Parity? Oilers, Hurricanes raise the 'fluke' factor

Updated: March 29, 2007, 2:40 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

In the Seinfeld-ian way of examining the human condition (is there another way?), there is good naked and bad naked.

Straining to open the lid of a glass jar without any clothes on? Definitely bad naked.

Similarly, in politics, art, music and sports, there's good history and bad history.

The Carolina Hurricanes made good history last spring by winning the team's first Stanley Cup, the pinnacle for a star-crossed, tragedy-blighted franchise that spent years wandering fruitlessly between Hartford, Greensboro and Raleigh, looking for fans and success.

Cam Ward
AP Photo/Paul ChiassonCam Ward is one of a handful of returning Carolina players that has struggled this season.

Now, bad history is knocking at the door.

The Hurricanes, you may have noticed, have not yet secured a position in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In fact, Carolina is in a traffic jam of a fight for one of three available Eastern Conference playoff berths. There's a tightly packed, heavily congested group of six teams, each desperately trying to avoid the stigma that goes with missing the NHL playoffs.

This probably shouldn't be seen as quite the embarrassment that it used to be. After all, once upon a time, 16 of 21 NHL clubs made the postseason. And if there has been an upside to Gary Bettman's absurdly reckless addition of nine teams over nine years, it's that the playoffs haven't been expanded as the league has developed its unsightly beer belly.

Now, 16 teams make it, 14 don't. It seems reasonable; pretty good teams miss out, but they usually don't if they're the Stanley Cup champs.

Never before have the two clubs that met in the previous spring's Stanley Cup finals both missed the playoffs the following spring.

Edmonton, needless to say, threw in the towel a while ago, dealing star forward Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders at the trade deadline and proceeding to fall into an ugly, late-season funk that has many season-ticket holders thinking about whether renewing is such a good idea.

Only Carolina can now prevent "bad history" from occurring.

After back-to-back blowout losses -- 6-1 vs. Toronto on Tuesday and 5-1 vs. Philadelphia on Wednesday -- the Hurricanes fell out of the eighth and final postseason spot and sat in 11th on Thursday morning.

It's strange, really, because it's not like Carolina was ripped apart after winning it all. In goal for the Hurricanes against the Leafs was Cam Ward, the hero of the Cup drive who was named playoff MVP. Of the 18 Carolina skaters, 14 were part of the team in last year's playoffs, including the important pieces of the puzzle like captain Rod Brind'Amour, winger Eric Staal, sniper Justin Williams, forward Cory Stillman, winger Erik Cole and defensemen Mike Commodore, Frantisek Kaberle, Niclas Wallin and Glen Wesley. Behind the bench was Peter Laviolette, the same coach who yelled all the right things to get the Hurricanes past the Canadiens, Devils, Sabres and Oilers in last spring's playoffs.

But while the faces were much the same, the effort sure wasn't, and neither was the result. A strangely inconsistent season continued, the magic of the team seemingly disappearing from one season to the next.

This is, of course, hockey's version of the highly successful NFL model of competition. Every team has a chance to turn every season into a Cinderella campaign, and going from last-to-first or first-to-last no longer stuns the sports world.

Still, having both the Oilers and Hurricanes miss the playoffs would, to some degree, put a giant asterisk beside last season's Cup finals. Nobody suggested either team was a powerhouse or a squad rivaling the Canadiens of the late 1970s or the Islanders of the early 1980s. But nobody screamed "FLUKE!" either. Still, right about now, that's kind of how it looks.

That undercuts the concept of parity, because you want to believe the champion at the end of a grueling season of competition is an expression of excellence in that particular sport. But if "excellence" fades like a medium-sized hangover by lunchtime, was it ever excellence at all?

The Hurricanes, at least, have some time to make this "good history" by using the final 10 days of the season to elbow their way into the playoffs and make something happen. Not so in Edmonton, which is now 23 points behind provincial rival Calgary, holder of the West's final playoff berth, and just six points ahead of conference-worst Phoenix.

It's bad enough the Oilers have crashed, but it's the way they've crashed that leaves a bad smell in the oil patch. Unlike the Hurricanes, many of Edmonton's heroes from the Cup run are gone. Chris Pronger? Demanded a trade and got one. Michael Peca? Couldn't stand the travel or the city and signed as a free agent elsewhere. Ditto for winger Sergei Samsonov. Smyth? Wouldn't offer the team a hometown discount and was peddled to Long Island for a package of prospects that impressed no one.

Young forwards like Fernando Pisani, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky, who were supposed to guarantee the Oilers a future, have disappointed. Jarret Stoll has been lost to a worrisome concussion, another head-shot victim in a league that does not care about the problem.

The status of GM Kevin Lowe and coach Craig MacTavish is unclear, the quality of all those youngsters has to be re-evaluated and -- in the wake of losing Pronger, Peca, Samsonov and Smyth -- it's unclear whether the Oilers are going to be able to lure free agents or other prominent players by trade.

The taste of the fall in Edmonton is much more bitter than in Raleigh, where the Hurricanes' inability to play with consistency (a five-game losing streak in December was immediately followed by a five-game winning streak) has created more confusion than anger.

Ward, whom the Canes hoped would emerge as a durable No. 1 goalie, has been erratic. Against the Leafs, he allowed a very soft goal to Boyd Devereaux just 43 seconds into the game. By the second period, he had been lifted. Staal won't come close to the 45 goals he scored last season. While the point production of some players, notably Brind'Amour and Williams, is actually up, Carolina isn't the overall powerful offensive team it was in 2005-06. That has resulted in fewer comebacks and more tight games, which wears over the course of a season.

In the Southeast Division, Tampa, Florida and Washington are on pace to end up about where they finished in the 2005-06 season. Atlanta, however, has improved dramatically, cutting into the Hurricanes' position of authority. While Lightning coach John Tortorella has watched his team descend into the tangle of teams jousting for the final East spots and nonetheless "guaranteed" that his team will make the postseason, Laviolette has simply gritted his teeth, hoping his championship roster re-emerges.

While few Edmonton loyalists saw this train wreck coming, there's a ring of familiarity to all of this in Raleigh. After reaching the 2002 Stanley Cup finals before losing to Detroit, the Hurricanes not only fell out of playoff contention the following season but also plummeted to dead last in the league.

Maybe this isn't as a bad as that. Maybe, with the taste of champagne still a vibrant memory, it's worse.

Bad history is bad history. The only good news for Carolina is it can still be prevented.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.