Luke DeCock

Hurricanes’ magic March, while fun, still fool’s gold – DeCock

The Canes' Brett Pesce (22) moves the puck against the Detroit Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg (40) at PNC Arena on March 27, 2017.
The Canes' Brett Pesce (22) moves the puck against the Detroit Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg (40) at PNC Arena on March 27, 2017. cseward@newsobserver.com

The Carolina Hurricanes were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs Tuesday night, the key word being “mathematically” because they were effectively eliminated from playoff contention months ago.

As well as they played in March – and in one stretch, they played as well as any team in franchise history, recording points in a record 13 games in a row (9-0-4) – their chance to make the playoffs came and went in January, when they had a chance to move into the eighth spot and didn’t. They instead lost five straight. Everything since has been exhibition.

And therein lies the danger. Too many times in this eight-year drought, the Hurricanes have allowed themselves to be dazzled by fool’s gold, general managers Jim Rutherford and Ron Francis both.

What happened in March was fun, and it got a few fans who had lost touch re-engaged again, and it sold a few tickets, but there are few hockey conclusions to be drawn from it.

If we’ve learned nothing else from watching the Hurricanes miss the playoffs more often than any other team since 2009 – a truly remarkable feat in a league where more than half the teams make the playoffs – it’s that this franchise has always had too many players who show up when the games don’t matter and disappear when they do.

Those are often the same players whose “strong finishes” in meaningless games earn them new contracts, only to fail under pressure the next season. And the cycle continues.

There is tremendous promise in this very young team, more than there has been in several years at this point – with the defensive tandem of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce leading the way – but it’s still lacking enough talent to compete in the very difficult Metropolitan Division. There’s no getting around it. This spring’s streak doesn’t change that. If anything, it reinforces it: The Hurricanes lost twice in 17 games in March and still couldn’t close the playoff gap. They have only one 50-point scorer and the fourth-worst goaltending, by save percentage, in the NHL.

Still, this team isn’t far away. It very easily could have ended the playoff hex this season, with a few more players and a little more leadership and grit. That makes it all the more important to make the right assessments about the roster, because whatever money there is to be spent must be spent wisely.

As long as Peter Karmanos remains the owner, the Hurricanes are never going to have the organizational resources to buy anything but the smallest margin of error – and we’re talking about spending money beyond the salary cap, on scouting and development and marketing and amenities like a real practice rink, never mind college free agents, a game the Hurricanes can’t even play with their empty wallet and shattered reputation.

So it’s especially important not to get caught up in what happened last month while forgetting how the Hurricanes ended up so far out of the playoff race in the first place. And there are any number of reasons for that: A goalie tandem that looked inadequate coming into the season and proved inadequate on the whole; a lack of physical and mental toughness during the dog days of the season; too much mid-level talent asked to do top-level jobs; and important players who were nowhere to be found at the most crucial point in the season – most notably Victor Rask, Teuvo Teravainen and, yes, Jeff Skinner, although the latter at least has a stronger body of overall work to fall back upon.

There are three games left, and after that there will be changes coming. When preparing for next season, it’s important for everyone, from Karmanos and Francis on down to the fans who found their way back into PNC Arena in March, to remember that it’s probably better to evaluate this group based on what it didn’t do when it mattered, not what it did when it didn’t. That’s the path to avoiding another meaningless March.

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

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