Paul Maurice getting fired got pushed to the backburner during the coaching-firing-spree that took place last week. With the higher profile Bruce Boudreau getting axed as well, Maurice was a bit of an after thought. In truth, neither firing was truly shocking. Both teams were struggling, and both coaches had been identified as potential hot seat candidates. However, because the expectations on Boudreau were greater, and his relationship with league superstar Alexander Ovechkin was growing increasingly strained, his was the more interesting story.
A coaching change might light a fire under ‘The Great 8’. He might reverse his subpar season and start lighting the lamp like crazy again under the tutelage of Dale Hunter. No one is going to think George McPhee is a genious if the situation unfolds that way. It hasn’t to date, but it may yet. At the end of the day though, Hunter is working with top notch talent. His job is to come in and be a new voice. All he has to do is make great players play well. While the final results expected are extraordinary – nothing less than the Stanley Cup -the immediate task at hand is not a difficult one.
The challenge placed before Kirk Muller on the other hand, is an enormous undertaking. While Dale Hunter will get the privelege of motivating one of the league’s brightest stars, Muller will take over for Maurice in trying to make Chad LaRose and Anthony Stewart look like legitimate top line forwards. For me, this makes the firing of Maurice a little harder to swallow, and a little harder to understand than the situation in Washington. As the old saying goes, ‘you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.’
So if Kirk Muller can’t spin gold out of straw with the roster he’s inherited, who will be on the chopping block next in Carolina? Popular consensus is that it will be mid-priced secondary talents like Jussi Jokinen or Tuomo Ruutu. It’s true, these players have under-performed this season, and they aren’t exactly cheap. However, even if you deal guys like this for draft picks, you still have to replace them – and believe it or not, quality secondary scoring doesn’t grow on trees. Last season the pair put up a combined 38 goals and 109 points – which makes them guys who are appropriately paid, if not underpaid, compared to their peers. Ultimately, moving guys like this is going to be a lateral move at best.
No, if more changes need to come, there is one massive name, and one massive salary who will be next to face the music. It’s almost taboo among NHL fans and media to say anything negative about him, but it may finally be time to turn some of the blame towards the captain, Eric Staal. With a contract that will see Staal paid north of 9 million in the coming years, his performance simply hasn’t been good enough. At this point, with Skinner in the fold and a deep draft on the horizon, now is unquestionably the time for the Hurricanes to explore trading their franchsie center.
Not convinced? Well, here are 5 reasons that it’s time for Carolina to move on:
1.) The Expansion Days Are Over
When an NHL franchise first opens up in a new market, it is important that they have a star to build around – especially in the United States. Expansion teams are destined to start off with multiple losing seasons. Fans need to have a reason to come see the games, and so the franchise needs to provide them with a player who is worth the price of admission.
The days of Eric Staal being the guy who fans come to see no matter what kind of product is on the ice with him, are long over and done with. Staal is not the draw he once was. The fans in Carolina have come to expect more than a single player providing excitement, but not results; hope, but not a playoff berth.
2.) The Model Just Doesn’t Work Any More
Since the Canes won the cup in 2006, Rutherford has essentially just done a reload every season. This was made possible because Eric Staal’s salary was about half of what it is now. As a result, the team had an extra 4-5 million dollars to play with to add to their forward ranks and improve the quality of the roster. Instead of Ponikarovsky, the Canes might have been able to pick up Tomas Fleischmann. Instead of Anthony Stewart, the team might have been in on Max Talbot. Instead of Chad LaRose, they might have been able to retain Erik Cole. Now though, Staal’s enormous wage means that cuts have to come from all over the roster. As a result, a single mistake contract (in this case, Kaberle appears to be money poorly spent), will likely make the difference between the team being competitive or not.
The model of reloading around Staal and Ward didn’t even work consistently when the cap was 20 million dollars lower and the team wasn’t being out pay-rolled, so-t0-speak, by far richer clubs. Now the Canes find themselves being uncomfortable spending to the cap floor, and bleeding money as the season drags on. All the while, the fanbase dwindles and the arena is increasingly empty.
3.) The Canes Have Just Joined (Arguably) the Deepest Conference in the League
With the new playoff format, the Hurricanes seem like they have a pretty good chance of making the cut on a semi-annual basis. At first glance, it seems like beating out just three other clubs would be a lot easier than the eight team jumble the league currently operates with. However, the teams the Canes will be competing with not only have the game’s best players, but also have no trouble spending (at least) 20 million dollars more on player salaries per season.
Eric Staal is a great player, but he’s just one man. All of the top teams in this new Conference have at least two stars who even bigger than Staal. They also have the money to surround these players with a strong supporting cast. Are the Hurricanes realistically going to knock out Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins? No. Are they going to match-up favorably with the high-powered Flyers, led by league leading scorer Claude Giroux and all-star cast of high draft picks just waiting to explode? Not likely. What about Alex Ovechkin and the Caps? Maybe. They do look mortal right now, but realistically, this club is too good to be contained much longer. That just leaves the New York Rangers, who right now sit perched near the top of their conference. Even the Islanders are better prepared for the future than the Hurricanes, having stock-piled several lottery selections.
If the Canes can’t see much success in the current seeding system, they will have an even harder time with the new one. The playoffs just went from unrealistic to near-impossible. Staal’s exile could provide the kind of return that sets them up to counter this change of circumstances sooner rather than later.
4.) Staal’s Skill Level Makes Lottery Picks Unlikely
Eric Staal has a Mats Sundin-esque ability to make his team respectable almost entirely on his own. The team is way down the standings chart right now, but I think we’ve all read this story before. At some point, Staal will surge and this team will shoot back up that list. They might even draw some talks about miracle runs and longshot odds to make the playoffs after all. In the end though, all this will achieve is a mid-round draft pick coming to Carolina instead of a lottery area pick. At this point, Eric Staal could be the difference between Nail Yakupov (46 points in 23 games this season) and Brendan Gaunce (32 points in 28 games this season).
The Canes know what they’re doing at the draft. They stole Skinner at 7th overall, but they won’t be able to do that every year. At some point, their fan base is going to regret Staal providing them with a continued sense of false hope in late March only to cost them drafting a star in late June.
5.) The Future is Now
Jeff Skinner has taken over the scoring lead and the role of being the face of the franchise. He’s only 19 years old, and he’s going to be fairly cheap for the foreseeable future. Trading Staal potentially gives the Canes the opportunity to surround Skinner with 2-3 similarly aged, skilled, and priced players (via the combination of the return on Staal and the presumably high draft pick they would make use of next June). That’s a model that could work for the Canes for a long time. More than that, as the old hockey expression goes, ‘teams that grow together, win together.’
It’s time to try something new in Carolina….