When we talk about a “culture of losing” developing around an NHL franchise, it’s often focused on a team that has chosen to go the tear-down rebuild route and aim for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
The Edmonton Oilers, owners of four of the past eight first-overall picks, have found it tough sledding to get out, and stay out, of a cycle of losing that led to a decade-long playoff drought. They finally reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, and even got to Round 2, but have moved back towards their regular basement spot in 2017-18.
The Buffalo Sabres, who famously and openly tanked the 2014-15 season to try and land Connor McDavid, are well on their way to a seventh straight season out of the playoffs. At the start of last season, their rebuild was being compared to the one in Toronto, which today couldn’t look further from the truth. Tanking guarantees nothing and, in fact, invites a losing culture to settle in for a long time.
Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis were traded by Buffalo to Minnesota last summer, and later discussed the difference in approach and expectation after moving from the rebuilding team to one that had the Stanley Cup in mind.
“You know, Buffalo has been in kind of a rebuild process, and everyone knows they’ve had quite a few losses over the last few seasons, and that’s tough on everybody,” Foligno told the Pioneer Press last November. “Everyone that plays competitive sports wants to win. It’s definitely nice to be here, where losing is not an option.”
Added Foligno: “It’s been challenging for us. You have to develop better habits, and that takes a while to learn. That was the biggest difference. It’s been great to be in this winning culture, where losing is not acceptable and a lot is expected out of us.”
The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t a full-on tanker the way Edmonton and Buffalo have been in recent years, though they have missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons and are well on their way to a ninth. Over that time, they’ve never finished with fewer than 30 wins in a full 82-game season and the lowest they’ve finished in the standings is fifth-last. Carolina has never found luck in the lottery balls, so haven’t picked earlier than fifth overall at the draft. In the past two drafts, in fact, the Hurricanes have picked outside of the top 10.
But after another bad loss Tuesday, their second third-period collapse in two nights, Carolina’s playoff hopes continue to fade. The 6-4 meltdown against Boston became a bit of a joke on a local TV sports pack and, according to sportsclubstats.com, dropped their playoff chances to a meagre two per cent.
Frustrated head coach Bill Peters was asked if he was concerned about an acceptance of losing seeping into the room and he didn’t shoot down the thought.
Q: Are you concerned about a culture of losing that seems to be brewing here?
Peters: Ya, that’s a fair question.
Q: Are you concerned about it?
Those answers were common throughout Tuesday’s post-game presser. When asked if he thought there was something “fundamentally wrong” with the Hurricanes and if some players who have been there for a while need to be moved out, the coach said “that’s a good question.” When he was asked if the losing was at a point where it was contagious in the room, Peters said: “That’s a fair question. We’ll answer that at the end of the year.”
This is a coach who hasn’t been afraid in the past to put the blame on a struggling goalie, and though both current netminders have below league average save percentages, there seems to be a deeper concern with this group of players.
Over the past two years, no team wins a lower percentage of its games when leading after the second period than Carolina. It wasn’t that long ago they were pushing Philadelphia or Pittsburgh for a top-three spot in the Metro Division, but with a subpar 11-16-4 record since the calendar flipped to 2018, Carolina is spiralling out of control.
“There are a few too many times where we’ve had situations where we had to say, ‘How do we regroup from this?’” defenceman Justin Faulk told Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News and Observer after the game.
Hanging over this whole breakdown is Tom Dundon, the new owner who is already being compared as hockey’s equivalent to involved NBA owner Mark Cuban. Just last week Dundon surprisingly moved Ron Francis out of the GM role after four years on the job where he didn’t make any substantial NHL player for NHL player moves, but is generally applauded for building up a prospect base that left Carolina much better off than it was when he took the job.
Dundon told the News and Observer that he and Francis had the same idea of where they wanted the Hurricanes to end up, but they didn’t see eye to eye on how to get there. Dundon said that while Francis is better at planning his next move, Dundon likes to try things and figure them out. The GM change, he said, didn’t mean significant moves were on the way this summer.
“I like the team,” he told the paper. “I think we’re improving. I think we want a culture where everybody earns their spot every day. As long as we’re doing that, and we clearly have good players, then it’s how do we make those players maximize their potential? How does the team maximize its potential?
“But I don’t think it’s reasonable or rational to think about it in terms of ‘We need to make X number of changes.’ I think it’s more about how we go about it every day with the structure and process to keep getting better. Ideally you get the most out of the players you’ve got. If for any reason any of those players aren’t performing to their potential you try to work with them.”
That all sounds good, and maybe with some tweaks and the freshness of a new season (hey, it works for the Avalanche!), the Hurricanes will finally reach the potential everyone sees in them.
But right now, and after years of missing the playoffs, the Hurricanes are at least at risk of developing the dreaded losing culture that can be much harder to get out of than simply having the draft lottery balls fall your way.