Carolina Hurricanes season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:32 PM ET
ESPN.com

Carolina Hurricanes

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

The Hurricanes weren't just whistlin' Dixie as they defied critics across the hockey universe in capturing their first Stanley Cup championship. This franchise and its loyal, rabid fan base erased any doubt (at least for the time being) about whether the game belongs in the South with a magical run that featured a wildly exciting style of play and a never-say-die mentality. In the wake of this unprecedented, unexpected success, general manager Jim Rutherford had to make difficult decisions in trying to ice a repeat champion, allowing Martin Gerber, Doug Weight, Mark Recchi, Aaron Ward and Matt Cullen to depart from the championship roster. As he did a year ago, Rutherford hasn't dallied much in the free-agent market, but with a stellar core of veterans and rising young stars, Carolina will post a spirited defense.

Offense: The Hurricanes, traditionally a low-scoring franchise, were positively prolific last season, finishing third in the league, second in the conference, with 286 goals scored. That number will be difficult to duplicate for a number of reasons, not the least of which will be better defensive preparation from opponents. The Canes used superlative outside speed, an attacking style and terrific skill to take many opponents by surprise in finishing second in the conference in points. They managed to accomplish this with an ordinary power play that ranked 17th. Although the power play should get better, Carolina will start the season without Cory Stillman, who had late-summer shoulder surgery. The Canes also will miss the versatility and skill of Cullen, who landed with Ward in New York. Assuming Erik Cole is fully recovered from two broken vertebrae, watch for him and the pride of Thunder Bay, Eric Staal, to approach the 100-point mark. Rod Brind'Amour and Justin Williams form another potent duo that has the potential to defuse opponents' top units and pour goals in the net (they combined for 62 goals last season). Andrew Ladd and Chad LaRose, role players in the Cup effort, will get more opportunity to produce. Rutherford would love to see Trevor Letowski pick up some of the slack in Stillman's absence. Brad Isbister will add some sand to the proceedings up front.

Defense: One of the reasons many didn't believe the Hurricanes could succeed in the playoffs was the perception that their no-name defense wouldn't hold up. But the group including wild-haired Mike Commodore, unflappable Niclas Wallin, dogged veteran Bret Hedican, smooth-passing Frank Kaberle, Glen Wesley, Ward and Oleg Tverdovsky, was more than up to the task. Only Ward will be missing from this group, although Kaberle won't be available for the first half of the season with a shoulder injury. Hedican, likewise, might not be ready for the season opener, all of which lends an air of uncertainty to the Cup champions. Watch for youngsters Anton Babchuk and Andrew Hutchinson to press for playing time as Carolina appears prepared to roll over a new generation of defenders without missing a beat.

Goaltending: The only way a team can succeed playing such an aggressive style is if the goaltending is solid enough to make the risk worth the reward. Last season, Gerber provided ample security while going 38-14-6, the fourth-most wins in the NHL. Gerber gave way to rookie Cam Ward in the playoffs, and Ward responded with a sparkling .920 save percentage in 23 postseason games en route to a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Gerber is gone, and the No. 1 job is Ward's. A risk? Sure, but Ward showed maturity in the spring that belies his tender age (22). Still, coach Peter Laviolette will have to be cognizant of not burning Ward out in his first starting role. John Grahame comes over from Tampa to provide support, and that might be a good role after he failed to nail down the No. 1 job for the Bolts last season.

Coaching: What's not to love about Peter Laviolette? He's intense, and can appear dour to the uninitiated, but early on last season, he made believers of his team, insisting not just that they could compete but that they were Cup material. As always, the challenge in repeating from a coaching perspective is in knowing when to ease off, and Laviolette, who has fostered a family-first attitude in the dressing room, seems to have the perfect demeanor to keep his team from falling into some of the traditional post-Cup potholes.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
2nd Injuries and an inevitable post-Cup hangover might blunt the kind of strong start the team enjoyed last season, but the Canes should prevail as Southeast winners and assume the second seed in the East.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. The season-ticket base has, not surprisingly, grown leaps and bounds with last season's championship, and tickets will be at a premium for most games as Raleigh, N.C., suddenly has become a viable hockey town.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Will postseason hero Cam Ward be more like Jean-Sebastien Giguere or Miikka Kiprusoff in his sophomore campaign? The answer is probably somewhere in between. With a thinner defense and the threat of a Cup hangover, fantasy owners should be careful not to push Ward too high in the goaltender ranks. The Hurricanes are more about chemistry than big fantasy numbers. Eric Staal, Justin Williams and Erik Cole are all as talented as their numbers, but others might be in for a mild letdown. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Hurricanes:
1. Jack Johnson, 19, D, Michigan (CCHA)
Statline: 38 GP, 10 G, 22 A, 149 PIM
2. Justin Peters, 20, G, Plymouth (OHL)
Statline: 29-21-2 record, 3.09 GAA, .984 SV%
3. Nathan Hagemo, 19, D, Minnesota (WCHA)
Statline: 3 GP. 0 G, 0 A, 6 PIM
4. Joe Barnes, 20, C, Saskatoon (WHL)
Statline: 55 GP, 25 G, 27 A, 55 PIM
5. Casey Borer, 21, D, St. Cloud (WCHA)
Statline: 42 GP, 3 G, 8 A, 24 PIM
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Carolina Hurricanes
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record52-22-8 (112 points)
DivisionFinished first in Southeast
ConferenceFinished second in East
PlayoffsWon the Stanley Cup

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Eric Staal
Let's see, 100 regular-season points, an NHL-best 28 points in the postseason, now what? Does the 22-year-old take a step back, or does he challenge for a scoring title?
Winger: Justin Williams
The former Flyers prospect appeared on a dead-end track until Laviolette challenged him to be better and Williams responded with a 76-point effort that bodes well for the coming season.
Defense: Anton Babchuk
With the injuries to Kaberle and Hedican, the 6-foot-5 Ukraine native will get a chance to play his way into the lineup long term.
Goalie: Cam Ward
The kid was simply unbelievable during the playoffs, playing better and better as the pressure mounted. He gave full value for his MVP award, but must learn to pace himself over a long regular season.

Key Moves
Trevor Letowski, signed away from Columbus as a free agent, is the kind of player who should thrive in Laviolette's system. Grahame is the undisputed No. 2 man in Carolina, but he'll still have to deliver 20-25 quality starts, and his success at that will say much about the Hurricanes' playoff positioning. Carolina will miss Cullen and Ward, not so much Recchi and Weight

SportsNation
Rating the Hurricanes
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