Carolina Hurricanes

Canes preview: New coach Bill Peters faces challenges as he tries to lead team back to playoffs

Coach Bill Peters directs a drill during the Carolina Hurricanes’ first practice in September. Peters hopes to lead the Canes back to the playoffs with better organization, better structure and a stronger overall team game.
Coach Bill Peters directs a drill during the Carolina Hurricanes’ first practice in September. Peters hopes to lead the Canes back to the playoffs with better organization, better structure and a stronger overall team game. cseward@newsobserver.com

Bill Peters’ practice whistle dates to the 1980s and he’s not about to change to a more modern model, which the Carolina Hurricanes coach said is too shrill.

“Mine does have a little hole in the side and air blows out,” he said, smiling. “I need to get it fixed, so if anyone knows anything about soldering, get them down to PNC Arena.”

As Peters begins his first season as an NHL head coach, he has more holes to be fixed, and they’re not small ones. They’re in his lineup, where center Jordan Staal will be sidelined three to four months with a broken leg and winger Jeff Skinner is out indefinitely with a concussion.

Peters, 49, said he’s not sure if the doctors’ time frame means it will be that long before Staal returns, or that long until Staal’s right leg is healed to the point he can begin skating again.

“I haven’t asked that question,” he said. “I’m probably afraid to ask that question.”

Add in the Skinner injury and there could be a big fear factor. But Peters isn’t afraid of what’s in front of him. He has waited his turn to be a head coach at hockey’s highest level, accepted the task of getting the Hurricanes back in the Stanley Cup playoffs after a five-year absence and won’t back away from it.

The firing of Kirk Muller as coach and the hiring of Peters during June was the Canes’ biggest offseason move. Jim Rutherford retiring as general manager was expected. Ron Francis being promoted to GM, succeeding Rutherford, was expected.

As for the team, for the players, the cast remains basically the same. There were no major signings or acquisitions, no big trades to shake up a team that was 36-35-11 and seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division last season. For some, that was surprising.

A number of Canes fans have lost patience. Some balked at renewing season tickets, believing more changes should have been made.

Adding to the unrest was team owner Peter Karmanos Jr. recently saying he might consider selling the team.

Into all of that has stepped Peters, who was handed the reins to the Hurricanes with a three-year contract and a mandate of getting Carolina back in the the playoffs.

“I’m a huge Bill Peters fan and I think Bill Peters will do a fantastic job with an undermanned roster,” NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire said. “But this is really a remake, especially with Jordan Staal out three to four months. The situation he’s facing, I don’t know there’s enough firepower there.”

‘A scary play’

Some hockey publications, including The Hockey News, had the Canes finishing last in the Metropolitan – before the injuries to Staal and Skinner.

Peters disagrees but realizes things changed Sept. 23 in Buffalo, in the Canes’ second exhibition. Staal and the Sabres’ Josh Gorges were fighting for the puck in front of the Buffalo bench, became entangled and fell awkwardly to the ice.

Gorges called it a “scary play.” He said he heard Staal scream and knew something was wrong, badly wrong. Tough guys like Staal, Gorges said, don’t stay down on the ice. But Staal did.

After the game, Peters checked in on Staal. One look was enough.

“You could tell how frustrating it was for him, seeing him in Buffalo on the table,” Peters said. “You knew it wasn’t good.”

Staal is the Canes’ biggest player and the center asked to check the other team’s best line. He was used on the power play and penalty kill. He served as an alternate captain.

As Francis said, “It’s not easy to replace a 6-foot-4, 237-pound guy who has less than 8 percent body fat and who plays 20-some minutes a night for you in a lot of situations.”

Skinner then was hurt Sunday, in the Canes’ final preseason game. He took an elbow to the face from defenseman Matt Niskanen of the Washington Capitals. Just like that the Canes lost their top goal scorer from last season.

But it’s not as if Peters went home and angrily put his fist through a wall. That doesn’t appear to be his nature, although there is some fire behind those eyes.

He said every team must deal with a a few “lightning bolts,” although with the caveat he has never dealt with such key injuries during preseason. All a team can do, he said, is persevere.

“Through adversity comes opportunity,” Peters said. “Jordan was going to be a big piece of our team and he’s going to be a big piece when he gets back. I look at it as, hey, we’re not starting with him but when we get him back it’s like making a trade for an NHL All-Star. Until then we have to make sure we’re playing well and playing a good solid team game and winning close games.”

High stakes

A lot could be riding on it – in the NHL standings and financially.

Team President Don Waddell said ticket sales and securing sponsorships have been a tough go. The Canes could sell out PNC Arena for the season opener Friday against the New York Islanders – about 2,500 yard signs promoting “10-10-14” were made, Waddell said – but that’s just one game.

The Canes’ average home attendance last season was 15,484 for a building that holds 18,680. There were two sellouts, the first in the opener against the Detroit Red Wings.

That was a decline of more than 2,000 tickets a game from the average of 17,558 in 2013, a lockout-shortened season when there were 24 home games. The Canes averaged 16,042 at home in 2011-12.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Waddell said. “If the team can get off to a good start, that will be a big plus. We’ve missed the playoffs the past five years. You can have a lot of good things happen but the bottom line is people want to come and see a good product.

“We have to give hope. We have to provide hope.”

Peters hopes to do that with better organization, better structure and a strong overall team game that produces wins. Improve a power play that was 28th in the league last season. Improve the team’s play at home. Help the younger players – Skinner, Elias Lindholm, Justin Faulk – take the next step in their development.

“We have a fan base that wants to be in the playoffs and we do, too,” Francis said. “It’s frustrating we haven’t made it in five years. On the other hand, we’re trying to build a solid foundation.”

Final clout

Peters was an assistant for three years on Mike Babcock’s coaching staff with the Red Wings before coming to Carolina, but he said the adjustment to running a team has been easy enough.

“When you meet one-on-one as an assistant coach, you don’t have that final clout and final say,” he said. “Now, as a head coach, you do.”

Practices have been up-tempo, brisk. Peters makes his points quickly and moves on, expecting the players to learn and keep up. The only malfunction, it seems, is that balky whistle that needs a repair.

“Obviously he’s very well-prepared and has a plan that he wants to reinforce,” goaltender Cam Ward said. “It’s up to the players to execute that plan and digest it and work at it.

“He’s also very positive. You can see him fly around in practice. He’s complimenting his players, wants to bring the best out of his players. That’s exciting.”

“Exciting” is what Canes fans want. It’s what management wants. Everyone wants to win and win now.

“Losing is a disease,” Peters said. “It’s unacceptable. We don’t want it in our culture.”

Do the Hurricanes under Peters have enough to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009? No one can say for sure.

“We’ve seen teams overachieve before, find lightning in a bottle,” NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk said.

There’s always that hope.

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