Carolina Hurricanes Complete 2010-2011 Season Preview and Offseason Wrap-Up

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Carolina Hurricanes Complete 2010-2011 Season Preview and Offseason Wrap-Up
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After Friday's European Sendoff preseason game against the Atlanta Thrashers, the Carolina Hurricanes will board a plane to cross the Atlantic and prepare to begin their 2010-2011 regular season.

Hopefully, they can get off to a better start than last year, where the Hurricanes were last in the league for much of the first half of the season.

However, with a younger, fresher, and more talented roster composed of usual team veterans as well as the best new prospects from the nearly-done training camp, Carolina should finally be poised to start quickly out of the gate.

While this offseason wasn't a headline-generating one for GM Jim Rutherford and the Hurricanes franchise, the perfect moves were done to give this 2010 'Canes team a completely new look going into this season.

A plethora of draft picks collected through several Trade Deadline deals last spring were used to add even more prospects to the farm system, as well as fill a needed center position with seventh overall draft pick Jeff Skinner.

There were also several smart trades and signings over the summer to fill in the few gaps left.

As we grow closer to the NHL season opener on Oct. 7, a game the Hurricanes will play in, Carolina will have come from one of the oldest teams in the league at this point last year to the fifth youngest out of 30 teams.

Five players starting from Day One will be two-way contract holders beginning their first full NHL season.

However, the inexperience of this team may not be a harmful thing. Other than Skinner, all of these players have spent years developing at the AHL level, and have battled through a competitive training camp (which began with 29 players and 17 true contenders fighting for eight remaining roster spots) to rightfully earn a chance.

With that said, this year's Carolina Hurricanes complete season preview will begin with a recap of the offseason changes that took place in Raleigh.

That will be followed by a breakdown of each unit (forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders.

There will also be a brief preview for the Charlotte Checkers, the 'Canes new AHL affiliate, a month-by-month schedule analysis, and, lastly, three keys to success for the Hurricanes in the upcoming season.

 

Offseason Changes

Re-Signings: D Zach Fitzgerald, RW Jerome Samson, LW Jiri Tlusty, G Justin Peters, LW Nicholas Blanchard, D Casey Borer, RW Nick Dodge, D Bryan Rodney, G Justin Pogge, D Brett Carson

Only one of these contracts were either one-way deals and not one amounted to a cap hit more than $600,000, just further demonstrating the lack of activity in Carolina this summer.

All of these re-signed players have also already been assigned to begin the year at the AHL level except for Brett Carson, who's a likely candidate to be on the plane to Europe, Jiri Tlusty, who's one-way deal was a bit shocking, and goalies Justin Peters and Justin Pogge, who are engaged in a last-minute battle for the backup position behind Cam Ward.

Other notable names on this list include Jerome Samson, who led the 'Canes AHLers and finished third in the league in points last season, and Bryan Rodney, who played 22 NHL games last season at age 25 but was surprisingly sent to the minors, another victim of the added competition.

Departures: C Rod Brind'Amour (retired), LW Ray Whitney (signed by Coyotes), D Brian Pothier (not re-signed), D Alexandre Picard (signed by Canadiens), G Manny Legace (not re-signed), C Michael Ryan (not-resigned), RW Steven Goertzen (not-resigned)

The losses list here appears longer than it really is.

Rod Brind'Amour's options at the end of last season were clear, based on his play (and horrible +/- ratings) over the past several seasons; retire, or be bought out.

Thankfully, he chose to keep his pride and just retire. The gap he left as the fourth-line center will be filled easily, too.

Ray Whitney, on the other hand, will be missed. Although he was a major name being tossed around at last March's trade deadline and was an expected departure, his 58 points and veteran leadership (as an assistant captain) will be missed.

Besides them, Legace was simply an injury fill-in last season, Pothier and Picard were just trade deadline dump-offs on the already-eliminated Hurricanes and had no long-term plans here, injury-prone 30-year-old Michael Ryan had worn out his welcome in the AHL, and Steven Goertzen played his first and last year in Carolina last season.

 

Additions: C Jeff Skinner (through NHL draft), C Jon Matsumoto (trade from Flyers), D Bobby Sanguinetti (trade from Rangers), C Riley Nash (trade from Oilers), D Anton Babchuk (signed from KHL), D Joe Corvo (signed from Capitals), C Patrick O'Sullivan (signed from Oilers)

In addition to drafting Jeff Skinner with their first-round pick to add another competitor to the biggest training camp competition, center, the 'Canes were also active traders on the second day of the draft.

Prospects Jon Matsumoto, Bobby Sanguinetti, and Riley Nash were acquired from their respective teams, all of whom (especially Sanguinetti, who could start in the first game) should see some NHL action this upcoming season.

Jim Rutherford also brought several former players back. Defenders Anton Babchuk, who led the league in powerplay goals by defensemen with the 'Canes in 2008-2009, and Joe Corvo, who had become a fan favorite and top-pairing offensive defensemen in his three partial seasons with the Hurricanes, are both returning.

A late signing was also Patrick O'Sullivan, who will attempt to revitalize his sputtering career in Carolina like many others have done (see Samsonov, Sergei; Ruutu, Tuomo; Jokinen, Jussi; Pitkanen, Joni).

 

Positional Analysis

Forwards

A very youthful group of forwards for the 'Canes should be an interesting unit to watch. With the one-way contracts dealt out for the upcoming season, this is how the depth chart, at a glance, could look:

LW Jussi Jokinen - C Eric Staal - RW Erik Cole

LW Tuomo Ruutu - C Brandon Sutter - RW Chad LaRose

LW Jiri Tlusty -      ???     - RW Tom Kostopoulos

???    -       ???      -       ???

Although let it be known that that projected depth chart above is a very basic outline, as, with the new players filling in the "???" positions, the coaching staff suggests shifting some of the more veteran players to take on the more-defensively challenging center positions.

However, given that those eight players are pretty much guaranteed of a spot based on their one-way contracts, the competition during training camp was mostly for the three remaining spots, and that battle is drawing to a close.

Superstar and new team captain Eric Staal will lead a young yet potential-laden group of forwards for the first time this season, due to Brind'Amour's departure to the team staff. The 26-year-old will also be the oldest of the four.

Staal, who has reached the 70-point plateau for five straight years, failed to hit the 30-goal milestone last season for the first time since '03-'04, but you can't forget his 128 combined (regular season and playoffs) points during the 'Canes Stanley Cup year.

He will be backed up by 2009 breakout star Brandon Sutter, who had just six points in 50 games for his career before exploding for 21 goals and 19 assists in 72 appearances last season.

The 21-year-old center, newly named an assistant captain, is the latest star in a hockey family and could quickly become a household name around the hockey world.

The third- and fourth-line slots, though, are more or less in question. If another more experienced player, such as Jussi Jokinen, who has been discussed, doesn't move over to fill the hole, it will be left to either Patrick O'Sullivan, who's once-heralded career needs a new spark, Jeff Skinner, who has never even played an AHL game, Patrick Dwyer, who did play 58 games last season, or Zac Dalpe, who's stayed under the radar throughout training camp.

Patrick O'Sullivan is the safest bet of the foursome, as he has 280 NHL games under his belt, more than four times the other three combined, and did top 50 points in Los Angeles one season.

However, last year in Edmonton was dreadful, with just 34 points and a league-worst minus-35 rating, and he could use a clean slate to start again. For more on that, read a previous article of mine.

Jeff Skinner, who left his OHL team to try for a spot, has the reputation to take the other slot, but Patrick Dwyer won't be pleased with that, as the Hurricanes displayed their confidence in him in '09-'10, allowing him to see ice time in 58 games, where he recorded seven goals and five assists.

Zac Dalpe is the biggest longshot, but, as a second-round pick in 2008, he has more experience in hockey than his eight career AHL games may suggest.

On the wings, just two more positions are open, and those may end up being filled by the losers of the competition of centers.

Sergei Samsonov, who was considered a potential buyout this offseason after scoring 29 points at a $2.5 million cap hit last year, will start the season on injured reserve with a neck issue.

Jiri Tlusty, additionally, just controversially signed his first one-way contract this offseason despite only 92 career NHL games and some off-the-ice problems in Toronto.

Those factors identify the left side as a weak point, but hopefully multi-threat Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi "The Juice" Jokinen can hold up the unit.

Ruutu played just 54 games last season due to a season-ending injury in January during a fight with Colorado's Darcy Tucker, one of the nastiest player rivalries in the league, but still had 35 points, which had him on pace to match his 54-point, 26-goal campaign in 2008-2009.

Conversely, Jokinen missed just one game last year and topped the 'Canes with 30 goals, in addition to 35 more assists. That total was well over twice as much as his measly 27 points the previous year, when he was acquired for practically nothing near the trade deadline.

With those two solid studs holding up the left side, the opposite position on the right will be left to an underperforming duo in Erik Cole and Chad LaRose as well as gritty veteran Tom Kostopoulos.

Both of the former two, Cole and LaRose, have shown that they are well below average for their position unless paired with Eric Staal.

LaRose, especially, proved this last spring when he scored 11 of his 28 total points during the last seven games of the season while paired with Staal.

Cole, on the other hand, played just 40 games last season due to a back injury and had a minus-nine rating and just 16 points, only one more than his total in 17 with the 'Canes in late '08-'09.

Kostopoulos was fairly consistent in his first season in Carolina, playing all 82 games with 21 points, 106 PIM as a result of his willingness to fight, playing a significant role killing penalties, and tied for third in +/-, all for less than $1.0 million.

Drayson Bowman is the one prospect winger taking the plane to Europe, although that doesn't secure him a spot. Bowman scored twice in nine games of his NHL debut last March, and had 32 points in 59 AHL games.

Another winger, former first round draft pick Zach Boychuk, was expected to be a definite to start out the season at the NHL level for the first time this season, but was surprisingly sent to the minors after an "inconsistent" (quote from Jim Rutherford) camp.

With a youthful group of forwards such as these, it's very important that the 'Canes score plenty of goals in their first games to build confidence among their first-time starters.

In addition to Skinner, Dwyer, Bowman, and Dalpe, who hope to have a place on the team come Thursday, the development of several other players who haven't lived up to their potential is important.

A production boost from right wing is crucial, as well as another world-class season from Eric Staal, who is quickly becoming the clear centerpiece of the team. Hopefully, though, the entire team can be relied on to create goals often.

Defense

Joe Corvo   -   Joni Pitkanen

Tim Gleason   -   Anton Babchuk

Jay Harrison   -   ???

The re-arrivals of Corvo and Babchuk will greatly aid the defensive corps for Carolina, but another player could be an even bigger factor.

Rookie Jamie McBain, who was spectacular in last spring's NHL stint, is one of the best up-and-coming defensemen in the league, and should play a major role in this year's defense despite the lack of a one-way deal.

McBain, a second round draft pick in 2006, had 10 points and a plus-six rating, leading the team for the season, in 14 NHL games last season. He also led the AHL defense with 40 points and a plus-11 rating in 68 games during his first season there.

Although the spot left open is in the final pairing, which would put him alongside the 'Canes other possibly ill-advised one-way contract signing of the summer, which went to longtime injury replacement Jay Harrison, McBain could easily work his way all the way to the top in just a few weeks.

That could be a tough task, though, considering the likes of players he'd have to overtake. Joe Corvo, as mentioned in the "additions" section, can be invincible when he's on his stride, and his combination with Joni Pitkanen creates a fearsome offensive threat from the back end. Pitkanen, still just age 27, had six goals and a whopping 40 assists this past year.

Tim Gleason, recently appointed assistant captain, certainly deserves the title. Gleason is a team player to the bone, not afraid to stand up for opponents, and is also arguably the best 'Canes defender in their own end.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 2010 Olympian for Team USA had a career high in goals this past season with five, but that's certainly not the strength of his game, as he had 149 hits and 115 blocked shots in just 61 appearances.

Anton Babchuk, who has a rocket from the 'point' but not much of a defensive game, and Harrison, who played 33 games last season for six points, a minus-eight rating, and 67 hits, will likely make up the lowest combination.

Lastly, Bobby Sanguinetti, formerly of the Rangers, will fight for playing time despite only six career NHL games. The 22-year-old may need some more work before he can succeed in the NHL, but he can't be overlooked.

 

Goaltending

Attempting to put a streaky, injury-filled 2009-2010 year behind him will be franchise cornerstone Cam Ward, who put up a miserable 18-23-5 record last season.

However, some of those losses can be blamed on a shaky team around him, as his .916 save percentage matched his statistic the previous year, when the 'Canes went to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He should be seeing more appearances, too, with a healthy back and more durable defense that won't let in so many shots. The goals-against average, in turn, should also decrease, as it swelled to 2.69 in '08-'09.

The 'Canes also will have a better long-term option behind Ward than Manny Legace from last year, no matter who that long-term player will be.

Justin Peters showed flashes of brilliance as he went 6-3-0 filling in for Ward last season and also pitched a 32-save shutout in his one preseason appearance in September of this calendar year, but apparently Pogge, who's flip-flopped around minor league teams for years, has equal promise in the eyes of the 'Canes staff.

 

Charlotte Checkers (AHL) Preview

In 2010-2011, the Charlotte Checkers will play their first season under the Hurricanes franchise after the 'Canes affiliation shifted away from the Albany (NY) River Rats. Their season will begin October 15th against Wilkes-Barre, the Penguins' minor league team.

The forwards will be led by aforementioned Zach Boychuk, who had 38 points in 52 games, and Jerome Samson, who led the team with 78 points in 74 games. Recent trade additions Jon Matsumoto and Riley Nash will also get high-profile roles as they search for an NHL call-up, and Oskar Osala and Jared Staal, Eric's brother, will secure the wings.

On defense, an inexperienced group will be headlined by recent big-name signees Kyle Lawson and Michal Jordan, as well as Bryan Rodney, who played 22 games in the NHL last season and also recorded 35 points in 54 games from the Rats' blueline.

The goaltending will be composed of a top-class pairing of Mike Murphy and the loser of the Peters-Pogge battle.

The Checkers will open with two home games on Friday and Sunday and then embark on a five-game road trip to finish out October, with November beginning with 10 of the first 11 games at home, including their first game against the defending AHL champion Hershey Bears.

 

2010-2011 Schedule Analysis

After a seven game trip away from the RBC Center to start the season, the rest of the year should be packed with home games. However, the remaining part of the season won't be without its twists, turns, and scheduling oddities. The following analysis, taken from another previous article, will take each month one-by-one to break down the 'Canes upcoming season:

Early October will be a time full of many openers for the 'Canes. They will begin the season with a back-to-back in Helsinki, Finland against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 7-8, part of the 2010 NHL Premiere event.

They'll return for their North American opener in Ottawa on October 14. Carolina will make their United States 2010-2011 debut five days later in San Jose, and then finally have their home opener on the 27th against rival Washington after a four-game West Coast run visiting the Canucks, Sharks, Kings, and Coyotes.

October will finish up its 10 games with a back-to-back, taking the 'Canes to Madison Square Garden on the 29th and then back to Raleigh to host the Penguins on the 30th.

The month actually will be one of the quieter ones. October's 10 games are the least of any full month, compared to 14 in November, January, and March.

November will open up with a bang just two nights later as Carolina travels to Philadelphia to take on the defending Eastern Conference Champions.

On the 3rd, the 'Canes will begin a stretch where they'll have seven of ten games in the RBC Center, including a rematch of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals when they host Edmonton on the 9th.

The beginning of December will also bring a strange stretch of three consecutive back-to-backs, which also encompasses a five-game road trip following a game against Colorado in Raleigh on Dec. 3.

In that stretch will be a road date in Nashville, the final Western Conference team (along with Minnesota and Dallas) that Carolina will play twice.

The trip finishes up in Atlanta for the first meeting of six between the Thrashers and Hurricanes, beginning the annual rivalry.

Carolina will have three games during Christmas week, visiting Tampa Bay on the 20th, hosting Montreal on the 23rd, and then staying home for Washington on the 26th. Following yet another of the 21 back-to-backs the Hurricanes will play this season, the 'Canes will then kick off 2011 with a game against the Devils in Raleigh on Jan. 1.

A Jan. 13 game in Buffalo will make the Sabres the last of the 14 other Eastern Conference teams to begin their four-game season series with the Hurricanes. The two teams will play each other three times in March and April.

Boston will visit the Carolinas on Jan. 18 for the back end of a home-and-home between the two opponents, the last of five matinee games over the course of the year.

Following the five-day All-Star Game break, once the excitement of the event dies down in Raleigh, the 'Canes will finish their first four-game series of the season, playing the Bruins again on Feb. 1.

From the 8th to the 16th, the 'Canes will embark on yet another five-game road swing, visiting Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and New Jersey twice.

Once they return from that "vacation," the Hurricanes will have their longest homestand of the season (four games) to get back to normal. The Flyers, Rangers, Pens, and most notably the Devils will be the opponents.

The game against New Jersey on the 19th will be the third game between the two sides in just 11 days, and will also finish out the season series.

Just before the trade deadline, the Hurricanes will get their one and only try in Chicago to defeat the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, who did fall to the 'Canes 4-2 in their one hookup last season.

On March 11, Carolina will resume their interrupted six-game set with the Capitals, who they met four times in the fall but had not played since the day after Christmas.

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A similar situation will be brought into play on the 22nd, when the 'Canes host the Senators for the first (and last) time since Dec. 29, despite meeting them three times in late 2010.

For the final 12 games of the year, including the match with Ottawa, eight of them will be in the RBC Center, hopefully giving the Hurricanes a convenient chance to finish strong.

The middle six games will also be the second of two stretches of three straight back-to-back matches, including the final game against rival Washington on March 29th.

After hosting the Red Wings for the first time in almost three calendar years, Carolina will play the 81st and 82nd games of their 82-game regular season with a inner-division back-to-back, playing in Atlanta on April 8th and then hosting the Lightning on April 9.

 

Five Keys To Success In 2010-2011

As the start of the season grows closer, it's clear that the Hurricanes have some key things that need to happen if they want to really improve from last season's disaster.

Before last year, I pointed out in my season preview three other things that needed to happen: powerplay success, solid Cam Ward, and a productive fourth line.

As it turned out, the powerplay dropped from 18th to 22nd, Cam Ward only played 40 games and struggled from time to time, and injuries and Rod Brind'Amour's continued decline hit the fourth line hard.

So, with that in mind, here are five crucial points that could be important if they not only want to improve from last year, but compete for the playoffs.

1. Cam Ward and Eric Staal Returning to Stardom: Both franchise keystones saw a drop in their play last season. Can Ward and Staal make '10-'11 the year they both return to their former All-Star-worthy seasons?

2. A Physical, Defensively-Sound Defense: Last season, the Hurricanes were fourth out of 30 teams in total team hits, 10th in blocked shots, eighth in takeaways, and but ninth-highest in shots allowed.

To maintain those relatively good statistics, and perhaps even improve on the shots allowed, would be huge for the team and Cam Ward, who needs to be brought back to being the starter on his own slowly.

3. Special Teams Improvement: The Hurricanes haven't been awful in special teams lately, but they certainly have left something to be desired.

Since their Stanley Cup victory, the four seasons since, beginning in '06-'07, have not had the best powerplays, as their overall rankings as a team, 25th, 18th, 18th, and 22nd, respectively, are easily in the bottom third of the league.

The same is true for the penalty kill, where they have been 26th, 19th, and 19th over the past three seasons. Improve here, henceforth, is vital.

4. A Quick Start to the Season: The Hurricanes will start with seven games on the road, but then return with six out of the next nine in Raleigh.

If the 'Canes can make it to the homestand with no major injuries (Samsonov will also probably be back in the lineup by that point) and a winning record, it should really help build confidence in some of the younger players on the team, which could be absolutely necessary if the injury bug decides to strike again.

5. Success by the Charlotte Checkers: A talented, winning AHL team will also go a long way in doing what I mentioned above, although it will be motivating the players looking for a call-up, instead.

The added competition could drive the two-way contract holders who are holding an NHL spot, as well as some of the less-talented one-way contract holders, like Jiri Tlusty and Jay Harrison, to play even better.

With a lineup as young and unproven as the one the Hurricanes have now, they know  there are plenty of key points, as discussed above, that need to happen quickly. However, they know they have the talent to do it.

That's why I have the 'Canes finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference and third in the Southeast Division with 89 points, good enough for the playoffs and perhaps for an exciting first-round matchup with the rival Washington Capitals.

Although that is clearly a confident prediction, compared to other experts, it's obvious that they can do it. And we'll begin to see how close they already are to that goal just this Thursday in Helsinki.

 

Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes , although he recently resigned as community leader. In his two years so far with the site, he has written over 225 articles and received over 200,000 total reads.

Visit his profile to read more, or follow him on Twitter

 

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