Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Carolina Hurricanes Preview

Carolina had to wait until the end of its 82nd game to learn that they missed the playoffs by two points. Despite the disappointment, the Hurricanes did have some successes. Eric Staal had another solid season tallying 33 goals en route to a 76-point season in 81 games played. There are very few guarantees in the National Hockey League, but the six-foot-three center's career performance has been, in a word: consistent. In the past six seasons, Staal has scored at least 70 points in all of them. Although Staal has never had an elite plus-minus rating, his solid play in all other categories validates his standing as one of the best centers in the NHL and can be counted on repeating such success in the year to come.

Although the Hurricanes have sputtered since goalie Cam Ward won the Conn Smythe trophy for the postseason’s MVP in 2006, the cornerstone goalie has not. Ward posted another impressive season totaling an NHL-high 74 starts and 4,317.35 minutes between the posts (not to mention his sparkling .923 save percentage). Even though Ward probably won’t lead the NHL in minutes and starts with the signing of Brian Boucher, expect the former Conn Smythe winner to post another solid season that the Hurricanes have come to expect from the veteran goaltender.

The Hurricanes, also, received a stellar breakout performance from 18-year-old phenom and Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, Jeff Skinner. Carolina’s 2010 first-round selection (7th overall) burst onto the scene with a 63-point season showcasing both his goal-scoring ability (31) with his playmaking ability (32 assists). Skinner was a refreshing source of youth on a roster that is mostly littered with veterans that should be avoided like newcomer Alexei Ponikarovsky and the resigned Chad LaRose.

GM Jim Rutherford’s offseason was a busy one filled with drama surrounding his pending free agents. It was thought, through most of the offseason, that most of the key free agents like Erik Cole, Chad LaRose, Joni Pitkanen, and Jussi Jokinen were likely to leave. In reality, only Cole departed via free agency and was replaced by former Maple Leaf standout Alexei Ponikarovsky. The only other key departure was that of defenseman Joe Corvo via a trade that saw the higher-prized Tomas Kaberle come back to Carolina in return from the Stanley Cup champion Bruins.

With neither a significant addition nor subtraction to the Hurricanes’ roster, the debate begins on whether Carolina is doomed to the same ninth place finish in the eastern conference or if the continuity and familiarity will create a better synergy next season. The catalysts for success or failure will be the development of the younger talent in Carolina. Expect 23-year-old Jamie McBain on the blueline and 26-year-old Anthony Stewart up front to become a more integral part of the Hurricanes’ plans. Alternate captain Brandon Sutter, 22, also has to continue to develop as a two-way forward or else he will risk losing the “A” on his jersey. Carolina, overall, has the cornerstones in Staal and Ward, to be competitive every night, but do they have the extra push from its younger talent to get into the playoffs? Stay tuned to find out.

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