Hurricanes hope roster tweaks help return to playoffs
Mike G. Morreale
Needing one win to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, the Carolina Hurricanes were unable to get it done on home ice in their regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While that was certainly a disappointment for owner Peter Karmanos Jr., he enters the 2011-12 campaign feeling confident the club can take it one step further following a busy off-season of maneuvering and managerial tinkering.
"I really don't think we're that far away from being a Stanley Cup winner again," Karmanos told Chip Alexander of The News & Observer. "It's not like we don't have any star players or a good supporting cast. We have a great goalie. We have good forwards. We've strengthened our defense."
Interesting fact: The Carolina Hurricanes system includes three members of the Sutter family. Brandon Sutter, the 11th pick of the 2007 Draft, played a full season with the team last year. Cousin Brett Sutter played most of the season with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL, but did play five games in the NHL between Carolina and Calgary. Carolina drafted another cousin, Brody, in the seventh round of the 2011 Draft.
Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford was certainly hard at work this summer, revamping his roster with the hope of snapping a two-year playoff hiatus. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, Carolina has missed the playoffs in four of the last five seasons.
"That loss to Tampa Bay at the end of the season was not one of my brightest moments," Karmanos said. "But we played a lot of meaningful games at the end of the season, and at least we got to the last game with a chance. If we had gotten in the playoffs, I really think we'd have fared as well as Tampa."
Rutherford wasted little time in taking care of some general housekeeping in early June, naming Rod Brind'Amour development coach and assistant to coach Paul Maurice. Additionally, Hockey Hall of Fame member Ron Francis was moved back in the front office as Director of Hockey Operations, while former NHL defenseman and coach Dave Lewis was added as an assistant coach and Tom Rowe as a professional scout.
Carolina lost a bidding war for forward Erik Cole, who signed a four-year, $18 million deal with the Montreal Canadiens. The 32-year-old scored 26 goals last season and played all 82 games for the first time in his career -- he played 81 games as a rookie in 2001-02.
'CANES: 3 QUESTIONS FOR 2011-2012
1. Will Jeff Skinner suffer from a "sophomore slump?" The No. 7 pick in the 2010 Entry Draft, Skinner made an immediate impact in the NHL and won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year as a result. Don't expect Skinner to experience a sophomore slump as he showed no signs of slowing down toward the end of his rookie season, scoring 9 points in the season's last seven games.
2. What kind of impact will Tomas Kaberle have? There is no doubt the puck-moving defenseman will be able to help out Carolina's No. 24-ranked power play. Kaberle's 47 points during the 2010-11 season also puts him ahead of all the defensemen on Carolina's roster.
3. Can Carolina's defense help Cam Ward? This past season, the Hurricanes allowed a League-worst 33.2 shots against per game. Kaberle was the only defenseman that Carolina picked up in the offseason and defense is not his strongest suit. Kaberle's puck-moving abilities should be able to help keep the puck at the other end of the ice much more than it was for the Hurricanes this past season.
-- Greg Picker
While the Hurricanes will miss Cole's relentless work ethic and drive along right wing, Rutherford did more than enough to help fill the void on the depth chart.
The other big loss comes along the blue line in defenseman Joe Corvo, who was dealt to the Boston Bruins in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft. Corvo also played all 82 games for the Hurricanes and reached the 40-point plateau for the first time since 2005-06 with the Los Angeles Kings.
Defenseman Tomas Kaberle will be playing for his third team in two seasons in 2011-12. He began last season in Toronto before being traded to the Bruins in February. The Hurricanes signed the 33-year-old to a three-year, $12.75 million contract, and the move prompted the Corvo trade later in the day.
Kaberle will be counted on as a puck-mover off the transition and will be utilized on the power-play quite often. He produced 4 goals and 47 points while averaging 22:06 of ice time in a combined 82 regular-season games with the Maple Leafs and Bruins last season. In the postseason, Kaberle played in all 25 of Boston's games en route to the Stanley Cup, and ranked fifth among League defensemen with 5 power-play assists. His plus-8 rating in the playoffs was fifth highest among all defensemen.
Stewart, 26, posted career highs in goals (14), assists (25), points (39) and games played (80) with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010-11. Boucher played in 34 regular-season games with Philadelphia in 2010-11 and produced an 18-10-4 record, 2.42 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. He also appeared in nine of the Flyers' 11 playoff games, going 4-4 with a 3.13 GAA and .904 save percentage.
Of all the moves Rutherford made this off-season, perhaps his best was making certain 22-year-old center Brandon Sutter was locked up for another three years, signing him to a deal worth $6.2 million.
UP-AND-COMING: 3 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Zac Dalpe, C -- This could be the year the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Dalpe earns a full-time slot on the Carolina roster. In his first professional season in 2010-11, the former Ohio State Buckeye produced 23 goals and 57 points in 61 games with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League. He recorded 13 points in 17 regular-season and playoff games late in the season and even played 15 games with the Hurricanes (3 goals, 4 points). He could be a reliable third or fourth-line center for coach Paul Maurice.
Anthony Stewart, RW -- The former 2003 first-round draft pick could be a significant piece to the offensive puzzle in Carolina this season, particularly after coming off a career year in which he scored 14 goals and 39 points in 80 games with the Atlanta Thrashers. After Winnipeg opted not to submit a qualifying offer for the 26-year-old, the Hurricanes swooped in and, in the process, may have landed their future second-line right wing alongside Jeff Skinner and Brandon Sutter.
Tomas Kaberle, D -- The addition of the puck-moving defender on the same day the club lost Joe Corvo could turn out to be an even exchange. That, of course, depends on how well Kaberle can make the adjustment, something he seemed to struggle with in Boston last season. Kaberle ranked fifth in the League with 25 assists on the power-play and his 43 assists for the season ranked fifth among NHL defensemen.
Sutter isn't exactly a scoring machine, but Rutherford considers him one of the NHL's best young two-way forwards. He led team forwards in shorthanded ice time per game (2:21) and blocked shots (73), while pacing the entire team with a plus-13 rating.
Pitkanen plays a lot of minutes and is also one of the premier transitional defensemen in the League. He led all Hurricanes' defenseman in assists (30) and was second in points (35) skating in 72 games in 2010-11.
Skinner stunned the hockey world last season when he earned a roster spot out of training camp and became an instant star in the League. The odds of that happening for Carolina's first-round draft pick this year, defenseman Ryan Murphy of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers, is unlikely, particularly since the Hurricanes have a stable of quality prospects on defense.
With captain Eric Staal firmly entrenched as the leader of the group and Ward making certain every game remains within reach, the Hurricanes should again be a team to be reckon with this season.