It seems like yesterday that the Canes were making yet another remarkable playoff run and hockey was at a fever pitch across the Triangle. And if you want to talk about time flying, it’s hard to fathom this will be the 12th season for the franchise in North Carolina. I’ve covered each and every one of those seasons and it remains one of my favorite assignments as a journalist.
We can take for granted an organization that more often than not does more with less and provides this area with professional athletes who are willing to mingle in the community and become part of its fabric.
So, Caniacs, get ready for another season of Ric Flair’s WOO’s, Dancin’ Granny’s shimmies and shakes, tailgating and a ton of entertaining NHL action.
As is tradition, here are my top 10 storylines to watch for in 2009-10. 1. Happy Stars: Jim Rutherford has now signed his two centerpieces – Eric Staal and Cam Ward – to expensive, long-term deals. Each has proven their worth over the last three seasons as players who are not only talented but have an inner drive to be the best. In other words, expect neither to slack off because of the big money. Staal has turned into one of the NHL’s most dependable players, while Ward has thrown himself into the Team Canada mix with yet another stellar playoff run. Since his rookie season, Staal has averaged a point a game (in the regular season and playoffs) and is approaching 400 consecutive games played. Enough said. Meanwhile, Ward has logged close to 4,000 minutes each of the last two seasons. Expect coach Paul Maurice to run his No. 1 goalie hard again. Ward would have it no other way.
2. Paul Maurice: The coach’s ability to delegate within his staff and straight forward nature with the players won over each group en route to the Eastern Conference Finals. A more confident coach than he was the first time around with the Canes, Maurice has the respect of the players out of the gate. In hockey, that’s more than half the battle. Maurice has stressed competition, hard work and defensive responsibility as benchmarks for good play. He also will tinker with line and defensive combinations more than in his early days as a coach, which keeps players digging for ice time.
3. Offense: The Canes didn’t get more offensive with the additions of journeyman penalty killer Stephane Yelle, enforcer Tom Kostopoulos and defensemen Aaron Ward, Andrew Alberts and Jay Harrison. Those five players combined for just 64 points in 306 games last season. Just on defense,
Carolina parted ways with Anton Babchuk and Dennis Seidenberg, who combined for 65 points in 142 games. And top defenseman Joni Pitkanen missed the entire preseason following knee surgery and may be somewhat behind with his hands and puck skills.
4. Blue Line
: Rutherford didn’t like his club being pushed around in the playoffs against
New Jersey and Boston and spent the offseason trying to beef up the defense. He now believes his defensive corps is the best he’s assembled. The group does have a nice mix of offense (Pitkanen and Joe Corvo), veterans (Aaron Ward and Nic Wallin), all-around players (Tim Gleason and Andrew Alberts) and tough guys (Tim Conboy and Jay Harrison). This gives Maurice plenty of pairing options.
: If the Canes are to overtake Washington and win the Southeast Division title, Rod Brind’Am
our and Erik Cole must have 60-point seasons or better. The two combined for just nine playoff points last year in 36 games. Brind’Amour, beginning his 21st season, was nursing a knee injury last season and appears ready to roll. The captain will likely be given an opportunity to center the team’s second line as the season starts. More ice time for Brind’Amour translates into face-off wins and puck possession. After returning to the team from Edmonton, Cole clicked with former linemate Staal, but didn’t produce offensively in the postseason. Cole’s goal production has decreased from 30, 29, 22 to 18 last season. Happy to be back in the Triangle, look for Cole to score at least 25 this season.
6. The Wizard: At 37, Ray Whitney continues to amaze. Few knew that the Wizard played with a finger injury the second half of last season because his production remained consistent. With 276 points in 292 career games with the Canes, Whitney remains one of
Rutherford’s top free-agent finds of the last five seasons. Keeping Whitney with Staal on the power play should produce another solid season for Ray in a contract year.
7. Shootouts: Whether you like the format or not, here is one stat to remember that could come into play in a close Eastern Conference playoff run: Maurice has six aces to choose from in shootouts. Brind’Amour, Matt Cullen, Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov and Whitney are a combined 52 of 114 (46 percent) for their careers. Staal is just 2-for-11.
8. Playoffs: With the franchise’s previous deep playoff experience this decade (2006 Cup winners, ’02 Cup finalist, ’09 Eastern Conference Finals), it’s an anomaly that the Canes are looking to get back to the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2001 and 2002. Massive injuries have played a role in some of the seasons that the team flopped. With more depth than ever, that shouldn’t be an issue this season.
Carolina averaged less than 10 penalty minutes a game last season to place first in the NHL. Granted, the team didn’t fight much, but players like Corvo (18 minutes), Cullen (20 minutes), Samsonov (28 minutes) and Whitney (32 minutes) played at a high skill level without foolish hooking, holding or tripping calls. Similar numbers will give the Canes a major advantage on special teams.
10. Divisional Supremacy: The Canes have been stellar within the Southeast Division over the years, including a
15-8-1 mark a season ago. Since the division was created prior to the 1998-99 season,
Carolina is 47 games over .500 against team from the SE. A similar mark to last year in the division should get the Canes close to 95 points and in the playoffs again. A .500 record against
Washington, Florida, Tampa Bay and
Atlanta could spell trouble.