Carolina Hurricanes season preview

Updated: October 3, 2005, 12:16 PM ET
ESPN.com

THE BOTTOM LINE

While many small-market teams took advantage of the new economic landscape to do their player shopping at Saks, the Hurricanes were strictly Wal-Mart. Now the question is whether they found enough bargains to bounce back into the playoff fray. GM Jim Rutherford is gambling that the new rules and standards for the game will help his team.

Offense: The new game could help Cory Stillman at least replicate his 80-point season from 2003-04 in Tampa. Another low-rent addition, Ray Whitney, also has the potential to put up decent numbers in spite of a dreadful turn in Detroit in 2003-04 (14 goals in the regular season, just one in the playoffs). The two players will count just $3.25 million against the cap this year, less than the cost of higher-profile free agents such as Paul Kariya.

Both players will be important to a potential playoff bid for a team that ranked dead last in power-play efficiency in 2003-04 and scored fewer goals than any other team. Still, the real focus for the Canes will be on how young homegrown talent like Josef Vasicek and Erik Cole respond to having been away from the NHL for a year. Expectations were high for both players after Carolina's surprise march to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals. Vasicek had a strong camp, and Cole can expect to play with veteran Rod Brind'Amour, who will wear the captain's "C" now that Ron Francis has hung up the blades.

Eric Staal, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, should benefit from a year at the AHL level and looks to start out on a line with Stillman and Justin Williams.

Defense: The Canes should be better with the shrewd addition of Oleg Tverdovsky, who spent the last two seasons playing in Russia, and former Flame Mike Commodore, who earned his stripes during the Flames' run to the 2004 Cup finals. Andrew Hutchinson, picked up from Nashville, has been a revelation during training camp (he had five assists in one preseason game) and looks to step into a regular spot on the blue line.

Goaltending: The situation in Carolina is an evolving story. Veteran Martin Gerber entered camp with the inside track on the starting role, but Cam Ward enjoyed a strong year in the AHL (1.99 GAA and .937 save percentage in 50 games) and has impressed early on. He is clearly the goalie of the future for the Canes, and they'd prefer the future was now.


WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
11th YES … Carolina's defense is going to be a lot better than people think, and if the goaltending is better than advertised, then the Hurricanes will make things interesting in the Southeast.
BUT … If the goaltending isn't above average, it will make staying competitive more difficult for a team that doesn't have the star power of most of the rest of the conference.

PLAYER TO WATCH
Justin Williams. Once considered a major part of the Flyers' future, the 2000 first-round pick has endured a spate of injuries that has prevented him from realizing his potential. A year away from the game might be just the tonic. If he can become a reliable point producer, it enhances Carolina's playoff chances.

HEY, COACH!
Peter Laviolette has quickly established a reputation as a hard-nosed coach who expects his teams to play a similar attack-oriented style. The Canes enjoyed a late-season surge in 2003-04, and much of that is directly attributable to Laviolette's presence. They might not have the profile of other teams in the conference but the Canes should rarely be outworked.



FACEOFFS
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> CONSISTENCY
Luring Tverdovsky back to the NHL gives the Canes veteran stability and a much-needed offensive element on the back end.

WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> GREAT WEIGHT
The team had lots of cap room but opted not to pursue the big names. For a team that needs to rebuild its relationship with the Raleigh fan base, it is a risky strategy that will only be successful if the team can get back to the playoffs. That's a big "if."

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Comings & Goings
Key Acquisitions:
G Martin Gerber; D Frantisek Kaberle; C Matt Cullen; D Mike Commodore; LW Cory Stillman; D Oleg Tverdovsky; LW Ray Whitney; D Derrick Walser; D Andrew Hutchinson.

Key Departures:
D Sean Hill; G Arturs Irbe; RW Jeff O'Neill; LW Jaroslav Svoboda; G Kevin Weekes; G Jamie Storr; D Allan Rourke; RW Craig Adams; C Marty Murray; LW Ryan Bayda.

When we last saw them …
Josef Vasicek, C
Vasicek led Carolina in goals (19), points (45), games played (82) and game-winning goals in 2003-04.
Kevin Weekes, G
Weekes, who is now with the Rangers, took the bulk of the schedule and finished with a 23-30-11 record.
Quotables
It is the players' decision whether they want to hook or hold.
Laviolette on his team and the new rules