Why have the Hurricanes become an unnatural disaster?

Greg Wyshynski

Under normal circumstances, yesterday's 5-1 defeat to the San Jose Sharks would have been an understandable loss to a good hockey team, no matter how badly the Carolina Hurricanes looked at times.

But going from an Eastern Conference finalist to a team one Toronto Maple Leafs win away from being last in the NHL after one month of action is anything but normal. It's damn peculiar, in fact; especially when everyone from local media to Coach Paul Maurice to the players themselves are at a complete loss for a proper diagnosis:

Wasn't this a team touted in preseason as deep and talented enough to make a Stanley Cup run? Carolina (2-8-3) stands 14th in the NHL's Eastern Conference and has the fewest points (seven) after 13 games of any team in the franchise's NHL history.

"It's not any one consistent thing through the bunch of games," Maurice said. "It's a different fire each day."

In the nine-game losing streak, the Canes have lost in a shootout and in overtime. They have been outscored 38-17, with the disturbing tendency to allow one goal, then quickly give up another. "Sometimes, it would be easy if you could say it's just this thing or that thing, and then fix it," Brind'Amour, the team captain, said. "The frustrating thing about the streak is we've had games where we've outplayed the opponent and played well."

So what ails the Canes, and is there any fixing them?

Some of the issues this season:

The Hangover: No, not the cool parts where the guys are having the time of their lives in Vegas. The Hurricanes are like that other part of the movie, where a naked Ken Jeong leaps out of the trunk of the car and onto Bradley Cooper's face.

Seriously, though: We're talking about a team that exceeded expectations last season, received more than a few pundits' predictions for Stanley Cup contention in the preseason, and then saw this thing snowball into a disaster out of the gate. Fighting their own issues along with the weight of those expectations must be exhausting.

But beyond that is a reality check: Some Hurricanes played simply played some of the best hockey of their career last season, and haven't come close to that level this season. And yes, we're looking at you, Chad LaRose(notes).

The Goaltending: It's easy to forget that Cam Ward's(notes) outstanding season in 2008-09 (39 wins, 2.44 GAA) came thanks to the defensive tweaks Maurice made after he was hired during the season. The Hurricanes were better in front of Ward, the goalie gained confidence and was lights-out for the duration of the season and into the postseason.

Now? His confidence is shot and his stats have ballooned (3.07 GAA, .900 save percentage). He's playing in back of a defense that has more minuses than a thermometer at the Russian Vostok Station, and it's clear that Maurice believes commitment to defense is an issue:

"I just thought our close-quarter fight wasn't good enough," Maurice said. "It's not with this group of men, and it's not a matter of them not wanting to be in it. They just position themselves physically, and mentally, with the idea 'I'm going to strip this puck and go the other way and break this thing open, and then I can feel good about myself.'

"We have to respect the other team more. There are times when the best you can do for your hockey club is put somebody on their butt, and we have to be prepared to do that."

Yes, there need to be more bodies on butts. This is clear.

Eric Staal(notes): Missing Erik Cole(notes) for 10 games no doubt affected Staal, who is off to just a putrid start (3 goals, 2 assists in 13 games). But after he left the Sharks game with an upper body injury, more than a few observers have wondered if Staal isn't battling through some other ailments that are hindering his play. As he goes, so go the Canes as currently constructed; and a star player with a .056 shooting percentage is one hurting his team.

The Coaching: Is Maurice to blame? The Mo magic from last season's run is invisible this season, as the team looks disorganized and ineffective. How much of that falls on the coach? Example: As Bob from Canes Country noted yesterday, Aaron Ward(notes) and Joni Pitkanen(notes) failed on an elementary breakout pass from behind the net.

When the problems are that fundamental between two teammates, what can Maurice do to break that cycle? Besides take an aluminum bat and smash their car windows to get their attention?

The Management: OK, maybe Jim Rutherford's pimp hand -- strong as it is -- should have reached into the free agent pool for some upgrades, especially on the blue line. The return of Aaron Ward via trade (minus-8) has been a bust. The Hurricanes' team speed as always been an asset in the past, but this team has looked plodding at times. Is that a lack of motivation or a GM that's sacrificed speed for the continued presence of several veteran players?

The Special Teams: The penalty kill (81.4) is around the same level of effectiveness (80.4 last year). The power play (15.3 percent conversion rate) has taken a tumble from last season (18.7). It's the man advantage that's hurting them; consider that in the losses of 2 or fewer goal margins, the Hurricanes are 3-for-23 on the power play. (That's including an 0-for-8 against the Flyers.) When they need a PPG in a big spot, they aren't getting one.

The Fragile Psyche: Like Chip Alexander of the News & Observer pointed out in the excerpt near the start of the article, this is a team with a fractured psyche that goes from bad to worse in 5 minutes flat. Their problems are mountainous, and they have no idea how to scale them.

Are there solutions? Would kicking Paul Maurice upstairs in favor of Ron Francis kick start the team? Would trading Ray Whitney(notes) spark a rally?

Would shelving Staal for a period of time inspired the rest of the supporting cast to figure out their issues without their star on the ice? Because he's due to miss some time with the injury, snapping his consecutive games streak at 349 consecutive regular-season games.

The real problem: Time is running out. The rest of the conference is gaining points while Carolina plummets, and there's more than just a chance at the Cup on the line for this franchise, as Triangle Business Journal reports:

Unfortunately for Carolina, neither its prices nor the prior season's performance have translated into an attendance boost so far in the 2009-10 campaign. As of Oct. 25, Carolina had played four home games that drew an average of 15,629 fans - or 84 percent of capacity, according to data compiled by SportsBusiness Journal.

As of the same date a year ago, the team had played two home games that drew an average of 18,680. Carolina's average attendance in its 41 regular season home games a year ago was 16,572.

"They've seen things fall off somewhat considerably," says Tripp Mickle, a reporter who covers the NHL for SportsBusiness Journal, which is a sister publication of Triangle Business Journal.

That's bad news for a team that needs to generate a lot of revenue to offset the $51 million it will spend on player payroll this year - a $2 million boost from last season and the highest amount in the franchise's history.

As if this team needed another reason to panic.