After going eight games without a point and struggling through the first month of the NHL season, the Carolina Hurricanes finally did what long needed to be done with Victor Rask. They sent their alleged second-line center to the press box to watch.
Rask was a healthy scratch for Sunday's game against the New York Islanders, and the only uncertainty about it was what took so long. The Hurricanes certainly didn’t miss him, scoring twice at even strength and twice on the power play in a 4-2 win with Elias Lindholm moving to center to replace Rask -- and scoring.
Even if it should have happened before – Rask has gone scoreless for eight games, has one point in the past 11 and is on pace for a 23-point season – Hurricanes coach Bill Peters' decision to bench one of the team's core players is a welcome blow to the culture of complacency that has proven so difficult to root out of the Carolina dressing room.
Rask's production declined last season after he signed that six-year, $24 million before falling off the face of the earth this season, and he finally got the embarrassing night off his performance long ago deserved.
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Rask played a season-low 11:50 in Buffalo on Saturday, failing to record a shot on goal, and at 3 p.m., two hours before Sunday's opening faceoff, Peters was asked what else he could do to get Rask going.
“We're going to look at it some more and try and find a solution to that problem that we have,” Peters said. “If we can do that, we'll become a much more balanced team and a much more dangerous team.”
He must not have liked what he saw when he looked at it. Ninety minutes later, Rask was a healthy scratch for the first time since his rookie year. And he could be watching for a while, because Peters gave no indication he was eager to work Rask back into the lineup.
What's more disturbing than Rask's lack of production is his apparent lack of interest. His first two seasons in the league, he displayed a wicked shot and incisive vision on the rush. He wasn’t the passive perimeter player he was at times last year, and all of this year.
“Does he need to be better? Yes. Does he know that? Yes. Can he be better? For sure,” Peters said. “He knows that. We believe in him and we’ll help him get better and we’ll support him and we’ll get him with the right people to make him effective.”
The Hurricanes aren't built to win with Rask as a passenger. He has to be driving a scoring line, producing, for them to be successful. And his failure to do that has been a major factor in the team's inability to take a leap forward this year. He lost his alternate captaincy amid the still-bizarre decision to go with co-captains in October and has been a complete nonfactor since, although the two hardly seem related.
On the strength of Rask's 48-point sophomore season, Hurricanes general Ron Francis signed him to a six-year, $24 million contract, believing he was getting a bargain because Rask would continue to improve. In Francis' thinking, $4 million per season would be a bargain for a player locked in as the Hurricanes' No. 2 center, and maybe even a future No. 1.
Instead, Rask regressed to a disappointing 16 goals and 45 points last season. The Hurricanes look at that kind of production from Rask wistfully now.
Maybe Rask's contract will yet be a bargain. There’s a lot of hockey left this season, and four seasons left to go after this one. Getting scratched like this could be a healthy wake-up call for a player who has so far appeared all too satisfied to collect a hefty paycheck without doing anything to earn it.
Even if not, it will send a healthy message to the rest of the dressing room that playing time has to be earned, no matter the salary – a message that, in Rask’s case, should have been sent a long time ago.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock