Commentary

DeCock: For Hurricanes, some final goodbyes, even if they don’t know it yet

ldecock@newsobserver.comApril 10, 2014 

— From here, the Carolina Hurricanes go on the road for their final two games this season. From there, no one knows.

The Hurricanes completed their home schedule Thursday by slumping to a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in front of an announced attendance of 15,735 hardy masochists, leaving them mere days away from what may be the most uncertain offseason in the team’s tenure here.

The 41st home game is always the end of something. Even in the playoffs, there’s no way of knowing when that last home game will come. Players always come and go over the summer, an unavoidable dynamic of the business. For this team, this franchise, with no playoffs on the horizon yet again, even more change is imminent. Only the degree is unknown, leaving so many uncertain goodbyes.

Was this the final home game for Jim Rutherford? The team’s only general manager since moving here in 1997, Rutherford is expected to step aside after the season. If he does, he could remain with the team as president or he could walk away entirely. Only he knows. The noisy fans in Section 328, hedging their bets, tried to start a “Thank you, Jimmy” chant late in the third period. Like the Hurricanes’ season, it failed to catch on despite the best intentions.

Was this the final home game for Kirk Muller? The coach was dealt a bad hand from the beginning and has played it as well as he could. There was some understandable on-the-job learning, but there’s no question the Hurricanes’ younger players have collectively improved.

The problem, of course, has been the unwillingness or failure of the Hurricanes’ best players to play the way Muller wants them – needs them – to play. But it’s easier to change the coach than it is to change them. Throw in the likelihood of a new general manager, and Muller may not get the second chance he probably earned this season.

Was this the final home game for Cam Ward? If it was, he goes out the way he came in, wearing a baseball cap on the bench. As a rookie, choosing which hat to wear was his biggest responsibility when the playoffs began in 2006. They ended with Ward lifting the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Eight years later, Anton Khudobin is set to open next season as the starter and Ward is a $6.3 million anchor, unquestionably talented but unavoidably injury-prone and inconsistent. No matter who the general manager is, moving Ward and his contract will be a top priority this summer.

Was this the final home game for Eric Staal? His devotion to team and community is unquestioned, yet the growing current of fan anger over his performances and perceived failures of leadership as captain – having presided over all five seasons of this playoff drought – makes the once-unthinkable thinkable.

His salary ranks among the top five in the entire NHL, but he hasn’t played at that elite level. Despite leading the Hurricanes in scoring with a modest 58 points, he hasn’t scored a single game-winning goal. It would be best for everyone involved if Staal can get the fans back on his side.

“Whether people think that or not, I’m out there competing as hard as I can, regardless of the situation,” Staal said. “That’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

Was this the final home game for thousands of weary season-ticket holders? Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos admitted, in his baffling FS Carolinas interview on Tuesday, that renewals aren’t going well. The coaches and players were apparently not the only ones unsure whether they’ll be back next fall.

There was a time when Canes-Caps in April invariably mattered. All it meant Thursday was the end is near. The only question was for whom.

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

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