Eric Staal was asked a standard you’ve-been-eliminated question about whether playing well now, when it doesn’t matter, can carry over to next season. He instinctively replied that it doesn’t, before reconsidering and providing a standard hockey answer. Nothing unusual there.
The only thing notable about that late-season interaction was how much practice Staal has had at it. For the sixth time in seven seasons since winning the Stanley Cup, for the eighth time in his 10-season career, Staal faces another long summer.
“Too many years in a row, no question,” Staal said. “But I believe wholeheartedly we can get the places we want to go and where we want to be. I feel like we’re in a better situation now than, say, two or three years ago when we missed the playoffs by one game. I still think that we’ve got some excellent pieces and we’re going the right direction where we can be extremely successful for a long period of time. It’s a matter of doing it.”
Excellent pieces, yes, but not enough of them. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done between now and September to make this team competitive again.
No one knows that better than Tim Gleason, who has participated in the playoffs only once in his seven seasons with the team.
“We’ve had good teams. We’ve come up short,” Gleason said. “It’s frustrating. When you have six-month-long summers, it’s frustrating. You do what you can, play as hard as you can during the year – that’s all you can do at the end of the day, play as hard as you can and do the job that you’re told to do. Yeah, it’s been frustrating. Six out of the seven years, kind of the same outcome.”
The Hurricanes are paying too much money to too many forwards who can’t score and too many defensemen who can’t defend. There’s legitimate top-line talent at forward but not enough depth or veteran experience; the team’s struggles after Cam Ward was injured suggest investing in the backup goalie position; beyond Justin Faulk, the Hurricanes may have the worst defensive corps in the entire NHL.
Faulk is a potential future Norris Trophy candidate, but Joni Pitkanen remains as much a mystery as he was when he got here. Gleason hasn’t been able to get back to the elite level he played at when he made the U.S. Olympic team in 2010. Jay Harrison and Bobby Sanguinetti are useful depth players who struggle when asked to play a bigger role. Jamie McBain’s development has stalled, leading the Hurricanes to openly shop him at the trade deadline.
Joe Corvo and Marc-Andre Bergeron are free agents, but the makeover can’t end there. It may be time for the Hurricanes to cut their losses with Pitkanen – assuming he recovers from his gruesome heel injury enough to be marketable – and it’s certainly time to seriously invest in defense for the first time since they moved to North Carolina.
“We’ve been strong in areas, but obviously not strong enough,” Staal said. “I feel like now, with the commitment ownership has made and the direction we’re headed, we’re going the right way. Hopefully when we get on that right path it’s going to be a sustainable path for a long period of time.”
So while Staal expressed confidence in the pieces the Hurricanes have in place, the understood context is that they need many more of them, especially on defense, to avoid a repeat performance.