Believe it or not, hockey has already begun in Raleigh. Informal workouts began Monday, as players flew in from all parts of the country to get back on ice in their Hurricanes jerseys.
Training camp won't begin until the second week of September, and the first preseason game won't be until September 19, but there is some good news for Caniacs waiting longingly for the '11-'12 season; there are 135 days of offseason down and only 42 to go.
Some new faces joined the Hurricanes offseason this summer. Center Tim Brent from Toronto and wingers Alexei Ponikarovsky (out of Los Angeles) and Anthony Stewart (from Winnipeg) join the Hurricanes freshly-strengthened offense. Brian Boucher, leaving from Philadelphia, will take over the backup goalie job, as well, and, in the most shocking signing of them all, big-name defenseman Tomas Kaberle was also added to the fold.
However, this summer will also mark the sad dates of the departures of two longtime Hurricanes: July 1, when Erik Cole signed with Montreal, and July 5, as Joe Corvo was traded to Boston. Though both of them have been traded before and eventually returned, we can only hope at this point that they'll both find their way back to Carolina in the future.
Whether the changes were for the better or worse (we prefer to think that it was the former of those), though, it's not hard to tell that the Carolina Hurricanes are going to enter the '11-'12 season with the end in mind, something they've struggled to do since their '06 Cup victory. Expect a lot of intensity from the Oct. 7th season opener all the way through Christmas, a stretch that generally causes some difficulties in Raleigh.
Meanwhile, it's not just the players that are looking forward to the start up the upcoming year; we writers are too. After analyzing the roster modifications that have been made, here are our six bold predictions for the Hurricanes' 2011-2012 season.
It's frankly undeniable that the loss of Erik Cole deals a humongous blow the Hurricanes' makeshift top six group of forwards. Cole's 26 goals, ranking third on the team, and 26 assists from last season were huge contributions to Carolina's offense, single-handedly accounting for almost one-fourth (nine) of the 'Canes 40 victories.
Nonetheless, even lacking him, this group has a ton of potential to develop into a underrated six-some in '11-'12. Team captain Eric Staal was once again up to par with his skill level last season, amounting for a team-leading 33 goals and 76 points. He'll be an almost-sure bet to duplicate numbers in that range once again.
The real star of the Hurricanes '10-'11 campaign, however, was Jeff Skinner. The 18-year-old phenom won Calder Trophy honors after his 31-goal, 63-point rookie season. While rumors of a "sophomore slump" swirl, the prowess Skinner showed a year ago indicates that his goal-scoring ability will only rise from here as he begins to get more acquainted with the league.
Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen both totaled 19 strikes last season, down from their career highs of 26 and 30, respectively, that both came in recent seasons for Carolina. Still, they are reliable scorers who've shown good chemistry with their teammates. Brandon Sutter, a 14-goal scorer who served primarily as the team's best defensive center, is also definite top-six caliber, despite his true role mostly being played in the team's own end.
Lastly, new additions Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart are viable players who can compete for the final spot. Ponikarovsky faced injury as well as other issues in Los Angeles, but a return to his consistent 15- to 20-goal days that came with Toronto would make him well worth his price. On the other hand, Stewart, age 26, had a breakout year last season in Atlanta with 39 points, meaning another big summer improvement could land him a secure slot on the second line.
Though Carolina and coach Paul Maurice are typically not the kind to keep set-in-stone lines from week to week, the emergence of a legitimate unit of top six forwards could add even more firepower to the Hurricanes' 12-ranked offense.
As was to be anticipated, GM Jim Rutherford left a roster spot unfilled and up for grabs on the Opening Day starting roster. Carolina's latest class of prospective forwards have reached their decision day, and this fall's training camp will probably end up as a very competitive battle between a handful of talented prospects.
Zach Boychuk, the team's first round pick in 2008, has made painfully slow process through the junior and minor leagues of hockey since his selection, but has received good assessments lately and has the skills—and, now, the opportunity—to become a full-time NHLer. Boychuk will be matched stride for stride, though, in his fight for a spot by some other promising youngsters.
Also in the mix for playing time are Zac Dalpe, the '08 second round choice, Drayson Bowman, an '07 third rounder, and Jerome Samson, an undrafted local player who has rapidly progressed through Carolina's ECHL and AHL affiliates. All four received between 15 and 23 NHL games last season, but not one was able to stand out above the rest, as the group combined for only seven goals and 14 points in 84 total appearances.
Though their NHL statistics are certainly not astounding, these four players are all the cream of the crop of a very successful Charlotte Checkers '10-'11 team that went all the way to their Conference Finals. Furthermore, glimpses of their upsides did rise to the surface from time to time in some NHL games during 2010 in particular—like Bowman's April 6, 2010 performance against New Jersey and Boychuk's December 29, 2010 effort against Ottawa—leaving many, including us, to simply wonder what they might be able to do with a solidified roster spot.
The Carolina Hurricanes penalty kill has had a rough ride over recent times. The "PK' unit was 20th last season, 19th the year before, 19th, again, in '08-'09, 26th in '07-'08...and so on. Even with Cam Ward between the pipes, the 'Canes have been consistently ineffective against opposing man-advantage teams for, literally, years and years.
This season, conversely, may finally be the year they break the streak of mediocrity. From the beginning of March on, the Hurricanes penalty killed allowed only six goals on 39 opportunities, an 84.6 kill percentage that easily topped their 81.2 percent mark over the course of the season.
This summer also saw two changes that should further add to the PK's reliability. Tim Brent, former Toronto shot blocker, brings his sacrificial body, faceoff talents and penalty killing-headlined mindset to Raleigh to give Carolina the second part of their two-headed monster in regards to defensive centers (the first head belongs to Brandon Sutter). In his first complete season, Brent had eight goals, 104 hits, 58 blocked shots and was second among all Leafs forwards in shorthanded time on ice per game.
The backup goalie fiasco, the role with which unprepared youngster Justin Peters plagued the Hurricanes in many departments last season, was also fixed with the signing of veteran netminder Brian Boucher. While Peters averaged allowing 1.01 powerplay goals against per 60 minutes of ice time last season, Boucher, with the Flyers, averaged surrendering only 0.64 tallies under the same calculations. While not technically part of the shorthanded unit, that goalie swap could make a significant difference on its own.
All in all, these factors are unquestionably pointing the Hurricanes in the right direction. Though elite status is probably not on the radar screen, it's not much of a stretch to see the 'Canes group as a possible top 10 PK unit in the upcoming season.
We've already let you know of our opinion in an earlier bashing, but the re-signing of incompetent, clueless and outrageously overpaid defenseman Joni Pitkanen simply blew our minds.
When he actually plays in the zone his position describes, the 27-year-old $4.5 million salary-maker looks more lost than an anteater in Antarctica. Pitkanen lacks the skills to perform basic and crucial defensive plays; he can't hit, he can't guard a man, he can't cut off the pass...
So, while the surprise addition of Tomas Kaberle is not truly a bad idea in our minds—players with victorious pasts are always welcome on this club—the notion that Kaberle can join up with Pitkanen as a stable top pairing duo is a recipe for two really bad plus/minus ratings and a boatload of goals against.
The Hurricanes have been unable to put together any long-lasting top pairings for some time now. Last year, the percent of the season that each combination played was all over the board without any consistency whatsoever. Pitkanen and Kaberle, after only a little bit of time together, will also prove themselves unworthy of the designation, and there's few candidates to take their place. Jamie McBain and Derek Joslin are both still on their way up the depth chart; Tim Gleason and Bryan Allen aren't really fit for the workload it would entail.
We have a lot of positive things to predict for the Hurricanes '11-'12 season, but scrapping together an adequate top defensive pairing doesn't appear to be one of those good fortunes.
With our praise for Brian Boucher having already leaked out, there's no harm in continuing the steady flow of accolades over his particular entrance to the team's roster.
Even without comparing him to the Swiss cheese-esque goalie he's replacing, Brian Boucher is a "Grade A" backup to say the least. He's been filling that role for a variety of franchises for almost every season of his 11-year career. At age 34, retirement hasn't yet begun to loom over his outlook, but he's been around long enough to have collected over 300 games and 17,500 minutes of NHL experience.
Last season, Boucher had an impressive 18-10-4 record, a career best, as well as a respectable .916 save percentage in rotation duty for Philadelphia, eventually playing in 34 regular season games. The Rhode Island native also sports a career GAA of 2.69.
Nonetheless, there's little questioning that Cam Ward, coming off another spectacular campaign, will remain the starting goaltender and, truly, a franchise cornerstone next season. Though the Hurricanes have had their troubles since Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy while leading the team to the 2006 Stanley Cup crown, No. 30 definitely hasn't.
Ward's whopping league-leading 74 starts last season failed to wear him down one bit, as the 27-year-old was seventh among all NHL goalies with a .923 save percentage (a career best, as well) and first with 2,191 saves.
He was the go-to guy for Carolina when matches came down to the wire, and when that happened, the team could most of the time count on Ward to get the best result possible. If he, and newcomer Boucher, do that again in '11-'12, they will both be very hard shells to crack.
You knew it was coming.
Scrambling their way through an ultra-competitive Eastern Conference, stacked with perennial powers and jumpstart squads, will be the Carolina Hurricanes, who have the balance, skill and star power to finally avoid that usually-dooming playoff bubble and scrap their route into the postseason.
They didn't need a Flyers-like offseason makeover to become a playoff team; after all, they were only two points short of achieving that goal last spring. However, the moves they did make are enough to push this club over the edge on their own.
The Hurricanes' faceoff aptitude, ranked 29th last season, and penalty kill will be improved by Tim Brent. Their powerplay will now be aided by Anthony Stewart; their experience, by Tomas Kaberle and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Their youthful edge will get a new spark with increased playing time for a number of promising prospects. Their goaltending now has insurance, too.
Yet, while new faces are nice to see, the core of this team was also retained. Well-rounded winger Jussi Jokinen, energetic fan favorite Chad LaRose, depth defenseman Jay Harrison and young forward Jiri Tlusty were all re-signed. Trade deadline acquisitions Bryan Allen and Derek Joslin earned permanent spots in the organization. And, last but by no means least, headlining centerpieces Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner aren't going anywhere, either.
We called these "bold predictions," but we're going to ask you: Is that not an ideal recipe for a dark horse playoff team? Yes, indeed, it is...and that's not even bold, after all.