Kirk Muller isn't just looking for his first win as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. As the team heads out on a 10-day, four-game road trip across Canada, he's looking for something the franchise once had, and has now lost.
"We want a culture. We want people to believe in each other," Muller said after Thursday night's loss to the New York Rangers, his second of three to begin his Canes career.
It's so sad to hear Muller talk about building a culture of winning and believing in each other, as he did Thursday night, because there was one built here, a strong one that delivered a Stanley Cup and, three years later, helped propel the Hurricanes to the conference finals.
Only three players remain who put their names on the Cup in 2006 team, but none of the veteran leaders who constructed that culture. Something has been lost here over the past few years, and it isn't just talent. When he fired Paul Maurice and replaced him with Muller last week, general manager Jim Rutherford acknowledged as much.
"We've been very fortunate with real character guys who wanted to win at all costs,' Rutherford said. "At this point in time, this group of guys don't, or haven't."
It is no coincidence so many ex-Hurricanes now have careers in hockey: Rutherford and majority owner Peter Karmanos for years paid a premium to bring in veteran players expressly for their leadership, players like Ron Francis and Glen Wesley. They did it so well, they took it for granted in recent years as those players left and weren't adequately replaced.
Like Muller, changing the culture was a prime objective of Peter Laviolette when he took over in December 2003. He was successful to the point where Maurice could take over a Laviolette-coached team and take it on a long playoff run even after Laviolette was gone.
Unlike Muller, Laviolette had the advantage of inheriting a senior leadership group that had already been on one long playoff run. Francis and Wesley set the tone, and Wesley and Rod Brind'Amour carried it on to the next generation. It didn't always work, but the foundation was there, to be drawn upon when needed.
For a decade, it didn't matter who wore the letters; the Hurricanes could rely on a group of experienced veteran players for their collective leadership. The list went on and on, to name just a few: Kevyn Adams, Erik Cole, Matt Cullen, Jeff Daniels, Martin Gelinas, Bret Hedican, Sean Hill, Cory Stillman, Scott Walker, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward, Ray Whitney, Justin Williams.
You want culture? They were it.
The remnants of that group played a key role in 2009, but time and the Hurricanes' financial imperatives conspired to tear it apart for good. Some have retired, some left as free agents, some were traded, but all of them are gone now. The young players who might have filled that void now, most likely Williams and Andrew Ladd - the latter now the captain of the Winnipeg Jets - were traded away as well.
That foundation is gone now, not to be easily replaced. To whom can Eric Staal turn when something goes wrong? His alternate captains, Tim Gleason and Brandon Sutter, have both played fewer games in the NHL than Staal, and all three are 28 or younger. It's one thing to have a young captain; it's another to deprive him of veteran assistance to rely upon.
It's going to take moves akin to those that brought in first Wesley, then Francis, then Brind'Amour, to build the culture Muller wants to build - to rebuild. Those moves came at enormous expense in terms of draft picks, players and cash. Do the Hurricanes have the wherewithal to do that now?