Hurricanes fans have long had a love/hate relationship with the team’s head coaches. For as generally positive as Canes fans have been over the years and how uncommon it is for the team to get booed on home ice even during some abysmal seasons, we had not 1 but 2 rounds of “Mo must go!” for a coach who had his downs but also a magical Stanley Cup Final appearance, another tremendous playoff run in 2009 and at least intermittent appearances in the postseason. And Kirk Muller reached near pitch fork level before he was somewhat quietly let go in the offseason. Only Peter Laviolette managed to leave untattered, and that was only because he won a Stanley Cup and because the hook on his ouster occurred before too much angst could build up.
If I could characterize our fan base, I would say that the Caniac Nation more than any other fan base I have ever been part of is incredibly welcoming and optimistic at the beginning of new relationships. We love and defend our young prospects. We almost unanimously embrace and adopt as our own players who arrive via trade. And we welcome new coaches with a strong optimistic leaning. But like that 1 psychotic boyfriend or girlfriend that we all had at 1 point, when things turn south, they do so incredibly quickly and in a massive way.
Paul Maurice became too synonymous with bad times
Because of Peter Karmanos’ and Jim Rutherford’s undying commitment to Paul Maurice, he more than any other coach is intertwined with the team history. He led the initial rise of the franchise in 2000-01 and 2001-02. And he led at least short-term, post-Cup resurgence in the 2009 playoffs. But he also ruled over many of the worst seasons in franchise history. Because that I think Maurice’s fan approval rating became largely tied to the fate of the team at the time of the survey until finally enough survey years came in negative that he was permanently placed in that category by a significant portion of the fan base. But when you go back to the early days when he and Hurricanes hockey were both new and fresh, he was this smart young coach who was leading our team to playoff victories.
Peter Laviolette was thrown out of Dodge before it could go too badly
Peter Laviolette is the 1 coach who almost completely escaped the wrath of the Hurricanes’ fan base. Winning a Stanley Cup can do that for you. His tenure is interesting. He coached the latter part of a rough 2003-04 season before the 2004-05 season was lost to the labor dispute. Then of course he won the Stanley Cup. And then he was run out of town for some bad seasons. But not so fast. His teams did miss the playoffs in 2006-07 and 2007-08 in a couple challenging years with the Cup hangover/short summer and injury issues. But by Hurricanes standards “bad” is an overstatement. The Laviolotte-coached 2006-07 team finished with 88 points, and the 2007-08 team barely missed the playoffs with 92 points. The team was a respectable 12-11-2 when he was fired shortly into the 2008-09 season. Because he was an integral part of the greatest pinnacle in franchise history and I think also partly because his reign during down times was cut pretty short, he is the 1 (and only coach) to escape the Hurricanes head coaching position in favorable light.
As badly as it ended, Kirk Muller was met with optimism
Some might have forgotten and others might deny it, but even Kirk Muller was liked at the outset. He was credited with being great with special teams for his successful run as the power play coach in Montreal. He was thought to be a coach who could relate to and help players, especially young leaders like Eric Staal, because of his experience and success as a player. And many thought that we were lucky to get him before his stock rose. But when the tide turned on Kirk Muller’s approval rating, it turned quickly and fell precipitously. It took less than 3 seasons for Muller to come aboard and then be relieved of his duties. He was named the head coach on November 28, 2011. I would not say that the season was over at this early juncture, but it seems fair to give Muller a free pass for a season that he inherited mid-stream and already 8 points out of a playoff spot 25 games in. Then there was the odd lockout-shortened 48-game season. And finally, he coached the team to an 83-point season in 2013-14 before being let go shortly after the season ended.
Bill Peters as part of fan base want for “something new”
By the time Muller was let go, Canes fans were ready for new of any variety. First, Ron Francis who was a familiar face and hero from better times took over as general manager. And then he started anew with a coaching change. The key word for this transition point was “new.” The fan base desperately wanted something different. At the time, Francis could have hired me as the coach, and the fan base would have found something to latch onto (had history with the team and understood the fan base?) to spin the “new” with optimism. And that was the situation that Bill Peters walked into.
Peters legitimately received high marks and optimism for some things. He had experience and had learned under a winner. He had won a championship at a lower level as a head coach. He had a reputation for being detail-oriented. Etc. But let’s face it, especially when hiring from a pool of prospective NHL head coaches, glass half full is always possible if you are so inclined. That is probably even more true when a relatively unknown quantity without a visible track record as an NHL head coach.
And early returns were favorable in some ways and painted with optimism by the fan base. Never mind that Peters’ first season behind the bench finished 12 points lower than Muller’s previous season. It was because the team was bad and rebuilding, and things were obviously headed in the right direction.
The 2015-16 season showed measurable progress. The Hurricanes finished with 86 points. And with much of the improvement driven by young players like Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin and more youth on the roster and on the way, optimism for the 2016-17 season was probably about as high as it could be for a team that had missed the playoffs by 10 points.
Milepost 1: Increased optimism makes it possible for increased failure starting the trek toward the end of Bill Peters’ honeymoon
I think the relative success of the 2015-16 season actual was the beginning of the end of Bill Peters’ honeymoon period with the Carolina Hurricanes’ fan base. That progress to some degree increased the possibility of what I would call an early playoff return in 2016-17. In the process it inspired hope and nudged fans away from the “patience” theme and back toward hopefulness for a playoff return. At a basic level, that is not a bad thing. An organization cannot rebuild indefinitely, and in a league where more than half of the teams make the playoffs, it really only takes mediocre to push into the postseason. But with the optimism came a little bit more pressure and also the potential for a more significant letdown if optimistic hopes went unrealized.
Through three-fourths of the 2016-17 season, it looked eerily similar to the 2015-16 season which was more firmly categorized as rebuilding. The Hurricanes again dug a hole early. The Hurricanes again found a run of better hockey just when it looked like all might be lost. And the team pushed up close to but not above the playoff cut line after having to dig out from another slow start.
Milepost 2: The trade deadline realization that things are not better yet raises the tension level putting the ball on the tee for the end of Bill Peters’ honeymoon
I think the second and third mileposts for the end of Peters’ honeymoon came in fairly rapid succession. First, the team was again a seller at the trade deadline. Selling at the trade deadline is not automatically the end of the season, but it is a pretty strong indicator of where a team is and what the general manager thinks of the prospects for the rest of the season. The trade deadline selling also forced Canes fans to begin digesting a fairly high probability that 2016-17 was not going to be much different than 2015-16.
Milepost 3: 60-second tirade marks the official end of Bill Peters’ honeymoon
Then the Eddie Lack thing happened. Only 2 days after the gut-wrenching trade deadline day and right in the middle of Hurricanes’ fans each trying to come to grips with the state of the 2016-17 season in their own way, Bill Peters goes on a short but intense tirade chucking backup goalie Eddie Lack under the bus finishing with the now famous “Make a F—- Save!” line.
I think Peters’ honeymoon as the “new” Hurricanes coach was heading toward being over anyway, but I think this single event officially put a stake in the sand and ended it. Right at the time when many fans were coming to the realization that a positive ending to the 2016-17 was highly improbable, Peters comes out and heaps a ton of blame on an odd choice. Lack had not played well in his previous game and was not faring well for the 2016-17 season. Lack’s 1-2-1 since the beginning of February when the season started to head south was a minus but not even remotely close to the top of the list of things that had pulled the team down.
On top of it being an odd choice, Peters’ outlash also had subtle but important context issues. Peters targeted a player who had not really been given much of a chance, rightly or wrongly, to be a difference-maker. In addition, his ire landed on something for which I think there was a strong case that he had not managed things well more of less riding Cam Ward, who was playing well, into the ground. And then there was the issue of not equally chastising Ward whose play had not been great either. And then in the name of piling on, Peters picked a player who was liked by the fan base.
For this article, I will not revisit the debate about the appropriateness of what Peters did. But within his rights as a coach or not, it very clearly rubbed a significant portion of the die-hard fan base the wrong way on multiple levels. When that happened, he turned in whatever “we will give you a chance” optimism that he had remaining, and he transitioned to being a coach who will now be more critically graded on his results going forward.
Bill Peters post-honeymoon
With the honeymoon over, I would not so much say that Bill Peters is in a bad spot. After a long playoff drought, the fan base just wants some level of winning. Any kind of playoff berth (again, half the teams make it) would be interpreted as a significant step in the right direction and evidence that Bill Peters and Ron Francis do in fact have the ship moving in the right direction.
But that is the thing. I think we have officially reached the point where the volume of support for Bill Peters simply out of a half full until proven otherwise mentality has waned. Especially if the 2016-17 season does not yield a minor miracle, once the 2017-18 season starts, fans will be scrutinizing him more closely and looking for results.
Per the short history lesson above, times of coaches needing to produce to garner support have not generally ended favorably for Hurricanes’ bench bosses.
Despite the history, I would not say this is a bad thing for Peters. At some point, he, like every other coach, would need to be graded based on results. With 2 years to meld the team and also get his feet under him in a new role in a new organization, he should be ready for this challenge.
My personal 2c
I lean positive on Bill Peters as the Hurricanes’ coach.
I could, and probably will at some point, list concerns that I have after now seeing Peters for 2 seasons, but my list of positives would be bigger. But we are quickly reaching the point where assessing Bill Peters is less about complicated projections of where the team will be at some point in the future and more simply about checking the standings to get an objective measure of progress.
As I have said before, I am giving Ron Francis and Bill Peters the 2016-17 season for rebuilding. But as soon as the 2016-17 season concludes and work to build the 2017-18 season starts, I think Francis and Peters are on the clock for the 2017-18 season. It’s time. You cannot rebuild for forever, and though building from within is the right approach in general, at some point the general manager needs to make the move or 2 to put the team over the top and into the playoffs. And though whatever Francis builds to start the 2017-18 will be inevitably be imperfect, at some point the coach needs to figure out how to get the most out of what he has, pull some levers and push into the top half of the league and the playoffs in the process. So for me, we are very quickly nearing the end of the time frame when I project whether Bill Peters is a good coach or not and more simply look at where the Hurricanes are in the standings and make my assessment based on results.
What say you Canes fans?
Is the honeymoon over? Do you agree that the Eddie Lack incident played a role in this transition point? Or do you think it was something else?
Who thinks that more patience is in order for Bill Peters given the rebuilding team that he inherited?
At a more basic level, is Bill Peters the right coach to lead this team back to the playoffs?