Luke DeCock

Carolina Hurricanes lose burden of playoff expectations

The Carolina Hurricanes Eric Staal, left, John-Michael Liles, center, and Jordan Staal skate.
The Carolina Hurricanes Eric Staal, left, John-Michael Liles, center, and Jordan Staal skate. cseward@newsobserver.com

After playing under the shadow of dire necessity for five years, after being told each fall the future of the franchise depends on getting back to the postseason, the Carolina Hurricanes discovered through bitter experience that missing the playoffs isn’t the end of the franchise.

From an on-ice perspective, this six-year drought is rock bottom, two general managers and three coaches later. And while the balance sheet may not look very good, the team is still here, if not as popular as it would be if it were more successful. People are still buying tickets, if not nearly as many as there would be.

Another season dawns, but the imperative has been removed. As this training camp begins, there isn’t the same pressure to make the playoffs, in part because the rebuilding process the Hurricanes are undergoing is obvious, in part because each successive year of failure has dimmed memories of what the postseason is like – an especially tragic loss here, where the gap between regular season and postseason is exponential.

The Hurricanes have discovered, by process of awful experimentation, that life will go on if they miss the playoffs again.

“That’s your goal every year, to push hard as you can to get to the playoffs,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “The reality is sometimes you’ve got younger guys, you’ve got inexperience in certain areas, it’s more difficult. At the same time, as players you come in every year expecting to perform and compete and make the playoffs. The way the league is now, the parity, it’s possible to have a team not do very well one year and make the playoffs the next year. It’s been done before.”

If expectations have receded, it’s in part because the Hurricanes’ best players have done so much to dial back what anyone expects from them. No one expects Eric Staal to score 40 goals or Jordan Staal to score 25 goals and be a Selke Trophy candidate or Cam Ward to win games single-handedly and be a Vezina Trophy contender. Not anymore. But are all three capable of that? Of course they are. And in the case of Ward and Eric Staal, perhaps playing out the final year of their contracts will bring the best out of them, after so many years with the security of the long-term deals they unquestionably earned but rarely justified.

Unfortunately for them, even if they recapture past glory, it may be too late for the Hurricanes. A few years ago, when the roster was arguably more talented and unquestionably more experienced, a career-best season from Ward or the Staals might have made the difference when the team missed the playoffs by five or eight or 10 or 11 or even 13 points. Even the absolute best from Staal and Staal and Ward and Jeff Skinner may not be enough to close a gap that ballooned to 27 points last season, even more than the last-place 2002-03 team (thanks to the silly inflation caused by three-point overtime games).

With the younger players another year older, with the injection of an elite if raw player on the blue line in Noah Hanifin, with Alex Semin banished (and while unlikely, his absence could well prove a negative; no one knows), with Ward and Eric Staal perhaps provoked to their utter best with their futures hanging in the balance, that may be enough to make the Hurricanes one of the NHL’s great turnaround stories.

“I still think we can make the playoffs. I still think we can be there,” Jordan Staal said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to get there. The noise outside hasn’t hit me as much as (inside) my own head.”

The Hurricanes did lose 27 games that were decided by one goal or an empty-net goal, so there is certainly low-hanging fruit to be plucked, especially if Ward or Eddie Lack (or both) is stellar in goal.

That’s an old story, one told every year about this time in some variation. What’s different is that no one expects it to happen, no one is counting on it to happen and it’s hard to imagine things getting much worse if it doesn’t happen.

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

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