At this point, the best thing that can be said about the Second Mo Dynasty is that it’s over. The Carolina Hurricanes hadn’t clicked under Paul Maurice for two full seasons and they were working on a third by the time he was finally fired Monday.
If the Hurricanes had held him responsible for last spring’s collapse and hired Kirk Muller this summer, when Muller interviewed for head-coaching jobs in Dallas, Minnesota and Ottawa, maybe they wouldn’t be in this fix now.
Maurice did an excellent job fine-tuning the team that Peter Laviolette left him in December 2008, and a surprisingly good job of making adjustments on the fly in the 2009 playoffs, but given the chance to retool the team on his terms, it was back to business as usual.
The Hurricanes missed the playoffs in 2010, they missed the playoffs in 2011 and they have very little chance to make the playoffs in 2012. Maurice hasn’t taken a team he has coached for a full season to the playoffs since 2002, and that wasn’t going to change this year. The Hurricanes went into Monday’s games last in the Eastern Conference, six points out of a playoff spot but with seven teams to jump.
Admittedly, the Hurricanes are desperately short of a top-six forward and their biggest free-agent signing, Tomas Kaberle, was a long overdue healthy scratch Sunday night. But this season highlighted all of the negatives Maurice has shown as a coach and few of the positives.
Whether intentionally or as an unfortunate consequence of his coaching style, Maurice over the course of his career has stifled his most creative players. The result is all too often a lowest-common-denominator approach that seems designed to create four fourth lines, three third defensive pairings, a goalie who plays 90 percent of the time (or more) and a toothless power play. Meanwhile, underperforming veterans are always given preference over unproven young players.
Over the course of his career, Maurice has been able to squeeze unexpected contributions out of players cast off elsewhere (from Paul Coffey to Jussi Jokinen). But he got very little from Kaberle, Anthony Stewart or Alexei Ponikarovsky while giving top-line minutes to useful role players like Chad LaRose and Jiri Tlusty who played hard but didn’t produce.
It hasn’t worked in Carolina since 2002, it didn’t work in Toronto and it didn’t work when given a second chance here -- a chance he never would have gotten anywhere else, and only got because of his friendship with owner Peter Karmanos and general manager Jim Rutherford.
How many millions has that friendship cost the franchise now?
History offers some solace. The last time Rutherford went outside the organization, he brought in Peter Laviolette, who had the 2003-04 season to assess the team. In his first full season, after the lockout hit the reset button on the league, the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. The combination of a new financial system and a new voice in an insular organization pushed the Hurricanes to a new level. (The arrival of Marshall Johnston that season as director of pro scouting shouldn’t be underestimated either.)
And hey, guess what, the NHL’s labor deal expires again after this season, which means the Hurricanes should start -- in Year 1 at least -- on roughly level terms with the rest of the league. (Karmanos’ self-imposed austerity measures have left them with the fourth-smallest payroll this season.) Muller should go into next season with a more competitive roster whether there’s time lost to a lockout or not.
For now, Muller faces a difficult task. Just to get to 92 points this season and give themselves a chance to make the playoffs, the Hurricanes will have to go roughly 32-17-8 the rest of the way. According to the website sportsclubstats.com, there’s a 2.1 percent chance of that.
Which raises the question: With this team struggling mightily for a month, what took so long to make this change? (Meanwhile, fan interest turned to apathy, tickets went unsold, season tickets went unused, and the foundation built in 2002, 2006 and 2009 was chipped away, little by little, with each dishearting loss.) Only Karmanos and Rutherford know the answer.
Let’s just hope, whenever Muller’s reign comes to an end, whether that’s sooner or later, they don’t give in to the compulsion to reboot Mo 3.0. They can’t afford it. Neither can this franchise.