With the signing of talented but enigmatic winger Alexander Semin to a one-year contract worth $7 million, the Carolina Hurricanes have become the outright favorites to win the Southeast Division next season.
Carolina had a slow start last year but came on strong late in the season to finish with 82 points in 82 games, just 10 points behind the division-winning Panthers. But of all the teams in the Southeast, the Hurricanes have made the most far-reaching changes during this offseason, and most experts think they underachieved last year to begin with.
The first big move the Canes made this summer was to acquire Jordan Staal from Pittsburgh and then sign him to a long-term contract.With the addition of Semin, Carolina the ability to put together a top line and/or a power play unit featuring Jordan Staal, Semin and Eric Staal, a very formidable trio.
Add a young Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose and the the Hurricanes have some depth to fill out their top six forwards.
Carolina's depth up front is also strong with players like Jiri Tlusty, Anthony Stewart, Zach Boychuk and Patrick Dwyer. Overall, the Hurricanes should be bigger, more skilled and deeper up front than they were a year ago when they struggled at times to score goals. The additional size will make Carolina tougher to play against than they were in the recent past.
The additions of Semin and Staal will particularly help the Carolina special teams, both of which were below average last season. The Canes ranked 19th in the league on the power play with a 16.7 percent success rate, but that should improve with Semin, who has scored 55 power play goals and added 101 helpers with the man advantage during his NHL career. In addition, Jordan Staal has been a top penalty killer with Pittsburgh and should boost the Canes 22nd ranked PK unit.
The Capitals and Lightning may have more top end talent than the Canes, but they don't have as much depth top to bottom. Talent-wise, the Hurricanes are at least in the same ball park with their top division opponents.
On defense, the Hurricanes are solid, if not spectacular, with veterans like Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo complimenting younger talent like Justin Faulk and Jamie McBain. Other highly-touted youngsters like Bobby Sanguinetti and Ryan Murphy may not start the season with the big club but may add some punch later in the season as they gain experience and continue their development.
Overall, Winnipeg and Florida probably provide the biggest competition on the blueline in the division, but the Hurricanes can match up with any of them.
Perhaps the biggest advantage Carolina has in this division is between the pipes. Cam Ward is 28 and in the prime of his career. He has already won a Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, something that no other team in the division can boast.
Ward has also been remarkably consistent, winning 30 or more games in five of the last six seasons and playing at least 60 games in the same number of seasons. While Winnipeg's Ondrej Pavelec has played well and Washington has a strong young duo in Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, none of them have the experience and accomplishments to match what Ward has accomplished thus far in his NHL career.
The Hurricanes have added top-line young talent in Staal and Semin, some experience in Corvo and already had the division's top goalie.
As for opponents, most experts feel the Panthers overachieved last year to begin with, and they lost key defenseman Jason Garrison. The Lightning still have major questions in goal, while the Capitals have identity issues, a rookie head coach and two young and talented—but unproven—goalies. Winnipeg is still in rebuilding mode, and while they may be competitive on paper, they lack the scoring prowess and depth that the Hurricanes now have in their lineup.
Sure, it's only late July, but as of right now, on paper, the Carolina Hurricanes have to be considered the favorites in the Southeast Division.