Commentary

DeCock: Canes are stuck in NHL's neutral

ldecock@newsobserver.comApril 3, 2013 

— It was the kind of thing a fan would say, or a sports columnist, or a radio host. To hear it come from a general manager about his own team was to produce the kind of head-turning double-take that makes chiropractors think about getting a bigger boat.

“I believe we had a good product,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “As we speak today, we don’t.”

Coming from the general manager who put the team together, it was nothing short of shocking, even if the candor was refreshing.

“It’s hard to sit here with a lot of confidence based on what I’ve watched the last couple weeks,” Rutherford also acknowledged, sharing the sentiments of an increasingly disaffected fan base.

As the NHL trade deadline passed Wednesday, only hours after Joni Pitkanen was lost for the season with a broken heel suffered on a needless collision on an icing play and the Hurricanes gave up three unanswered goals to the Washington Capitals in a 5-3 loss, the Hurricanes were paralyzed by mediocrity.

Tuesday morning, the Hurricanes were buyers, adding defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, a free agent after the season. Twenty-four hours later, they were sellers, dumping Jussi Jokinen, even agreeing to pay some of Jokinen’s salary in the process.

Four points back in the division with three games in hand, the Hurricanes are far from out of it, mathematically speaking. With only one win in their past 10 games, they might as well be. A despondent Rutherford admitted as much Wednesday.

“Based on the position we’ve put ourselves in here over the past two or three weeks, I wasn’t going to trade younger players or high draft picks for somebody who may or may not make a difference in the last month,” Rutherford said. “There weren’t any deals that made sense for us.”

Once again the Hurricanes are trapped in the middle, the worst place to be. If you’re not going to make the playoffs, it’s better miss by a lot and grab a top player in the draft. Instead, the Hurricanes are trapped in a perpetual cycle of mediocrity, never quite good enough to compete, never quite bad enough to rebuild.

There’s almost nothing wrong with the Hurricanes now that couldn’t have been foreseen before the season. The concerns about scoring depth and defense were all there in January, and when first Cam Ward and then Justin Faulk went down, the foundation the Hurricanes’ early season success had been built upon crumbled, exposing all the flaws Ward and Faulk had helped paper over.

Even with the undisclosed amount the Hurricanes are paying the Pittsburgh Penguins, getting Jokinen’s $3 million off the books next season will help make space for help on defense. That help is needed now, but after watching this team limp through March, it’s hard to blame Rutherford for thinking it wasn’t worth giving up anything worthwhile to get it.

The Hurricanes are now in a position where not only are they likely to miss the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years since winning the Stanley Cup, they’re doing it in the final season before realignment will make it exponentially more difficult to qualify, and they’re doing it before an offseason in which they will raise ticket prices for the first time in years.

That’s typically not a time a general manager acknowledges his own team’s failings. It just so happened to come the same day he decided it didn’t deserve any help.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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