“The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.” – Chinese Proverb
Much like anything worthwhile, building a successful hockey franchise is a process.
Winning in the NHL takes more than money and intellect; it requires patience, perseverance, and resolve. Sometimes, the best situations emerge from periods of misery and dejection. Such is the case for the Carolina Hurricanes.
An organization that is used to winning, the ‘Canes faced their fair share of adversity during the 2009-10 campaign. The team dug themselves into a deep hole from the start, opening the season with a 2-12-4 record. During this horrific stretch, General Manager Jim Rutherford and coach Paul Maurice saw their team stumble through a 14 game winless streak. By the middle of November, the Hurricanes were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and seemed to hit rock bottom.
On January 20th, Carolina announced that they would name superstar Eric Staal as their new captain, removing veteran Rod Brind’Amour from his long-tenured leadership position.
Brind’Amour, the only captain to win a Stanley Cup in franchise history, had been one of the finest leaders in the National Hockey League over the last decade. Unfortunately, as he grew older, the Ontario native’s play deteriorated. No longer able to lead by example, the Hurricane’s brass felt as if it was time for change.
One step backwards, two steps forward
Sometimes, one has to take a step back to reach their ultimate goal.
While the Hurricanes early troubles prevented them from making the playoffs last year, the failures of October and November transitioned into noticeable improvement in the last three months of the regular season. It was a difficult decision to demote the man who led the Hurricanes to their only Stanley Cup victory, but it was a move that had to be made.
Right before the Olympic break, the hockey world began to see Carolina transform from a bottom-dweller to the Hurricanes we all grew accustomed to. From the day that Staal was named captain, everything in Raleigh began to change, starting with the very next game.
As Staal took the ice for the first time as team captain, he knew what was expected of him.
Since joining the ‘Canes, the left-handed center has been one of the premier forwards in the league. With the team in such turmoil, it was time for him to take over the franchise that drafted him second overall in 2003. With 45 seconds remaining in the first game under new captaincy, Staal buried an empty net goal to complete a hat trick, as Carolina defeated Atlanta 5-2.
That is leading by example.
Turning the page
When Staal was named captain, team management made it clear that a brand new chapter of Hurricanes hockey was beginning. Sometimes, a change of culture can go a long way towards success.
Professional hockey players are human beings, after all. They have feelings just like the rest of us. They get fatigued, distraught, and worn down. When a team isn’t playing well, it becomes tough to fight through emotional and physical wear and tear and continue to work hard. It is very possible that this move single-handedly changed the fortunes of the entire franchise, and the numbers back that statement up.
From the start of last season through January 20th, the Hurricanes were 14-24-7, which left them near the bottom of the NHL standings. The Brind’Amour-led team was playing at a 0.729 point/game pace, which would amount to 59 points over the course of a full season. Based on how the other 29 teams finished, this rate would have made Carolina the worst team in the entire league.
From January 21st to the end of the season, the Hurricanes went 21-13-3. That record gave Carolina a 1.216 point/game pace, which amounts to 99 points over the course of a full season. That rate would have been good enough for fourth place in the Eastern conference.
While there are many factors that control the outcome of a hockey game, the statistics point to the change in captaincy as the key for Carolina.
What does the future hold?
As autumn approaches, so does hockey. The Staal-led ‘Canes go into the 2010-11 campaign with a clean slate and high hopes. The late season success the team exhibited last year was very promising, but with a fresh start, the Hurricanes have to show the world that they can compete over the course of 82 games.
In the end, uncertainty is what makes sports so exciting. Can the Hurricanes keep up their late season pace? Will they fall flat on their faces? Only time will tell, but if Carolina can continue to play the way they did towards the end of last year, they will be a force to be reckoned with.