Brandon Sutter's already had quite a productive NHL career at such a young age but I remember hearing from a few fans that last season was "disappointing" for him. It's probably because he saw his point total drop from 40 to 29 and he scored seven fewer goals than he did the previous season. Was I hoping for more than 29 points from him last year? Yes. However, he made a lot of strides defensively last season and is really evolving as a two-way player for Carolina and should be a key part of the third line. What most fans care about are goals and points, though and here we'll take a look at what kind of performance Carolina will get out of Sutter this season.
The Carolina Hurricanes announced today that they have assigned 12 players to the AHL. Those players being the following: forwards Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Jerome Samson, Chris Durno, Brett Sutter, Jon Matsumoto and Chris Terry, defensemen Bobby Sanguinetti, Justin Krueger and Mathieu Roy, and goaltenders Mike Murphy and Justin Peters. Samson, Sutter, Matsumoto, Sanguinetti and Peters needing to pass through waviers before they can go to Charlotte, but I'm not terribly worried about that. Any team can claim them but they need to stay on the NHL club or they go back on waivers. The only one I'd be worried about is Peters because some teams may want to sign him as a back-up. Columbus comes to mind.
After these moves, we have a slightly better idea of what the forward corps will look like to start the year. I was lobbying heavily for Boychuk to make the team but he hasn't been terribly impressive in camp so back to Charlotte he goes. I'm hoping we see him in Raleigh sometime this year, though. Bowman and Samson were also players who I thought should get looks for the bottom-six but they weren't that impressive the last couple of weeks so it's understandable they were sent down. I do think Bowman is one of the first guys the team will turn to should an injury occur. The rest of the cast isn't much of a surprise.
With these roster cuts, there are a few pleasant surprises to think of. One of which is Riley Nash having a very impressive camp and chosen to fill in for Tuomo Ruutu as the second line center for the time being. I think he will be sent down once Ruutu is healthy but it's really nice to see his game progressing the way it has. Also of note is Zac Dalpe beginning to look like a lock to make the team and possibly earn himself a spot in the top-six.
Carolina's forward corps looks a lot more clear after these moves, but there's still a lot of questions on what the final defense pairings will look like. That question should be answered within the next week or so.
There's quite a lot of great, young defensemen in the NHL right now and one guy who kind of falls under the radar of many fans is Carolina's Jamie McBain. While he isn't in the same class as guys like Drew Doughty, John Carlson or PK Subban, he quietly had a very solid rookie season and played top-four minutes on a lot of nights for the Hurricanes. McBain's play in his own zone still has some work to do but he did prove to be a very solid puck-mover his rookie year putting up 7 goals and 30 points from the blue line. Can he build on this impressive rookie season and find a permanent spot in the Canes top-four?
After spending the entire summer talking about how Alexei Ponikarovsky could help the Hurricanes and how his terrible offensive numbers last year were a fluke, it's time to finally project what kind of numbers he will put up this season. Now that he's 31, I think his days of being a 20-goal scorer are gone, as that's how the trend works for most players but I also don't see him having as bad of a year as he did in Los Angeles. If the Canes can get the Ponikarovsky who is good for at least 10 goals, can kill penalties and be useful away from the puck, then I say they got their $1.50 mil worth.
The biggest concern going into this pre-season is wondering who will play on the first line with Eric Staal now that all of his wingers from last season (Cole, Samsonov, Stillman) have left the building. Ideally, you want your team's first line to strike fear into the opponent's defense and force them to be on their toes whenever they are on the ice. Carolina is pretty thin at wing so it's going to be hard to create a line like that with the current roster. For the most part, Staal's been able to create offense with his linemates so that's something positive...until you look at some of the names on that chart and realize that most of his potential linemates this year are downgrades from a lot of those players. Regardless, let's go through some of the potential first lines for Carolina and see how much success they could have.
Guys like LaRose are typically fan-favorites on many teams. He doesn't score a lot but he does a lot of the little things that help you win games like killing penalties and winning battles along the boards. He is a regular fixture on the Canes third line and has provided solid secondary scoring for them for the past four years or so. However, it was during the last two seasons when I began to be more impressed with LaRose as a two-way player. Him, Sutter and Cole saw the toughest competition among forwards in 2009-10, and LaRose took on tougher zone starts compared to previous years. He also did a pretty damn good job territorially in that role which made me value him more as a two-way forward instead of just a secondary scorer. In this post, we're mainly going to be focusing on LaRose's offensive production which unfortunately isn't a lot, but not bad for someone in his role. Can we expect him to build on the 31 points from last year or well he have yet another 11-goal season?
I've already analyzed Tomas Kaberle a bit this off-season and determined that he should provide a slight upgrade on the powerplay compared to what Joe Corvo brought (keyword there is "slight") but may need to be protected if he is going to be effective in this system. Kaberle is 33 and most defensemen tend to see their play decline after the age of 30, which has sort of been the case with Kaberle in terms of counting numbers even though it isn't anything too drastic yet. Will Kaberle continue to decline or will he be the powerplay quarterback that Carolina desperately needs this year?
Training camp has begun in Raleigh and I think it's safe to say that the first five starting spots on the defense are set in stone. Unless a terrible injury happens, those five spots consist of Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason, Tomas Kaberle, Bryan Allen and Jamie McBain. The question is who will play the sixth spot and play on the third pairing to start the year? The Canes certainly have their options to fill that spot whether it's using the same personnel as last year or finding younger options.
I see five players contesting for that last spot but before we break them down, we have to consider what the team's defense corps needs right now. We have three guys capable of providing offense in Pitkanen, Kaberle and McBain and two more defensive-minded players with Gleason and Allen. Pitkanen provides a little of both sides and may have his defensive role increased as the season goes on, so this is subject to change. As of right now, what the Canes need from their sixth defenseman is someone who can kill penalties and preferably someone with a more defensive game.
Which one of the five candidates can give Carolina that?
Joni Pitkanen's reputation among Carolina fans is a mixed bag. On one hand, I've heard a lot of people call him the "back-bone" of the team's defense and a big offensive threat. Others have called him a liability in his own zone and someone that plays way more minutes than he should. Then you have that group who see Pitkanen as a solid all-around defenseman but not exactly spectacular in any area. That's probably the best explanation of his game and we need to take that into context when thinking of expectations for the 28-year-old Finn.
One of Jim Rutherford's better trades came in early 2009 when he acquired Jussi Jokinen from the Tampa Bay Lightning for Josef Melichar, Wade Brookbank and a 2010 fourth round draft pick. Not much thought was put into this at first because Jokinen was a low round draft pick and in the middle of his worst season in the NHL. He had recorded at least 15 goals in the three previous years but the Lightning decided to sell low and the Canes took full advantage of it. The Canes have been getting the better side of Jokinen these last two seasons as he scored 30 goals in 2009-10 and 19 in 2010-11. Last year was seen as a slight disappointment to those who were expecting a repeat performance of 2009-10 from him but his production from last year is about what you should expect from Jokinen now that he's in his late 20's.