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.
Jim Rutherford has locked up the Canes 2011 first round pick Ryan Murphy on a three year, entry-level contract. It will pay him $832,500 per season at the NHL level and $70,000 per season at the minor league level and he also received a $277,500 signing bonus according to the Hurricanes web site.
It's a very good deal for someone with Murphy's upside and I have to think his performance at the Traverse City tournament is what helped him earn this deal. Him and other young defenseman Justin Faulk were Carolina's most impressive players in that tournament and it wasn't even close. The question is when can we expect Murphy in the NHL? My guess is not for another year or two. Murphy was outstanding in the Traverse tournament but he will have to really blow people away in training camp to earn a spot on the big club with the defense corps pretty much set as it is.
Since Murphy is only 18, he can either make the team out of camp or be sent back to Kitchener and I'm thinking the latter is the better option. He still has some work to do in his own zone and giving him another season or two in Kitchener should help him develop his all-around game a little more. As of providing offense from the blue line is his best asset and with Kaberle signed, Pitkanen retained and another puck-mover in Jamie McBain on the roster, I'm not sure where Murphy will fit. It gets harder to find a spot for him if Justin Faulk (who was equally impressive) makes the team.
He'll probably be on the roster in another year or two when Pitkanen and Kaberle are heading toward the end of their new contracts. It's pretty interesting got think about how good Carolina's defense corps will look in another three years once Murphy and Faulk are full-time players. Tons of offensive potential there and a potential shutdown defenseman in Brian Dumoulin who could be with the Canes sooner than most think. If the team can add another shutdown guy into the prospect pool then the Canes blue-line should be completely revamped over the next few years.
The Ruutu projection will be interesting because he is a player whose role has changed over the last few seasons. In Chicago, he was a fringe top-six player for the most part and struggled mightily before being traded to Carolina. The year after, he started to flourish as a winger on the first line scoring a career high 26 goals and 54 points. The year after, injuries kept him back and he struggled to find his place in the lineup. Last season saw the most drastic change for Ruutu as he made the transition to center and played predominately on the second line with Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Skinner for most of the latter half of the season. He set a new career high in points (57) and scored 19 goals. What should we expect from Ruutu this year? Does he continue to play center or should the team move him back to the wing and put Skinner in his natural position? More importantly, will those 57 points last season be Ruutu's career high or will he improve on that this year at 28 years of age? Let's find out...
Every team needs scoring balance in their forward corps. It's how teams like Washington, Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver, etc. manage to do so well during the regular season and it's why a lot of Canes fans want to keep Carolina's second line of Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu and Jeff Skinner in-tact for at least next season. However, one thing the teams mentioned above have that the Canes don't is a top-six full of forwards capable of scoring at least 20 goals. This is why I am very tempted to make the case for placing Skinner and possibly Jokinen or Ruutu on the top line with Eric Staal because it gives the Canes that one big line that teams fear to go up against. There are A LOT of reasons why this shouldn't happen, though. Which is why we are going to weigh the pros and cons of placing Skinner on the first line in this post.
Continuing with our 2011-12 player projections, we move onto Jeff Skinner. He had a wonderful rookie season where he recorded 31 goals, 63 points and took home the Calder Trophy for his efforts. The general idea among fans is that he is only going to get better, build on his strong rookie campaign and shatter his point total from this year. In theory, yes but there's some things you have to consider about Skinner's 2010-11 season before we start talking about him putting up 80-something points.