As one season ended Saturday for the Carolina Hurricanes, the focus quickly turned to the next one.
Canes coach Kirk Muller will have to wait until September – or perhaps later, given the league’s collective bargaining issues – for training camp to begin for the 2012-2013 season.
But he believes with a few offseason changes, the Hurricanes could return to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“I’d like to think we’ll be able to start, right from the beginning, with everyone understanding what the expectations are,” Muller said Saturday. “I think the players know what they have to do to prepare, to come into training camp knowing the system, knowing you have to skate, knowing that we’ve got to be in top shape.
“We need the mental attitude that game one is going to be just as important as game 60 or 70. We have to get off to a good start. We’ll have all summer to reflect on how we felt today – not making the playoffs.”
The Hurricanes’ 8-13-4 start this season cost Paul Maurice his job as coach. Muller was hired Nov. 28 and lost his first four games as Carolina fell further behind and dipped to the bottom of the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
“It got away from us 30 games into it,” forward Brandon Sutter said. “You can’t get that far behind.”
Muller had a long playing career in the league, winning a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1993, but he had not been the head coach of a pro team until this season. After five seasons as an assistant coach with the Canadiens, he was named head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL but soon made the jump to the Hurricanes and NHL.
Muller quickened and intensified the pace of practice. He demanded a more aggressive approach in games – on the forecheck, in the neutral zone, in the one-on-one battles. He made changes in the power play and penalty kill.
The Hurricanes became more competitive, going 20-12-10 after Jan. 1. Eric Staal, rebounding from the slowest start of his career, picked up 50 points over the last 43 games of the season to close with 24 goals and 46 assists. Goaltender Cam Ward, another slow starter, returned to form and won 30 games. Defenseman Justin Faulk developed into one of the NHL’s best rookies.
“The things we did the second half (of the season), the way everyone played and competed, is important and something to build on,” Sutter said.
One lingering problem was overtime games. The Canes were 4-16 overall, going 1-6 in shootouts and not winning one until the final home game of the season last week against Montreal.
Muller also noted that defenseman Joni Pitkanen missed 44 games with a concussion, then knee surgery this season. Jeff Skinner was out 16 games with a concussion, and Muller said the young forward “has got another level in his play.”
The Hurricanes should have a different look next season. General manager Jim Rutherford said the team should bid to sign at least one high-priced free agent, and there will be other personnel changes.
“When you don’t make the playoffs, it’s an indication we’ve got work to do in the summer and some areas to get better at,” Muller said after the Canes closed the season with a 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers. “I think with a few changes and a few tweaks here and there, we should be competing for the playoffs.”
Muller mentioned that the Panthers, last in the Southeast Division last year, made a significant personnel overhaul and won the divisional title for the first time this season.
“They made some good moves, got them over the hump,” he said. “Let’s be honest: when you don’t make the playoffs, I’m sure there will be changes.”
Muller sounded like a coach ready for training camp – now.
“I think when you add it all up, the players are familiar with the staff, the staff is familiar with the players,” Muller said. “So we’ll all be on the same page on day one.”