- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Excuse me, I'm looking for the Carolina Hurricanes team that went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002. Oh, they don't live here anymore? Sorry to have disturbed you. Please go on with your rebuilding.
Although many predicted the 'Canes would bounce back last season after going from the Cup final in 2002 to the worst record in the NHL, the 'Canes once again struggled to get up off the mat. Saddled with an anemic offense (their 172 goals were the fewest in the NHL and only one more than the previous season when they finished 30th overall), the 'Canes struggled from the outset to get back to a competitive level of play.
Proven scorers Ron Francis, Rod Brind'Amour and Jeff O'Neill, along with Erik Cole and others, saw their production fall well below expectations, which put considerable pressure on the defense and goaltending. Their power play ranked 30th in the league, while their penalty killing was 24th.
After being fired in the rumor mill literally dozens of times, Paul Maurice, the NHL's longest-serving coach, finally heard his name called for real on Dec. 15. He was replaced by former Islanders coach Peter Laviolette.
General manager Jim Rutherford continued to remake the Hurricanes, acquiring scoring potential in Justin Williams from Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Danny Markov. Center Ron Francis, the face of the franchise, was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline and will not be back, at least not in a playing capacity. Defenseman Sean Hill signed with the Florida Panthers last week while Rutherford inked former Atlanta Thrashers rearguard Frantisek Kaberle to a two-year deal the same day.
The most significant change will be in net. Rutherford opted to save money by not offering Kevin Weekes a qualifying deal despite a solid year (2.33 GAA, .912 save percentage). Instead, Rutherford dealt for Anaheim Mighty Ducks backup Martin Gerber, who will split duties with the team's top goaltending prospect Cam Ward.
In all, the team bears little resemblance to the one that shocked the hockey world in spring 2002 by upending New Jersey, Montreal and Toronto en route to the franchise's first final, a five-game loss to the powerful Detroit Red Wings.
Rutherford spoke with ESPN.com about the continued overhauling of the franchise:
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season?
Rutherford: We had, like all teams do at the first of the year, we had a good feel for the team, but we couldn't score all year. We actually generated a lot of scoring chances, but our top scorers were a little bit off, they weren't going at the numbers they were in previous years. And our power play was not very efficient. But during the season we added Justin Williams, and before that Pavel Brendl.
It needed to change. We went to the finals with a good team and great goaltending and very good coaching at the time, but we weren't the caliber of a Colorado or Detroit that goes every year. We were old at specific spots. That following year, we really dropped off. After that, we really started to transition the team, transition to a younger team. We've made a pretty big change. We've already announced that Ron Francis won't be returning. Now we've got a bunch of young forwards we think we can build around. Jeff O'Neill? He was actually hurt all year but played through it. O'Neill's production will go up because he's a very talented player and he's going to be healthy. I'm sure two or three of these young guys will jump forward.
Defensively, we were pretty good. We're not finished with our defense yet. Our goaltending was good, Kevin Weekes. But not as a tandem. This year we're going to go with Gerber and our first pick from 2002, Cam Ward, who had really good numbers in the Western Hockey League. I think our goaltending will be better as a whole.
ESPN.com: Which player made the biggest strides in your estimation, had the biggest impact?
Rutherford: Josef Vasicek. That was his best season. He was very good. He's big, he's strong. He's just starting. He's got several other steps to go through, but he got 19 goals playing 17 minutes a game. A player like him should be about 20 minutes or so.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey?
Rutherford: It's not one player because one player doesn't make a team. But certainly Jeff O'Neill. When he had 40 goals and then 30, and 30 to last year only having 14. If he goes back to the 30-goal mark, it changes our whole team. And Erik Cole ended up with 18 goals, but I think he's a guy that could get to the 25 goal line if he had it all going all season. He's still a bit inconsistent. And of course Brind'Amour dropped off last year, too.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Rutherford: Our special teams have to be better. Look at the teams that had success in the playoffs, they all have solid special teams. I think the biggest thing is having somebody that can quarterback our power play. We haven't had someone like that for a long time. Frank Kaberle will help that, but ideally if we had one more guy, like having a Sean Hill playing with Kaberle, but Hill signed with Florida. Brad Fast who played at Michigan State has one year of pro under his belt. He's actually a guy that fits that bill. He can feel free to do it right from the first day of camp, but I can't start projecting.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL right now?
Rutherford: Brad Fast would be one. Danny Richmond. And of course our first pick at the draft, Andrew Ladd. Last year, we did not predict Eric Staal would start the season with our club. Andrew Ladd will get the same opportunity coming into camp. And of course Cam Ward, who hasn't played on our team. The backup job is his to lose not to win.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
Rutherford: I think my favorite moment was when Eric Staal, right away, had such a great training camp. When you don't hand something to a young player and he earns it, it's a great feeling for everybody on the team. He just went out and went about his business like a veteran.
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Rutherford: Just the whole year. The least favorite moment, though, is when you get to the point that you have to change the coach. Paul Maurice was very good. He'd been here a long time, but there came a point when we had to make a change. And I think we made the right change. Peter's very demanding and makes players accountable immediately. And it's really what this team needed at the time.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Rutherford: There's no break. If I have a break, I love to play golf, but I don't play 18 holes without thinking about something to do with work.
ESPN.com: Does it affect your driving or your putting?
Rutherford: You never know. But at some point in time when you're out there, something's going to pop into your head that you should be doing at the office.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
Why haven't the Hurricanes duplicated their Cup finals performance from 2002? Because they weren't supposed to.