After missing the playoffs by only one game, there is a sense of optimism among Canes fans that this team will be in the playoff hunt once again. However, there are many who say that the Hurricanes were not that good of a team last year and the one thing that kept them in the playoff hunt the entire time was a terrific season from Cam Ward. While I think there were other factors which kept Carolina in the playoff hunt (great seasons from Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Erik Cole), it's hard to call the Canes a contender when you take a look at their underlying numbers. They had a very poor corsi percentage with the score tied, a weak powerplay, a terrible penalty kill that could have been a lot worse and awful back-up goaltending (Justin Peters' .875 save percentage) which has actually been a problem for awhile now. Has Carolina done enough this off-season to fix these problems and possibly take themselves to the next level? They've addressed some needs but it's doubtful that anything they have done this off-season will make them a sure-in for the playoffs. The team has been in slight rebuild mode for the past couple of season and I expect them to continue that but in the Eastern Conference, you can be a playoff contender as long as you're not god-awful so Carolina staying in the playoff hunt isn't completely out of the question.
Off-season Additions and Subtractions
Departing up front are Erik Cole, Troy Bodie and Cory Stillman (and Sergei Samsonov if you want to get technical) and the only one of those who is going to be difficult to replace is Erik Cole. I said earlier that replacing Cole's production shouldn't be that hard but finding someone to replicate his goals on the top line is going to be a challenge. Cole was not that good of a possession driver but he constantly played tough minutes and managed to produce despite that. However, there's a good chance that most of his success relates to playing with Eric Staal and while that is true, Cole's production on both the powerplay and penalty kill will be missed. Stillman was a rental player who had the privilege of playing with Staal, so he shouldn't be that hard to replace and Bodie was a scratch for a good chunk of games last season. There's not that much talent leaving the Canes up-front but not a lot was done to fill Cole's spot on the top line so that's obviously a concern.
New to the forward corps are Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart, Tim Brent and Zac Dalpe who should get a lot more playing time this year. None of these additions are going to put this forward corps over the top, but Ponikarovsky is a former 20-goal scorer and could see his career turn around if he receives top-six minutes in Carolina. Stewart had 14 goals last season but there's an equally likely chance that he is no better than a replacement player. Brent can win face-offs (something that was needed badly last year), take tough draws and kill penalties, which should provide a big help...if he can do all three of those. Dalpe played 22 games with Carolina last season and struggled for ice-time but there's a very good chance he could get top-six minutes and he was very impressive in training camp, so I'm withholding my judgement on him for now.
Depth Chart (not line combinations)
|Jussi Jokinen||Eric Staal||Jeff Skinner|
|Alexei Ponikarovskyk||Tuomo Ruutu||Anthony Stewart|
|Chad LaRose||Zac Dalpe||Patrick Dwyer|
|Jiri Tlusty||Brandon Sutter|
The reason I'm not listing the line combinations is because I'm still unsure of how they will look at this point. The only line I'm 100% sure of is the second line of Jokinen, Ruutu and Skinner, which I would like to see get sheltered minutes as they pose a pretty big scoring threat with Staal an Sutter taking on the tougher minutes. There's also the chance that Dalpe moves over to the wing to play with Staal and the same can be said for Ruutu.
This forward corps has a second line that has the potential to be very dangerous but the first line could be very weak, even with Staal centering it. There's the potential that Dalpe could be great but if he isn't then who does Carolina turn to? I'm sure most people will say Skinner but he hasn't been able to play tough minutes yet and I prefer him on the second line for now. Ruutu or Jokinen could be put into that spot while Dalpe centers the second line, though. I'm expecting this top-six to be tinkered with a bunch of times throughout the year. All Carolina needs is for one of these guys to replace Cole's even-strength production which isn't going to be that difficult even if the goals don't come right away.
One strength Carolina has here is a lot of guys who are capable of playing tough minutes, which gives head coach Paul Maurice the luxury of being able to shelter is second line. Staal, Sutter, LaRose, Brent, Ponikarovsky and Dwyer all played in defensive roles last season and if at least one line can play the tough minutes and do it well, then that will strongly benefit the team. It would be twice as helpful if Sutter and Brent's lines are the ones playing the tough's because that gives Carolina the option to free up both Skinner and Staal's lines. Of course, that also means Brent will have to be a hell of a lot better in his own zone than he was last season (-18.63 corsi ON).
How this unit will fare on special teams is a concern, especially on the penalty kill. Cole was one of Carolina's better penalty killers and his replacement (Ponikarovsky) did not do a lot of penalty killing even in a defensive role last season. Some of Carolina's top PK'ers are also coming off bad seasons (Staal and LaRose in particular), so they are going to have to be a lot better. Whether that means Sutter taking over Staal's spot on the PK or having someone like Jokinen step up, this PK unit will need to be a lot better. A lot of that is going to be depended on the defense who I will bring up in a minute.
The big question here is will this forward corps be better territorially than last season? Cole wasn't that good at driving the play so there it's possible that Ponikarovsky (who was a key possession driver in Toronto) can help out that cause. Same goes for Dalpe if he plays on the top line. It would also help if Sutter, Skinner, Ruutu and a couple others improved at driving possession this year. With only one forward above 30, three key players under 25 and Staal in the prime of his career, there's a good chance that we see some improvement in this area.
Off-Season Additions and Subtractions
The only player gone is Joe Corvo and while he was kind of a mess in his own zone (most defensive errors on the team), he played a huge role on this team and finding someone who can play tough minutes and produce offensively is a big challenge. The Canes at least addressed one part by signing Tomas Kaberle to a three-year deal and he should be able to replace Corvo's offensive production. Also joining the team to start the year are rookies Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy who were so impressive during training camp that it was impossible to send them down.
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
|Joni Pitkanen||Jamie McBain|
|Tim Gleason||Justin Faulk|
|Tomas Kaberle||Ryan Murphy|
Already you see a bit of a problem with the team's most experienced defensemen all being a left-handed shot. Like the forwards, I wouldn't put much thought into how they are placed on this depth chart because the defense pairings are going to change a lot and there will likely be more than one pairing with two defensemen who are left-handed.
The Canes are constantly in the top of the league when it comes to penalties drawn and there's a lot of offensive potential here with the additions of Kaberle, Murphy and Faulk so I think we will see some improvement here. It should help take some pressure of Pitkanen to be the team's main source of offense from the blue-line, too which is something he really needs. I don't think Kaberle will be a huge improvement over Corvo on the powerplay, but he does rack up a lot of points at even strength, which is fine by me. Plus, Murphy and Faulk making the team out of camp should bolster this team's powerplay if they are as advertised. Judging from how well they did in training camp, they should provide a big spark there.
Speaking of Murphy and Faulk, both of them making the team gives Carolina quite a logjam on their blue-line. Murphy will get to play nine games before the team decides if they want to send him back to Kitchener. Previously, I thought sending him to Kitchener was the right move but if he can make the team better, it might be wise to keep him here. I just don't want him to stay on the team for the entire year only to play bottom-pairing minutes and be a scratch on some nights. That isn't good for his development. Faulk I do not have concerns about as he has been playing top-four minutes in training camp without much problem and even pitching in on the penalty kill.
While there's a lot of offensive firepower here, there isn't a stud shutdown defenseman who can consistently play against other team's top lines night in and night out, which is going to pose a problem. Gleason and Allen are the team's lone defensive defensemen and Gleason's coming off a pretty rough year where he was on-ice for a lot of shots against. This was mostly due to him taking on most of the defense's tough assignments and while many expect Allen to help him take some of the load off him, he is a couple years removed from knee surgery and was played out of Florida by Mike Weaver and Jason Garrison. It will be interesting to see how the tough assignments are split among those two and I expect Pitkanen to help, as well.
Another good question is which two defensemen will be on the team for the rest of the year. I highly doubt the team is going to carry nine on the roster for the entire year and if Murphy plays well enough that the team decides to keep him, then what happens to Jay Harrison and Derek Joslin? Harrison can take a lot of draws in his own zone but not against tough competition and at 24, Joslin hasn't proven to be much more than a 5/6 defenseman, but he played well in that role last year. I think McBain is safe even if he plays a similar role to Faulk, so that would leave Harrison and Joslin as the odd-men out should Murphy and Faulk remain on the team.
My hope is that the defensively sound forwards the Canes have up front can help off-set this offensively gifted defense. The Kaberle signing doesn't look too good with Murphy and Faulk on the team now but I don't think Rutherford saw those two being this imprssive so early in their careers and Kaberle shouldn't be any worse than Corvo was in his own zone. Either way, you have to like the abundance of young offensive talent in this defense but they are going to have problems in their own zone, especially when they go up against bigger forwards.
Cam Ward is coming off his best NHL season and is still only 27 so repeating his .923 save percentage isn't out of the question, especially since he likely won't play in 72 games this year. Ward isn't a concern, what most Canes fans should be worried about is back-up goaltending because Justin Peters was just awful in that role last season. To fix this, Rutherford signed Brian Boucher, someone who has been a back-up for most of his career. He should be an improvement over Peters and is capable of playing in at least 20 games but his save percentage since the lockout is .902 which is pretty bad. Better than Peters, yes but still bad. Needless to say, if an injury to Ward happens, then this team could go down a pretty tough road.
This team has questions in both their top-six and defense corps and I still don't know if this team is good enough to get into the playoffs. Ward can keep them in every game and I'm expecting good years for Staal, Skinner, Dalpe and Ponikarovsky but have they improved enough to be a contender? No, but in the East, it's tough to count anyone out of the playoff picture at the start of the season. Rutherford's done a pretty good job of slowly supplying this team with great young talent like Skinner, Dalpe, Faulk and Murphy who should help this team be a contender soon down the road, especially with Staal still being in the prime of his career. The team is still missing too many pieces to be a contender right now. The playoffs are not out of the question but Carolina's going to need to a break-out performance from someone up front and to improve territorially for that to happen.