With recent departures, the Carolina Hurricanes are now, more than ever, Eric Staal's team.
As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
As we continue towards the playoff picture, let's check in with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Key Additions: D Anton Babchuk, D Joe Corvo, C Patrick O’Sullivan, D Bobby Sanguinetti, RW Jared Staal.
Key Subtractions: LW Ray Whitney, RW Tim Conboy, D Brian Pothier, D Alexandre Picard, C Rod Brind’Amour.
It seemed like as good a time as any for the Carolina Hurricanes to shed the age and sprout out with youth, and that’s exactly what they did this offseason. After a considerably disappointing regular-season finish, the Hurricanes reevaluated their roster in an effort to determine just how playoff-ready they actually were.
Long-time leader Rod Brind’Amour retired from the game while 35-plus unrestricted free agent Ray Whitney headed west to the Phoenix Coyotes. Carolina seized the opportunity, replacing cornerstones of the franchise with up-and-coming youth as well as bolstering the blueline. What follows could be a coming of age season for the former, and still recent Stanley Cup Champions.
As captain, Eric Staal’s role has become more relevant than ever. The veteran leaders that led the Stanley Cup charge have all departed, leaving Staal in charge of the franchise from here on out. Luckily, Staal proved last season that he could get back to his point-per-game progression, and was approaching the dynamic scoring talent he had a few seasons ago (when he had 45 goals).
Staal’s teammates Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov were both there the last time the 'Canes went to the finals, albeit with Samsonov in a different uniform. Though both clearly have played their best hockey in a Carolina uniform, neither is doing themselves any favors on the injury front and could open up more spots for youngsters if they stay sidelined.
Young players like Jussi Jokinen (30 goals) and Brandon Sutter (21 goals) will be more relied upon to keep up the scoring this year, while emerging stars, like Zach Boychuk and Patrick O’Sullivan, need sustained success to prove they belong. Carolina’s roster is deep on potential, so sooner or later, somebody will step up to the plate.
Tuomo Ruutu is likely the one other player to watch in Carolina this year, if only because he’s much better than he played last season. Ruutu was on the cusp of a 30-35 goal campaign with 35-40 assists before injuries forced a major setback in his style. Playing in Carolina has jumpstarted his career once more, much like it did for Jokinen, Samsonov, and Cole.
Defensively, the Hurricanes are the third team left wondering what to do with Joni Pitkanen. Once a very protected asset in the Philadelphia Flyers organization, Pitkanen is a serviceable defender, who tied his career best in points last season. But with one year to go on an expiring contract, one has to wonder if he’s playing for a pay raise or something more this season.
As a preemptive strike, the Hurricanes re-signed Joe Corvo after his brief playoff run with the Capitals, and then added Anton Babchuk for a little more depth. Corvo still has a lot of usefulness on the power play for a Carolina team needing a defensive quarterback in such situations. Babchuk, meanwhile, performed very well in the KHL last season and could, like so many others, be rejuvenated in a Hurricanes jersey.
Underrated defenseman Tim Gleason rounds out the top of Carolina’s defensive corps, hoping to play a full season and avoid any knee-to-knee run-ins with Alex Ovechkin. Gleason once put up monster numbers in the OHL, but has yet to replicate them in the NHL.
Fantasy forecasts for last season had Cam Ward as a potential steal to any general manager willing to take him. His numbers had greatly improved each season in the NHL, indicating the sky was the limit. But a crucial blow to Carolina’s chances occurred when Ward was taken out for nearly half the season thanks to unfortunate injuries. He didn’t returned to form until very late last year, at which time the Hurricanes were cooked.
Excluding this past season’s blunders, Ward is the kind of goalie who can start 70 times a season and produce 40 wins. Two seasons ago, he was Mr. Consistency by winning 39 games with a 2.44 goals against average and .916 save percentage. Those kind of exemplary numbers land you in the playoffs year after year.
His backup, Justin Pogge, is a former Anaheim prospect that hasn’t shown he’s ready to be anything more than a backup to this point. Pogge may not have much experience, but assuming the worst would happen, he’ll build it fast.
Once a highly-touted New York Rangers prospect, defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti was little more of an afterthought when the Rangers dealt the former first-rounder to Carolina this offseason. Sanguinetti has already be deemed one of the fastest skaters in the league, and he’s got an offensive potential that hasn’t been fully explored.
The Hurricanes rebounded nicely from a horrendous start last season, but were too little, too late. With a full season of health, Carolina’s a shoe-in for the playoffs. But even one injury to a major player could cost the team everything. Second in the Southeast, Ninth in the Eastern Conference.