The classic road-trip carol "Over the River and Through the Woods" has taken on a new meaning for the Carolina Hurricanes this Thanksgiving. It describes the route they'll have to take to get back to respectability in the National Hockey League.
It also might describe where authorities will be looking for coach Paul Maurice next week.
Will there be a big trade? Will Paul Maurice be fired? With my complete lack of insider information, I will go out on what I think is a pretty short limb and say to both questions: yes.
Let's take stock of the season through 19 games. The Canes have won only 6 thus far. They've not just fallen off the playoff bus; they can't see that bus' tail lights anymore. Their Vezina-worthy goaltender sees more shots per night than bartenders do. Their big free-agent pickup plays defense as soft as the marshmallow topping on a sweet potato casserole. And their captain, who once racked up 100 points in a season, is reportedly breaking bread with Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, and D.B. Cooper this holiday.
More tellingly, the nature of Carolina's losses this season has changed over time. One of their best games in the early going was an overtime loss to Washington in which the Canes looked like the high-pressure forechecking team that tore up the conference down the stretch last season. But during their current skid, they've lost 6 of 7 games, all but one by multiple goals. They've appeared disorganized, distraught, and disinterested.
What happened to this team? What is going on? And what should be done about it?
Rumors are swirling and conversation is hot about imminent trades and Maurice's future. Pierre LeBrun and Craig Custance debated on ESPN.com what might happen first in Carolina: a player trade or a coach firing (they're betting trade). Darren Dreger reported in his column on TSN.ca that general manager Jim Rutherford is looking for a scoring forward and might be willing to move Bryan Allen (I dunno.. maybe?) or Tomas Kaberle (yes, please, YES!) in return. Unless his play changes, Kaberle will henceforth be referred to on this blog as The Pillowcase.
Johnette Howard even devoted an investigative feature on ESPN.com trying to link Eric Staal's brutal slump to his brutal hit last February on his brother Marc Staal, an All-Star defender for the New York Rangers. Marc is not close to returning from the concussion that he sustained from that hit.
Closer to home, Brian LeBlanc pried some suppositions out of Kurt Dusterberg in a Canes Country Radio blogpost about who might be traded, how likely Maurice is to be fired, and who might replace him, something that Lee Phillips briefed us about the next day on the blog.
LeBlanc and Dusterberg noted that Tuomo Ruutu, Tim Gleason, and Bryan Allen have contracts that expire at the end of this season, a fact that is usually attractive to trade partners. They also pointed out that Ruutu has been one of the few bright spots for the team thus far, playing on a consistently productive line with Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Skinner and regaining the physical edge that distinguishes him among Carolina's fairly passive forwards. He probably wouldn't be moved. Between the defenders they mention, they figure Gleason would garner more in return than Allen.
It's so hard to guess about trade possibilities that it borders on irresponsible for reporters to do it, but one name they completely avoid mentioning with respect to trades is Staal. His reputation around the league remains impeccable despite a start that has reporters looking for more extreme adjectives than "abysmal" to describe it. Staal has 4 goals and 4 assists in 19 games, and is -18 over that span. That projects to 35 points and -78—numbers that announcers repeatedly flashed onscreen during the Canes' 4-0 loss in Montreal in a Wednesday game televised nationally in Canada. Now that Jeff Skinner has shown that his Calder-winning rookie season was no aberration, might it be time to consider trading the captain? He's currently two years into a seven-year, $57.75 million deal. Not an easy contract to move.
LeBlanc and Dusterberg also felt that a coach firing wasn't in the immediate cards, although current Charlotte Checkers coach Jeff Daniels or current Canes assistant Dave Lewis seemed likely candidates for a promotion should Maurice get sacked. Looking down Phillips' listing of coaches out there, one very interesting possibility stands out: Marc Crawford.
First, some history: Rutherford has fired Maurice mid-season before. Sacked in 2003 just 20 games into a mediocre start, Maurice saw hard-nosed Peter Laviolette take the reins and drive the franchise to its only Stanley Cup in 2006. The current situation matches almost exactly, so no one should be surprised if Rutherford pulled the trigger on a disciplinarian to jar this team back to life.
Crawford has a cup win on his resume, taking Colorado to the promised land the year after they moved from Quebec. Then he assumed bench control in Vancouver and gradually brought the team from doormat to cup-contender before wearing out his welcome. He's currently unemployed.
And his style is a good fit here. Carolina has young, quick players. Crawford's up-tempo, Western Conference style could make this team better overnight. Maurice's system of defensive responsibility can lead to an exciting forechecking and counterattacking game, but the players seem to have gone deaf to it. Hemmed in their own zone for large stretches, players get the puck out and dump it into the other team's end just to change lines. By the time they change, the new guys are hemmed in again. It's painful to watch.
Judging from Carolina's last shutout loss in Montreal, in which the team simply didn't try very hard to win, it's easy to make the argument that Maurice has lost the team. The players know how to play his system. But they're not doing it. And although all hockey systems are, frankly, pretty similar, Crawford or some other outside coach could probably get more of a response from this team than Maurice is getting right now.
It's not fun to say it, but coach Mo likely has to go.