Commentary

Crucial period ahead for Hurricanes

Updated: November 22, 2011, 7:21 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The defining moment for an NHL franchise doesn't necessarily come with the Stanley Cup in the building or in a deciding game or at the draft or on July 1.

No, the defining moment for a team often comes with everything going sideways and fans screeching for a coaching change and the losses piling up and the hopes for a playoff berth sliding quickly below the horizon.

The defining moment for the Carolina Hurricanes is now.

In the coming hours and days, every person in the organization from embattled coach Paul Maurice to snake-bit captain Eric Staal to struggling netminder Cam Ward to veteran GM Jim Rutherford will see in every mirror a reflection that will either look away in shame or stare back with clear-eyed resolve that a change in fortune is at hand.

At a recent practice, Maurice stood at center ice explaining a drill he wanted his players to perform. As the players gathered at one end of the ice, it was difficult to tell whether Maurice was a man leading a charge or a man alone.

About 14 hours earlier, his Hurricanes had appeared to hit rock bottom in Montreal, losing 4-0. They were outshot 16-4 in the first period and had just 12 shots through two. They were beaten like a rented mule and looked like a team that was expecting the worst.

The game, rightfully so, became a symbol of the team's woes, and marked the beginning of a crucial period for Maurice and the team.

[+] EnlargePaul Maurice
Andy Marlin/NHLI/Getty ImagesPaul Maurice is a fixture in the Hurricanes organization, but he knows changes are ahead if the team doesn't improve.

"Yeah, it just kind of gives you a sick feeling right now," Rutherford told ESPN.com.

As always, when a team hits the skids, it's an issue of timing. What to do, when to do it.

"It's a real crossroads here," Rutherford acknowledged.

The next week or so will be crucial in telling which way the Canes' season is going to go, Rutherford said.

He knows fans in this market want change, and specifically, they are asking for Maurice's head.

"If you don't have fans with lots of opinions, you're not in a very good market," Rutherford said.

Unlike many of his peers Rutherford, in the 18th year of his tenure with this franchise, has been tasked with not just building a team but building a market. Over the years he has planted the seeds and tended to the fan base as you would a prized garden. He knows there is no fertilizer quite like success and right now the 'Canes are anything but successful.

Monday's 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers marked the first time in over a month they have won back-to-back games and have still managed just three victories in their past 10 games. They rank 24th in goals per game and were 26th on the power play. They are also 26th in goals allowed per game.

"It's hard to just pinpoint one thing because so many things have gone wrong," Rutherford said.

So Rutherford must decide what the right course of action is not just for the coming days and weeks but long term.

"Any decisions I make now or going forward are not going to be based on what we do this week or what's happened this month," he said.

"Sure I can make change to make change, but the end result may very well be the same."

These hard days are not unique to the Carolina Hurricanes. The sleepless nights and hard questions dog all teams that start to slide off the rails in the face of high or even modest expectations. It is so in Anaheim, and you can bet it's so in Columbus and in Washington and so on. But there is something unique about the Hurricanes. The way they came into being and the manner in which they conduct their business, their DNA if you will, make them a special case.

Rutherford began working for owner Peter Karmanos shortly after retiring from the NHL in 1983. He helped establish a winning tradition at the major junior hockey level first in Windsor, Ontario, and then in the Detroit area.

He was with Karmanos when Karmanos bought the Hartford Whalers and then when they abruptly moved to Carolina after the 1996-97 season. Rutherford recently became a minority owner of the Canes.

The bond of time does not end with the owner and GM.

Rutherford hired Maurice out of junior to become an assistant in Hartford and then made him the NHL's youngest head coach at the time by installing him behind the Whalers' bench in November 1995. Since then, Rutherford has made exactly two coaching moves.

After about a thousand rumors that Maurice was toast, Rutherford fired Maurice 30 games into the 2003-04 season and replaced him with Peter Laviolette. Then, after Laviolette had delivered the team's seminal moment with a Stanley Cup win in 2006, Rutherford replaced Laviolette with Maurice 25 games into the 2008-09 season. Along the way, a plethora of former Hurricanes have embedded themselves in the organization and in the community, including Hall of Famer Ron Francis, Glen Wesley, Tom Barrasso, Rod Brind'Amour and Jeff Daniels, who coaches the team's AHL affiliate in Charlotte and who might well be the next head coach of the Canes if Maurice has to pay the price for the team's poor start.

It is more than a bit trite to suggest a team is a family, but what the Canes have achieved in terms of continuity and stability in a nontraditional market is as close to family as you're likely to find in pro sports. In short, knee jerk is not in Rutherford's vocabulary.

But neither is laissez faire.

So don't confuse a relationship with Maurice that dates back almost 20 years with being soft or incapable of making the hard decision.

"I think it's different by perception," Maurice said of the relationship between the two men during a recent interview.

[+] EnlargeStaal
Gregg Forwerck/Getty ImagesThe Canes have won just four of their past 11 games.

"But the business relationship and the friendship never cross. Never has. There's no more security in the friendship. The friendship's going to be there regardless of what happens. But this is business, and probably the reason why it's worked as well as it has is I've never confused the two, ever," Maurice said.

Rutherford doesn't, either.

"No. Absolutely not. The conversations don't get easier because you know each other," Rutherford said.

After the Canes lost Game 82 last season and missed the playoffs by two points, the expectations this season were again high for the Canes to rejoin the playoff picture after a two-year absence. The fact that those expectations haven't come close to being met has left the team reeling from top to bottom.

"You go home and think about all the things that could have happened, should have happened. There's time that you're losing sleep over this but so is everybody else. Nobody feels comfortable with this," Rutherford said.

Although the Montreal game looms large as a kind of symbol of what ails the Canes, there are a million things that go into a slide such as this. Some of it is physical; much more of it is mental.

"We've got a number of players searching for their game. And when you struggle, you get more and more players doing that," Maurice said.

A game plan is like a house. When one of the walls starts to collapse, it brings down the whole structure.

"The key to playing a good team game is that everybody understands what the first man is doing; whether he's got the puck or he doesn't have the puck, we all move off that play," Maurice said.

That's not happening much now for his team.

So many little pieces of fabric that go into a quilt of despair.

Against Buffalo on Friday evening, the Hurricanes failed to score on their first power play. Then on the Sabres' first man-advantage opportunity, Staal didn't clear the puck on an easy play, which led to a faceoff in the Canes' zone, which led to a Jason Pominville goal with 19 seconds left in the power play.

For much of the game, the Hurricanes dominated puck possession and chances but ended up with nothing to show for it.

"

Ward I think I'm frustrated just like everybody else is on this team. You don't want anybody to get to the point where you accept losing.

" -- Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward

On Sunday, they outshot Toronto 41-25 and were rewarded with two desperately needed points.

And so it goes.

Sometimes you'll read or hear that a coach has lost the room.

Did he leave it in a bar?

Did he forget it in the trunk of his car?

Is that what has happened to Maurice here in Raleigh?

Certainly if the somber tone that permeated the Canes' room in recent days is any indication, this is not a team simply waiting for the ax to fall, waiting for something to take it out of its misery, to mark a change of some kind.

Against Buffalo, for instance, the Canes turned in one of their best games of the season. They lost 1-0, but there was a sense of optimism after the debacle in Montreal that the team had at least gained some traction.

"There's no pity party here," said backup netminder Brian Boucher, who started against the Sabres. "Nobody's going to feel bad for the Carolina Hurricanes around the league. Everybody's trying to grab two points every night. You've got to look to the guy beside you and you've got to work for him. I know it sounds cliche, but that's the way it is. And it's got to start with little things like tonight. Yeah, we didn't win, we didn't score and guys are frustrated they didn't score, but I'm telling you, it was a pretty solid game."

Look at the NHL standings closely, though, and you'll see there is no column marked "moral victories." Those are for teams and players that don't have nearly enough of the real kind.

Defenseman Tim Gleason was a member of the U.S. team that lost to Staal's Canadian squad in overtime in the gold-medal game in Vancouver in 2010. He was part of the Canes team that went to the '09 conference final. Those brushes with success have made the team's play in recent weeks all that much more difficult to accept.

"It's a humbling experience," Gleason told ESPN.com. "You're almost at a loss for words in some ways. When things aren't going the way you want them to go, it's just frustration. Pure frustration."

During training camp, Rutherford talked about the need to give franchise goalie Ward a break after he faced more shots than any other NHL netminder last season. He brought in Boucher, who was a pivotal part of Philadelphia's unlikely run to the '10 Stanley Cup final, in the hopes that he would do what he did Friday.

Instead, Ward, who along with Staal represents the axis around which the Canes' fortunes orbit, has been under siege with a .904 save percentage and 3.19 goals-against average.

With one of these franchise players operating at less than top end, the team's struggles are significant. With both struggling, well, it is a recipe for disaster.

"I think I'm frustrated just like everybody else is on this team," said Ward, who earned playoff MVP honors as a rookie in '06. "You don't want anybody to get to the point where you accept losing. You've got to hate to lose. You want to try and get better and better. I'm frustrated just like everybody else."

Like all his teammates, Ward still believes in Maurice and the job he and his staff are doing.

"The coaching staff has done everything that they can to prepare us as players to do what we need to do on the ice," Ward said. "The players are the ones that put on the skates and go out there and perform, and we've got to hold ourselves accountable for the way we perform out there on the ice."

Maurice can instantly recall the outcome of his first game as a head coach.

"San Jose 7-3 or 7-4," he said.

A victory in Hartford.

"My wife and I hit the Burger King drive-through on our way as our celebration," he said. "It was the only thing open."

[+] EnlargeWard
Richard Wolowicz/Getty ImagesIt's an eminently frustrating time for Cam Ward and the Hurricanes, who sit dead last in the Southeast Division.

Since then, the evaluation of his skills has become a kind of daily process.

And there have been times in almost every season that Maurice has wondered whether his last game was, well, his last game. It was so even in 2002, when he guided the Canes to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance.

"In November, exactly the same thing [as this season]. I was not sure I was getting on that airplane," Maurice said.

And there is something about having gone down this road before that maybe helps Maurice stay the course, continue to give the right cues to his players.

"It gets easier having been through it. You have a bit of a roadmap of how to handle it," he said.

"This is the grind that you learn to survive and deal with it as a man. Deal with your players. Rally your troops. Have direct and honest conversations with players that need to have those, and make sure that when you're standing behind that bench, you show that confidence in your team and you just do it every day, night after night," Maurice said.

And here's the rub: Maurice believes not only that his team can pull out of this funk, but that it will be well positioned to thrive.

"It either kills you and you don't survive it, or you do and you get to the point as a team it gives you a chance to be not a top-five contender, but you might be able to win; you might be able to get to the final; you might be able to get to the final because you survived this," he said.

Whistling past the graveyard? Maybe, but really, until Rutherford tells him otherwise, those are the beliefs he must hold fast.

And just as we wrap up our chat with Maurice, he leaves us with this -- the very heart of the matter: Beyond the breakout patterns and the power-play schemes and the defensive zone coverage is a burning desire to keep doing it.

"The most important thing about all this, though, is I love it. I absolutely love it," Maurice said. "As crappy as today is and today's not a good day, it's a job that has an absolute challenge every day.

"That's the juice of coaching. I love it."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.