Having narrowly missed the playoffs the last two seasons after capturing the Stanley Cup in 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes head into the 2008-09 season with a revamped roster and hungry attitude. Seven new players dot the roster that captain Rod Brind’Amour said Wednesday has the talent to compete for hockey’s top prize. Following are the top five pros and cons as the Canes prepare to open the season Friday night at the RBC Center
against the Florida Panthers.
1. Eric Staal: One of the NHL’s top young stars is at peace with his game and new long-term contract. The All-Star MVP was able to carry Carolina down the stretch after Brind’Amour was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Look for Staal to take on an ever larger role with some early-season injuries. Only 14 of his 38 goals came on the power-play, which shows his immense value five-on-five. His 254 consecutive-game streak is evidence of his dedication and durability.
Other than winning and playing hard, Staal said Wednesday he has no specific statistical goals this season. That’s the kind of attitude you would expect out of the team’s captain in waiting.
“It’s a great feeling knowing I’m going to be a part of this organization for the next eight years,” Staal said. “It’s a top-notch organization with great people all the way through and that’s the type of people you want to surround yourself with. I want to win and management wants to win. Winning another Stanley Cup is why I’m playing the game.”
2. Power-Play Point: Neither player was here to start last season, but Joe Corvo and Joni Pitkanen now offer the Canes a stable blue line that can quarterback the first unit of the power play. Erik Cole, Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore were traded away to acquire the two defenseman, so the pressure is on.
Corvo more than produced late last season with 21 points in 23 games after coming over from Ottawa. At 6-3, 210 pounds, Pitkanen adds size and puck mobility to a retooled defensive unit. The addition of the two should free up forward Matt Cullen to be used up front on the power-play or the second-unit point man.
“We’ve got a lot more puck-moving guys,” Brind’Amour said. “If Corvo and Pitkanen can play 25 or 30 minutes, that’s a big chunk of change. Last year we didn’t have that, so it is going to be an asset for us, a big part of our game that in the past may have been lagging a little bit.”
3. Hunger Factor: Missing the postseason the last two seasons after tasting hockey’s ultimate success hasn’t sat very well with the coaching staff and veterans like Brind’Amour, Ray Whitney, Cam Ward and Staal. Don’t underestimate the desire to return to the postseason, and the extra hustle and energy required to get there.
The fact that new blood is in the lineup is a plus since a series of players on defense and at forward will be battling for playing time throughout the season.
“We’ve got a youthful team,” Brind’Amour said. “It is going to provide a lot of energy. I’m excited because we have stunk it up, so to speak the last couple of years, and I know the guys want to get back to where we were.”
“I was ready to get going a week after we were officially eliminated last year,” added Staal. “Being that close, leading the division most of the year and it didn’t happen, that was a tough pill to swallow. It makes you work and push that much harder to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
4. Chemistry: Sure, Carolina has gotten younger with Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican retiring, but 31-year-old journeyman Dan LaCouture stuck as a non-roster invitee to training camp. Every winning team needs a player like LaCouture, who is playing for his seventh NHL team. Remember guys like Martin Gelinas, Kevyn Adams, Jeff Daniels and current player Chad LaRose? Filling your locker room with some extra character guys is never a bad thing.
5. Coaching Changes: Former Albany head coach Tom Rowe replaced Jeff Daniels, while Wesley went from the locker room to the staff to help with the team’s young defensemen. After missing the playoffs for two straight seasons, Rowe adds a breath of fresh air and a much-needed new voice to bounce ideas off head coach Peter Laviolette. Wesley’s presence should help with the development of relatively young defensemen Tim Gleason and Anton Babchuk.
1. Injuries: The Canes lost a team-record 337 man-games to injury last season and things aren’t exactly starting off on the first foot in 2008-09. Justin Williams (Achilles tendon) and Scott Walker (hand) are out, while Brind’Amour (knee), Whitney (groin) and Tuomo Ruutu (groin) missed significant training camp time. So, timing may be an issue in the early going.
The lengthy losses of Williams and Walker means a player like rookie Brandon Sutter will have to carry a larger load than anticipated. Is the 19-year-old ready? The good news is Cullen and Patrick Eaves appear healthy and ready to roll.
“If there is a time to have the injuries it’s now as opposed to the end of the season,” Cullen said.
Wishful thinking, maybe? Remember two seasons ago when fans were awaiting the return of Frank Kaberle and Cory Stillman from off-season shoulder surgery. Their late return to the lineup wasn’t enough to propel the team into the playoffs. To me, man-games lost are man-games lost, no matter when they occur.
2. Schedule: The NHL and the North Carolina State Fair didn’t do Carolina any scheduling favors. Seven of the first nine games in October are on the road, including a two-game West Coast swing. And one of the two home games is against Stanley Cup champion Detroit.
“Having a lot of new faces it will be nice to get on the road and get to know the new guys,” Staal said. “Early in the year if you’re winning games it helps for the rest of the year.”
Carolina was 11 games over .500 at the RBC Center last year and one-game under .500 on the road.
3. Defensive Inexperience: No offense to Anton Babchuk and Josef Melichar, but that’s not exactly an even exchange for the loss of retired defensemen Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican. Wesley and Hedican combined for 2,445 games and 36 seasons. Those NHL experience numbers are hard to come by.
“It will be weird when the team gets going because those are the guys I hung out with on the road,” Brind’Amour said. “I will have to grab some of the younger guys and listen to their stories.”
The club envisions 25-year-old Tim Gleason as being a future Wesley-type of stopper. He’ll have to increase his learning curve rapidly now.
4. Tough Division: The South-least no longer, this division has some of hockey’s top players and most improved teams in the last five seasons. So, winning the Southeast and making the playoffs will be tougher than ever before. A 19-11-2 mark against the Southeast last season still wasn’t good enough to win the division, or make the postseason. Alexander Ovechkin has 14 goals in 16 games over the last two seasons against Carolina. If the Canes can cut that number in half this season they edge out Washington for the division title. 5. Special teams:
The numbers speak for themselves. Carolina
allowed 13 short-handed goals (tied for 28th in the NHL), scored just four short-handed goals (tied for 24th), averaged 14.4 penalty minutes (tied for 22nd) and was 19th on the road on the power play. All of those numbers must improve in order for Carolina
to make a deep run into the postseason.