2008-09 Team Preview: Carolina Hurricanes
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideThe pressure is on in Carolina, where the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs twice since winning their first Stanley Cup in 2006, and they've encountered significant roadblocks before the start of the season.
Heart-and-soul leader Rod Brind'Amour, who missed the final 22 games of last season with a knee injury, underwent surgery before camp started. Then, top-six forward Justin Williams tore his Achilles tendon working out before camp. Best-case scenario is Williams will be back for the last quarter of the season. Brind'Amour should be ready for the start of the regular season, but at 38, his durability becomes an issue.
The Canes' blue line has been revamped to make Carolina more mobile and dangerous on the attack. Coach Peter Laviolette will be working to get his team off to a strong start to help erase the taste of missing the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season.
"It does seem like a long time ago we were champions," admitted Eric Staal in an interview shortly before he signed a seven-year contract extension with Carolina. "It's been a long two years. Too long for the type of guys that we have and the team that we have."
GM Jim Rutherford took a gamble on a couple of reclamation projects, Sergei Samsonov and Tuomo Ruutu, that worked out in the short term last season, and signed them both to multiyear deals in the hope they'll be more productive over the long haul. That belief allowed Rutherford to deal Erik Cole to Edmonton for puck-moving defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who didn't impress in Philadelphia or Edmonton, but will get chances to help run the power play and morph into the topflight defenseman he's expected to be. Even without Brind'Amour and Williams for stretches last season, the Hurricanes were still fifth overall in goals per game and eighth on the power play.
With uncertainty surrounding Matt Cullen, who has recovered from his concussion problems, Samsonov and Ruutu will have to maintain a high level of productivity to give Carolina three productive forward units -- the hallmark of their Cup-winning team. Staal and Ray Whitney should provide the bulk of the scoring leadership. With Pitkanen and Joe Corvo, who came over from Ottawa prior to the trade deadline, Carolina has more offensive firepower from the blue line than ever before.
The Carolina blue line has been almost entirely remade since its Cup win with the addition of Pitkanen and Corvo. Gone from the championship squad are Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley (who remains as a coach) and Mike Commodore. This blue-line group should be among the most mobile and skilled in recent memory, and if 6-foot-5 Anton Babchuk turns into the player the Hurricanes hope he can after spending last season in the Russian elite league, it will have plenty of size. Team defense must improve, however, as the team ranked 25th in goals allowed per game and 26th on the penalty kill. Of course, staying healthy has a lot to do with staying sound defensively.
Cam Ward has been a bit of a mystery since his Conn Smythe turn in the spring of 2006. He has showed flashes of that play and put up better numbers last season than the one before. Still, he has struggled to provide MVP play over long stretches since 2006, a maddening trait that contributed mightily to Carolina's failure to qualify for the playoffs the past two seasons. He is young (24), but time is running out for him to prove he wasn't just a flash in the pan. Last season, there was little in the way of Plan B behind Ward with John Grahame turning in a miserable 5-7-1 record and .875 save percentage. This season, Michael Leighton figures to push Ward; look for him to get a chance to take over the top goaltending duties if Ward falters.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Carolina was the retention of coach Peter Laviolette. While the vote of confidence took longer than Laviolette would have liked, it was the right move by ownership. Laviolette is an excellent coach and has an outstanding staff. Having won a Cup in 2006, he still knows how to take a team to the top of the NHL.
Unfortunately for the Canes, the injury bug has reared its ugly head again even before the start of camp. Captain and franchise role model Rod Brind'Amour, as well as highly skilled winger Justin Williams, will start the season on the injured list. This is a huge blow to the Carolina offense. Future captain Eric Staal is one of the best and most intense competitors in the game. Sergei Samsonov must reward the Canes' faith in him by stepping up to fill the offensive void.
Carolina moved heart, grit and character for more skill on the blue line by acquiring Joni Pitkanen for Erik Cole. Pitkanen must also step up offensively if the Canes are to weather the injury storm.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 43-33-6
• Division: Second in the Southeast
• Conference: Ninth in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• The test will come early for Carolina with its fourth game of the season. The Canes will embark on a six-game road trip that includes three Eastern Conference matches (Pittsburgh, New York Islanders, Montreal) sandwiched around three Western Conference gigs (Los Angeles and Anaheim to start, finishing in St. Louis on Oct. 30). For a team desperate to reaffirm itself as elite, this trip will say a lot about its chemistry.
Experience: 6 years
Stanley Cup titles: 1
• Always intense, Peter Laviolette figures to be even more so this season as he will need a good start to keep the rumors of his demise from eating away at the team. Whether Rutherford and owner Peter Karmanos were contemplating firing Laviolette is moot given the perception that exists now that he's on a short leash. Still, he is a smart, driven hockey man who should have no trouble getting his players on track early, especially now that he has the most mobile defensive lineup since his arrival in Carolina in December 2003.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Eric Staal
There will be a jersey with the captain's "C" on it hanging in Staal's locker whenever Brind'Amour decides he's had enough. Staal, who just signed a seven-year contract extension worth $57.75 million, has had to learn to play with a variety of linemates given injuries to top players and Cole's departure. That shouldn't be a big deal for one of the top young centers in the game who finished with 24 points in his final 15 games.
F -- Sergei Samsonov
Samsonov played some with Staal late in the season and the two enjoyed success. His career in tatters, Samsonov was claimed on waivers by Rutherford and managed to collect points in 10 of his last 15 games. Typical chicken-egg situation, but as Samsonov began collecting points on a regular basis, he began to show more confidence and was rewarded with more power-play time and more points came as a result.
F -- Ryan Whitney
Whitney remains the team's most consistent point producer from the wing. He finished second in goals, points and assists last season despite missing 16 games with injury. He is a key component on the power play and shows no sign of slowing down at age 36.
D -- Joni Pitkanen
Somewhere lurking inside Pitkanen's impressive 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame is a blue-chip player waiting to get out. Pitkanen, who has seen his point totals drop from 46 to 43 to 26 over the past three seasons, will get loads of power-play time. If his confidence grows, he has the skills to be a dynamic presence from the blue line, the kind of presence the Hurricanes have never really had.
D -- Tim Gleason
Big things are also expected of Gleason as he came to Carolina in a deal for blue-chip prospect Jack Johnson two years ago. The 6-foot, 217-pound Gleason led Carolina in hits last season and was a plus player.
Answer: Until Williams went down and Brind'Amour missed training camp with further surgery, we liked the Canes to bounce back into the postseason with a return to their patented run-and-gun offense. But with competition increasing in the Southeast Division, it's going to be nip and tuck once again.
Bust: Rod Brind'Amour, C: Two knee surgeries in a year on a 38-year-old has to be concerning, and the fact that Tuomo Ruutu and Patrick Eaves might be the best linemates the team can offer him is also a concern.
Outlook: Almost all of the fantasy value in Carolina is found on the first line, where Staal is a No. 1 center who could work his way back toward the 100-point threshold this season. Ray Whitney is consistently underestimated and Sergei Samsonov finished the season strong and should be part of the top unit. Corvo and Pitkanen offer some upside, but aren't No. 1s, and Cam Ward is a bench goalie at best. -- Sean Allen