They finished the 2011-12 season in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, 10 points behind the eighth-place Senators. On Nov. 28, 2011, they sacked their two-time coach. Both the franchise goalie and the captain slipped from previous performances. And just two months into a three-year, $12.75 million payday - in hindsight, a joke of a contract that should have been signed on April Fool’s Day - ex-Bruin Tomas Kaberle was sent packing to Montreal.
For all that, the Hurricanes are in a good spot headed into 2012-13.
“Everybody is pretty optimistic,’’ said Ron Francis, Carolina’s vice president of hockey operations. “If you look at the season we had last year, we had a tough start. We dug ourselves a pretty good hole. We couldn’t overcome it.
“We made a coaching change, and there was more compete and determination in the way guys played. We feel like we’ve got a real strong core. We’ve got real good players in the right places. It’s a matter of making the right additions to that core to get ourselves over the hump.’’
The turnaround started upon the firing of coach Paul Maurice and the hiring of former Montreal assistant Kirk Muller. Of course, Muller couldn’t perform magic right away. The Hurricanes continued to sputter through the rest of 2011.
Come January, however, they found their rhythm. From Jan. 1 until the end of the regular season, the Hurricanes submitted a 20-12-10 record. Had they performed throughout the season at that pace, they would have had 97 points, which would have put them atop the Southeast Division.
“It took time for guys to get used to and adjust to,’’ Francis said of Muller’s approach. “Once guys understood it and his coaching style, it really showed in the last half of the year.
“He was holding guys accountable. He wanted guys to work and compete. We were a much more consistent team. That was good. I thought our players played with a lot of determination, compete, and want every night.’’
Muller had to flush a teamwide malaise that threatened to torpedo Cam Ward and Eric Staal.
In 2006, Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Hurricanes nabbed the Stanley Cup. Through the first two months of 2011-12, he couldn’t even lift his save percentage above .900.
Staal has the fourth-highest annual cap hit ($8.25 million) in the NHL after Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin. But early in the season, Staal’s paycheck stood in contrast to his quiet game.
By season’s end, the old Ward was back. He finished the year with a 30-23-13 record, a 2.74 goals-against average, and a .915 save percentage.
More important, Staal rediscovered his dominating presence, becoming a point-per-game player for the second half. In his last 43 games, Staal had 17 goals and 33 assists for 50 points.
At 27, Staal should be entering the sweet spot of his career.
“We never felt this wasn’t an elite player,’’ Francis said. “If anything, we have to surround him with guys that can help to make him even better. That’s an area we’ll look to work on.
“As players go through different stages of their careers, they come into that area where they’re real comfortable with who they are and what they can do.
“He went through a lot of things as a young player, trying to know what type of game he has. We threw the captaincy on him at a young age. He had to learn that. It’s a process.
“At the end of the day, he’s not only a great player but a great person. There’s higher ground for Eric Staal to reach.’’
As poorly as Jim Rutherford projected Kaberle’s value, the Carolina general manager was quick to shed the defenseman’s salary. Rutherford and his management group determined that Tuomo Ruutu and Tim Gleason, who would have become unrestricted free agents July 1, were more valuable under contract than being used as trade chips.
Ruutu and Gleason are hard-nosed, in-your-face battlers. The Bruins would have been among the numerous suitors had either or both been available prior to the deadline. Had they said goodbye to Ruutu and Gleason, the Hurricanes would have had prospects, picks, and cap space heading into this month’s draft and the opening of free agency.
But ready-to-play replacements would have been hard to find. Ruutu (four years, $19 million, according to capgeek.com) and Gleason (four years, $16 million) will serve as the second tier of veteran talent after Staal and Ward.
“It’s important for us, in a smaller market, to be careful,’’ Francis said. “The season before, we tried to re-sign Erik Cole. We couldn’t get it done. We were left with a hole we had to fill.
“There were a lot of factors that fit into re-signing those guys. They’re good players. They fit with our team. We’re fortunate they wanted to be here and were willing to work with us.’’
The Hurricanes need a strong leadership group for their improving youngsters. In that regard, their position of strength has been the blue line, which is monitored by former Bruins coach Dave Lewis. On May 21, the offensive-minded Jamie McBain signed a two-year, $3.6 million extension. The 24-year-old McBain led Carolina defensemen last year with 27 points.
An even brighter future star could be Justin Faulk. The Hurricanes picked Faulk 37th overall in the 2010 draft. He needed only one season at Minnesota-Duluth before signing.
As a first-year pro, Faulk appeared in only 12 games for Charlotte, Carolina’s AHL affiliate, before getting the call to head east to Raleigh. In 66 NHL games, Faulk had 8 goals and 14 assists. The most impressive statistic was Faulk’s 22:50 of ice time per game, highest on the roster.
Faulk, who turned 20 just last month, was Team USA’s highest-scoring defenseman (4-4-8) at the World Championships.
“He’s a defenseman we’re extremely excited about,’’ Francis said. “He’s a young kid. It’s tough to play at this age as a young kid, especially being 19 and especially being a defenseman at this level.
“He was asked to play big minutes in all situations against the other teams’ best on most nights. He really looked extremely comfortable. More and more people will see how special this kid is.’’
Ownership has given Rutherford, Francis, and the hockey operations team approval to land additional pieces. The team needs more up-front punch. If they get it, watch out for the former Hartford franchise.
Trades may be on draft menu
The consensus on the Class of 2012 is that it is a draft of one: Nail Yakupov, a lock to be the first overall pick next Friday at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center.
After that, the talent drops off.
“There’s a second tier of seven or eight guys through No. 8 or 9,’’ said Kyle Woodlief, chief scout for the Red Line Report. “Then it drops down to the third tier. Once you get past pick No. 22 or so, it’s a pretty good crapshoot.’’
Taking that into consideration, both Edmonton (No. 1) and Columbus (No. 2) could be amenable to moving their picks.
The Oilers have drafted first overall the last two years, nabbing Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But they require veteran muscle to lead their kids into the playoffs.
The Blue Jackets could be even quicker to swap their pick, but the second slot is just an appetizer compared with the tasting menu that is Rick Nash. Columbus couldn’t move its captain prior to the trade deadline. Now, with more bidders in the mix, Nash could be the centerpiece of a weekend full of deals.
“I think there will be a lot of movement at the top end of the draft, much more than in recent years,’’ Woodlief said. “Edmonton and Columbus are willing to move their picks for the right deal. Teams are interested in moving up. I expect there will be more movement at the top end this year.’’
Defensemen push for jobs
Blue-chip blue liners Ryan Murphy and Brian Dumoulin will receive plenty of attention during Carolina’s training camp. Murphy, the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, is more offensively dynamic than Adam Larsson and Dougie Hamilton, the other high-end defensive picks from last year. The undersized Murphy (5 feet 11 inches, 176 pounds) is eligible to return to Kitchener for one more season in the OHL, but he’s most likely ready to break camp with the big club again. Murphy was with the Hurricanes for the start of 2011-12, but he never appeared in a game before returning to juniors. Dumoulin, most recently seen celebrating an NCAA championship with his Boston College teammates, doesn’t have Murphy’s offensive touch. But the 6-3, 200-pounder plays a pro game with good smarts at both ends of the rink. Dumoulin projects to start his first pro season in Charlotte. But as Faulk proved last year, not all youngsters require a lot of AHL prep work. “We think the world of Brian,’’ said Hurricanes vice president of hockey operations Ron Francis. “He’s a big guy who skates well. There’s an adjustment period getting used to bigger and stronger guys. But we’ve seen him make that transition. He’s a guy that will not only give you good minutes on the defensive side of the game, but he’s shown he can contribute on the offensive side. He did nice things on the back end on the power play for BC.’’
No call on Pouliot yet
It’s possible that, for the second year, Benoit Pouliot will not receive a qualifying offer, thereby making him an unrestricted free agent. The Bruins signed Pouliot last summer after the Canadiens declined to tender the RFA-to-be. While Pouliot recorded 16 goals and 16 assists in 74 games last season, the Bruins have yet to determine whether the third-line wing will return. The Bruins must qualify Pouliot by June 25 at his current $1.1 million salary. If they don’t bring Pouliot back, Jordan Caron projects to be third-line left wing alongside Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley. The 25-year-old Pouliot is eligible for arbitration, which is where his statistics would serve him well. Comparables include Troy Brouwer (18-15-33 last season), Chris Stewart (15-15-30), and Michael Grabner (20-12-32). Their most recent cap hits: $2.75 million (Brouwer), $3 million (Stewart), and $3 million (Grabner). Is Pouliot as good as them? Nope. Could an arbitrator double Pouliot’s salary to reach their levels? Yep. Arbitrators make their awards strictly on numbers. Pouliot is a case where statistics don’t accurately capture his presence as a player.
Adieu to Laperriere
Good guy Ian Laperriere officially retired Tuesday because of postconcussion syndrome. The gritty forward, who last played with Philadelphia, never recovered from taking a puck in the face while blocking a shot during the first round of the 2010 playoffs. Laperriere didn’t dress for any of the seven games in the second round against the Bruins. But he returned for two games of the third round against Montreal and all six against the Blackhawks in the Final. It was surprising when Philadelphia allowed rookie Sean Couturier to wear Laperriere’s No. 14. But the young Francophone forward played with some of Laperriere’s grit and represented his old number well.
The second Skating For Hope event will take place July 28-29 at Worcester’s Buffone Rink. The event is a 24-hour charity skate to benefit the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge in Worcester. Skating For Hope was launched by Dave McGrath, a Boston College graduate and cancer survivor. For more information, visit skatingforhope.myevent.com . . . Sure looks like Detroit will make a play for Ryan Suter in the wake of Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement and the trade of ex-Bruin Brad Stuart to San Jose. It could mean Nashville will push to keep Hal Gill, who was acquired for the stretch run from Montreal. The Predators would need Gill’s stay-at-home presence to help fill Suter’s void . . . Tough rebuilding act for Niagara, Dougie Hamilton’s junior club. The Bruins prospect isn’t the only player who could turn pro in 2012-13. Older brother Freddie Hamilton will most likely begin his professional career next year. And Ryan Strome is eligible to return to the IceDogs, but the dynamic forward could push for a job with the Islanders. Niagara was upset by London in the Memorial Cup chase . . . One of the stranger questions at the NHL combine: How do you like your steak cooked, and why? Good to know teams are putting their time to good use. The only way to go is ribeye, heavily salted, touch of pepper, well-browned, no butter, and medium rare, please. No other way to cook your steak . . . Man-about-town Shawn Thornton was atop a Dirico motorcycle in a photograph in Tuesday’s Globe. At this pace, Thornton will be mentioned in the gossip pages this summer about 154 times - the same number of penalty minutes he racked up in 2011-12. I suspect, however, that the refs will look the other way when Thornton comes calling to address this cheap shot.