'Canes have chip on their shoulder after disappointing ending to 2010-11
If you don’t look past the names on the roster, you might not think this Carolina Hurricanes team will be much different from the group who finished just out of the playoffs last April. Compared to the radical adjustments in Philadelphia or Florida, GM Jim Rutherford moves were more subtle. In contrast, the edgy attitude we’re hearing from the players and management in Raleigh as they prepare for the 2011-12 season couldn’t be more different than it was a year ago.
Last year’s Carolina hockey by-word was Transition, a less drastic choice than Rebuild, but not insignificant. The turnover over the previous 12 months was tremendous, with an opening night roster card featuring two new alternate captains plus five rookies. There was excitement in the air partly because there was so much unknown.
In the shift to a youth-oriented strategy built around speed, the team was also one of the smallest in the League, a weakness easily exposed when combined with the lack of NHL experience. Yielding the most shots against per game was just one net result of the disparity.
The second element that defined last season was the absurd travel schedule through the first two months that began with that ill-conceived exhibition game in St Petersburg, Russia and made the first dozen games more about surviving jet lag than winning hockey games. So? By mid-December, every game felt like it was must-win, and Coach Paul Maurice responded by putting enormous demands on his top performers. Eric Staal and Cam Ward, who also figured prominently when Raleigh hosted the All-Star Weekend in January, both registered new highs for minutes played for the season.
While expectations for Carolina last September were all over the place, this year “please be patient” will not cut it. The players, management, and the fans still feel the sting of the Game 82 loss (to Eastern Conference Finalist Tampa Bay) that knocked the home team out of the post-season despite a remarkable 8-2-1 record down the final stretch.
Then what’s changed?
Why will this year be different? Why didn’t Rutherford implement a bigger shake-up, especially in the defensive corps that last season was never the force at the caliber required to be a contender?
Here’s what they’re saying: The 2011-12 Hurricanes are bigger, more experienced, and hungrier. And it doesn’t hurt that the travel required for the first 20 games is at least reasonable.
• Bigger: Adding Bryan Allen at the deadline, then Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart in July (those 3 together averaging 6-foot-4 and 227 lbs.) changes the overall physicality of the team’s identity.
• Experienced: The young forwards competing for the open NHL spots now have another full season in the pros, including an impressive run in Charlotte last spring. Not to mention Jeff Skinner. Having a veteran backup goalie in Brian Boucher means we shouldn’t look for Cam Ward to lead the league for shots faced by a goalie in a single season.
• Hungrier: The set-up of training camp is far more competitive than previous years with more players invited, three intra-squad scrimmages (after going without for three years straight), and six pre-season games against four different teams. When the final cuts are made, the surviving players should be come out of the gates Oct. 7 battle-tested and mentally focused.
The NHL schedulers got it right by opening the season against the same opponent that ended the Canes hopes last season: Tampa Bay returns to the RBC Center for a revenge match. Then Carolina will head up to Washington for the second half of the back-to-back facing the division rival Capitals, who never fail to bring out Carolina’s most intense efforts.
To further instill a sense of urgency, the team will carry seven defensemen and possibly 13 forwards, something not seen since 2009 due to budget constraints. This new potential demotion to the press box is intended to force the extra effort from each player to earn his ice-time.
A few roster questions remain, including who will line up at center. Eric Staal, Brandon Sutter and newly signed Tim Brent are penciled in at #1, 3, and 4, but who will center the second line? Right wing Tuomo Ruutu was asked to take that role at the end of last season, but his face-off numbers were dismal. With a summer to prepare, can he hold his own?
With Erik Cole gone, who will end up as Eric Staal’s right wing? Is either Stewart or Ponikarovsky up to that challenge?
How will the defensive pairings set up with minute-eater Joe Corvo gone? Who will be paired with Tomas Kaberle, who comes to Carolina after his first Stanley Cup win and less-than-favorable reviews out of Boston? Who will earn the #6 spot?
Lastly, Rutherford’s roster moves may be described as tweaks, but the shakeup behind the bench in April is the biggest we’ve seen since Peter Laviolette was shown the door in December 2008.
A franchise outsider, Dave Lewis, long-time assistant with the Detroit Red Wings who had a 15 year NHL career prior, was hired to run the Carolina back end. Former captain Rod Brind’Amour assumes the role of assistant/development coach. Maurice, who is in the final year of his contract, remains a lightning rod among the Carolina faithful; if the Hurricanes falter early, I expect those clamoring that “Mo must go” to resume their calls.
Additions: Tomas Kaberle, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart, Tim Brent, Brian Boucher
Subtractions: Erik Cole, Joe Corvo, Cory Stillman, Troy Bodie
Fresh Faces from the Farm:
- Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe comprise a threesome of young forwards who all saw some games in Raleigh last season and will be competing for a spot in the top-nine.
- Justin Faulk is a highly touted 19-year-old who won the NCAA Championship with UM-Duluth before signing a contract in April. A smooth-skating right-shot puck-mover, he likely won’t see the NHL club until the spring.
- Bobby Sanguinetti, acquired from the NY Rangers at the 2010 draft, missed most of last season in Charlotte with hip surgery in November. Is this his year to breakthrough?
- 2011 picks Ryan Murphy and Victor Rask should be at Camp, but neither is expected to make the NHL this go around; but after Jeff Skinner, anything’s possible.
X-Factor: Tim Gleason
The Michigan native’s performance dropped off drastically in 2010-11 compared to 2009-10, leaving the defense with a conspicuous hole. This is a contract year for the 28 year old. If he can return to form and lead on the ice, expect the rest of the team to benefit in a big way.
Breakout: Tuomo Ruutu
Ruutu’s chemistry with the Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner was apparent from the start last year. The 28-year-old Finn didn’t get the credit he deserved for his physically punishing style (with the 2nd most hits – 309 - in the League) while setting a career high for points (57). If Maurice slots him to be the pivot for Skinner again this year, Ruutu’s contributions will be hard to ignore.
On the Hot Seat: Zach Boychuk
Carolina’s first-round pick (14th overall) in 2008, and a clutch two-time Gold Medal winner at World Juniors with Team Canada, has yet to live up to expectations. With so many other young forwards stepping up, it could be that Boychuk’s value to the ‘Canes will be not on the ice, but on the trade-block.
Bold Prediction: Carolina comes out of the gates on fire and upsets the presumptions about a two-team race in the Southeast Division.
The Final Word: One thing is certain – no one in Raleigh wants the success of the whole season to be measured by the outcome of Game 82 once again. The pressure to win early and often looks to be the dominant motivator, top to bottom, for Carolina in the first half this season.
RLD’s Carolina related off-season posts:
June 30: Carolina one of the best during the frenzy (Link)
July 5: Hurricanes make changes to defense (Link)
July 28: Southeast Division Off-season Grades (Link)
Photo credit: Getty Images
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