The Carolina Hurricanes’ 2011-12 season will undoubtedly end after 82 games, but their recent progress has fans optimistic about next year, and subsequently their 2013 playoff chances.
With a 14-8-7 record in their past 29 games, Carolina has played at a 99 point pace since December 23. Had it not been for their miserable start, they would likely be the favorite to win the shoddy Southeast Division this spring, which has no worthy frontrunner.
While the Canes have done an admirable job over the past several months, general manager Jim Rutherford isn’t confident that this group, in its current state, would be capable of reaching its goals next year.
“We’ve got some work to do here,” he said last week following the trade deadline. “We certainly have to add another player or two for our team to get where we need to get to.”
When examining Carolina’s roster, it’s evident that they’re defense is fairly well set heading into ’12-’13. There are a few decisions to make—such as Bryan Allen’s future and whether or not Ryan Murphy deserves a full-time spot in the NHL—but there isn’t much of a need to make significant moves in that department.
However, the Canes do have the chance to make some big changes in their assemblage of forwards.
Carolina has some firepower in Jeff Skinner, Eric Staal and Tuomo Ruutu, but their top six is very hollow compared to most playoff-worthy teams.
Their lack of depth has been palpable over the past few weeks, as players such as Jerome Samson, Zach Boychuk and Anthony Stewart have skated on the Canes’ top-two lines. Those guys are serviceable, but certainly not ideal.
“We need another top-flight forward,” Rutherford said. “If we can maintain what we have now and add that player, then we’re getting real close to being a real good team again.”
Rutherford has cited the need to find better line-mates for Staal, but the player that truly needs help at the moment is Skinner. Staal and Jiri Tlusty have developed fantastic chemistry over the past month or so, and the recently re-signed Tuomo Ruutu fills out that line when healthy.
Skinner, on the other hand, hasn’t been so lucky. On Thursday he skated with Jussi Jokinen and Boychuk, two guys that may be capable NHLers, but a budding superstar like Skinner needs to be surrounded by high-end talent.
With his priorities set, Rutherford will hit the market this summer with offense in mind. The Canes freed up a lot of payroll by trading away Tomas Kaberle earlier in the season, and adding several new minority investors to the team's ownership should allow them to increase their budget.
Carolina has the means to make a splash during free agency, but Rutherford understands that it will be a difficult task.
“As for when you get to free agency, there’s not many top flight players available," he said. "So it’s going to be difficult to find that player, but that’s our goal.”
Andrew Hirsh is a credentialed member of the Carolina Hurricanes media; all quotes were obtained first-hand unless noted otherwise. For updates on the Canes from the press box and the locker room, follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrewhirsh