We’ve hit the midway point in the regular season and the Hurricanes have rallied under new coach Paul Maurice and find themselves squarely in the playoff hunt. The 41-game mark is also a time to hand out my annual mid-term grades and reflect on the first half of a season which so far has been filled with ups and downs, and its share of surprises.
In a bold move, general manager Jim Rutherford fired 2006 Stanley Cup winner Peter Laviolette in early December after a .500 start and returned Paul Maurice to the Carolina bench. Fans were lukewarm to the homecoming of Mo to start with, but the Canes are on a season-best four-game winning streak and have flourished under Maurice’s system of ice accountability, pushing their way back into the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Rutherford’s other controversial move came in the offseason when he traded the popular Erik Cole for defensive help in Joni Pitkanen
. Cole has struggled in Edmonton while Pitkanen has played some of best hockey of his young career with 19 points in 33 games while leading Carolina in ice time at more than 25 minutes a night.
Rutherford came out 50-50 on his two defensive gambles with Anton Babchuk returning from Russia and the signing of free agent Josef Melichar. Babchuk has been a steal after taking some time to shake off the rust, while Melichar played just 15 games and was returned to the minors when Maurice arrived.
Will Rutherford make a trade deadline move for more offense like he did in ’06? GRADE: A.
Laviolette couldn’t return the Canes to first place in the Southeast Division by early December and was removed from behind the bench in favor of Rutherford favorite Maurice. Laviolette’s gambling up-tempo style worked to perfection in the Cup season of 2005-06, but teams began figuring the Canes’ system out and turned too many neutral zone turnovers into odd-man rush scores. Still, Laviolette was one-game over .500 when replaced and became the all-time winningest American-born coach in NHL history this season while in Raleigh.
Under Maurice, Carolina has registered 21 of a possible 32 points and sits solidly in seventh place in the East. Maurice’s attitude of “what do I really have to lose” seems to have spilled over to the players. After all, Maurice was sitting in his living room being paid the final year of his contract by Toronto when Rutherford called for help. Adding Ron Francis to the coaching staff has also improved the power play.
“We know Paul very well, we trust him, we understand what his system is, so it wasn’t like we were going to bring somebody new in and not know what we’re getting,” Rutherford said. “And we now have Ron Francis working with this team on a daily basis, on the bench, working hand-in-hand with Paul, which to me is a very strong combination.” GRADE: B
This version of the Canes won’t be confused with the Edmonton Oilers’ high-power dynasties of Wayne Gretzky or even the Carolina Cup-winning squad of 2006, which scored 294. The Hurricanes are averaging just 2.6 goals a game and have scored only 29 third-period goals in 41 games. More recently, the Canes have scored three or fewer goals in 19 off the last 21 games.
Two players on the top line – Eric Staal
and Sergei Samsonov – each have gone through extensive scoring droughts. Staal had just a hat trick over a 16-game stretch from Nov. 4-Dec. 6, while Samsonov started the season on a 10-game pointless streak. The surprises on offense have been Chad LaRose
with nine goals and Tuomo Ruutu
with 12, while 36-year-old Ray Whitney has a team-leading 34 points. GRADE: C
When healthy, probably one of the team’s strong suits heading into the second half of the season after losing veterans Glen Wesley (retirement) and Bret Hedican (free agency) off the 2007-08 team.
Joe Corvo and Pitkanen have settled into their power-play roles at the point and have been able to log increased minutes, while Tim Gleason
is beginning to blossom into a legitimate shut-down defender. Babchuk has been coming on lately, while Dennis Seidenberg has jumped into a top four position after never having played more than 58 games in any of his previous five NHL seasons. His 15 points in 34 games matches his season total for Carolina last year, while his 92 blocked shots are among the league leaders.
Heading into the second half of the season, the defense has 87 points, compared to just 133 all of last season. Maurice would still like to see a little bit more physical play out the group as a whole. GRADE: B
has been nothing short of spectacular over the last month, returning to the form he displayed during the 2006 Cup run. His 2.44 GAA is solid as he’s facing less shots under Maurice’s system. Ward likes to play, so expect Maurice, who has been known to run first-string goalies hard, to keep feeding the beast.
Back-up Michael Leighton started strong, but was just average when subbing for the injured Ward a month ago, going 1-2-2. Expect Ward, if he remains healthy, to start around 35 of the team’s reaming 41 games. Can he hold up? We’ll see. GRADE: B
Maurice likes the special teams to add up to at least 100 percent, so the Canes aren’t quite there yet with a 15.5 percent power play and 78.4 percent penalty kill – both figures that rank in the bottom third of the league.
The power play has shown better movement and productivity over the last two weeks as Francis moved Staal to the point (where he played in Pittsburgh) on one unit, while the injured Justin Williams also continues to round into form, offering more help in front of the net. Rookie Brandon Sutter has been a great asset on the penalty kill. GRADE: C
The All-Star MVP is on pace to score 36 goals, but Staal has gone through several long goal-scoring droughts in the first half of the season after signing a huge contract prior to training camp. But few can argue with his overall play, with a team-leading plus 11, four game-winning goals and 168 shots (among the league leaders).
Staal’s 21:26 ice time is tops among the club’s forwards and he’s playing some excellent two-way hockey since the arrival of Maurice. He carried the team over the final two months last year when Rod Brind’Amour was hurt. So, Staal has proven he’s got that extra late-season gear. GRADE: B The Captain
Coming off two knee surgeries, this has been a rough opening 41 games for one of hockey’s true gentlemen. Brind’Amour will be the first to confess that his NHL-worst minus 26 rating is embarrassing. However, Brindy remains a solid second-line center who kills penalties and takes all the big face-offs. He ranks second in the league in face-off percentage at 62.9 percent and still has 26 points in 41 games, so his scoring hasn’t fallen off too much.
Remember, Brind’Amour has been to two Cup finals since 2002, so his leadership will be invaluable for Maurice and Co. down the stretch. GRADE: C
Probably a toss-up here between Pitkanen, Seidenberg and Ruutu. Pitkanen, the 25-year-old Fin, is already playing for his third team in five seasons, so many wondered why Edmonton was anxious to part with the former fourth overall pick of the 2002 draft. Seidenberg has made Canes fans forget about Kevyn Adams, while Ruutu has flourished playing alongside Staal while adding a toughness Carolina needs in its lineup.