Carolina Hurricanes.

The next two coaching changes had a lot in common, and not just the names involved: Peter Laviolette for Maurice, Maurice for Laviolette. They both happened during the first half of the month of December.

Which means if there's going to be a coaching change this season, that's probably when it will happen. Which means that's how long Maurice, in the final year of his contract, has to show he has this team headed in the right direction.

The dimensions of Rutherford's patience are no secret to anyone, even Maurice. On Dec. 3, 2002, when the Hurricanes were still above water early in a season that would later implode, Maurice quipped, "This is usually when I'm getting fired." A little more than a year later, he was.

Even in years when Rutherford didn't make a change, that was the month in which big moves occurred. In 2001, the Hurricanes traded for Sean Hill on Dec. 6, just as the heat on Maurice was hottest. Three days later, Jeff O'Neill helped turn things around with a big goal against the Florida Panthers that turned a near-certain loss into a win. That win led to others, and eventually to an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

But two years later, the Hurricanes went 5-7-3 in November after Rutherford labeled it a "make or break" month. Rutherford declared, "there won't be a coaching change" six days after he first met with Laviolette to see if he'd be interested in the job.

Rutherford and Karmanos decided to make a change on Dec. 6. At that point, the Hurricanes had scored only 15 goals in their previous 11 games, winning two. Nine days later, as the team returned from a cross-country road trip, Rutherford fired Maurice. Laviolette was already in Raleigh, ready to take over.

Though Laviolette would win the Stanley Cup in 2006, his first full season in charge, he found himself on shaky ground in December 2007, when a strong start turned into an extended sub-.500 stretch. On Dec. 13, Rutherford said, "It's time for me to look at everything a lot closer now." Laviolette survived, but Craig Adams did not; the longtime Carolina forward dealt to Chicago in January in an attempt to shake up the team.

A year later, of course, Laviolette was out on Dec. 3. That wasn't surprising - the Canes were 12-11-2, but had lost four of their previous five games in uninspiring fashion - but his replacement was shocking. Still, Maurice was able to get things turned around and took the Canes all the way to the conference finals that spring.

Since then, the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs twice - four times in the five seasons since winning the Stanley Cup - and Maurice is under serious pressure to make sure it doesn't happen again. The first two months of the season will have a lot to say about that.

There are, of course, no guarantees - a big winning streak to open the season could ensure his continued employment even if the team stumbles in November. By the same token, he kept his job in the fall of 2009 when the Hurricanes were 5-17-5 on Dec. 1.

It's very difficult to predict what Rutherford will do, other than the timing when he does do something. If a change is going to happen, it'll be before the Ides of December.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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