Opening night is just around the corner (Oct. 6 vs. Boston)! I've been talking with Denis Potvin and our FSN producer, Mitch Rubenstein and we're excited about the team as well as getting back to providing the best coverage possible for all Panthers' fans.
As excited as we might be about the prospects of this coming season in South Florida, we have to realize that the Southeast Division (nicknamed the SouthLeast Division not long ago) has become extremely competitive. Success on the ice has led to stability: all five head coaches in the SE will be back (5 of the other 10 Eastern Conference teams will have new head coaches when the season opens in October!) The last two Stanley Cup champions (Tampa Bay & Carolina) are division rivals of the Panthers. Some of the best young talent in the game will face the Panthers in their 32 division games this season (Ovechkin, Staal, Kovalchuk just to name a few) as well as veteran superstars like Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards, Brind'Amour, Hossa and Kolzig.
Here's my final installment of the Southeast Division rivals of the Panthers....the defending Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes:
2005-06 Record: 52-22-8, 112 pts (1st in Southeast/2nd in East)
Playoffs: Won Stanley Cup (defeated Montreal, New Jersey, Buffalo, Edmonton)
First 10 games: started the season with a 7-2-1 record (stretched it out to a 14-3-1 record by early November)
Last 10 games: finished the season 5-3-2 and easily won the SE Division by 20 points over defending champion Tampa Bay (NOTE: The 'Canes had only one 3 game losing streak. In fact, that November stretch was the only time all season that Carolinas went 3 games without getting at least a point!)
Strengths: Consistency in all areas of the game and the ability to adapt to the "New NHL" as well as any team in the league. The 'Canes just seemed to execute at a quicker pace and by doing so forced their opponents to play quicker than they wanted to. Coach Peter Laviolette's style and the roster he was given by GM Jim Rutherford was a perfect fit. The emergence of Eric Staal and Eric Cole as bona fide superstars was also a huge factor throughout the season.
Here are more examples of their consistency: 1) Carolina had more 30 goal scorers (4- Staal, Williams, Brind'Amour, Cole) than any team in the NHL 2) the 'Canes had a +43 advantage in PP chances at home and on the road (+86 total) 3) they were 36-3-2 when scoring first 4) 8-2 shootout record was best in the East and 3rd in the NHL
Weaknesses: It's hard to find a weakness with this team. It seemed that depth might be an issue, but even the loss of Cole with 20 games left in the season didn't deter their run to the title. Not only did they lose arguably the best power forward in the NHL last season (30-29-59, 60 games), but the nature of Cole's injury shook the team. Cole appeared to be done for the season or possibly his career with a fractured vertebra in his neck. Rutherford made the right moves in adding Mark Recchi and Doug Weight prior to the playoffs. It also helped that Cole miraculously returned for the last 2 games of the Final vs. Edmonton. With Recchi and Weight going back to Pittsburgh and St. Louis via free agency this summer and Matt Cullen signing with the Rangers, Carolina added Brad Isbister, Scott Walker and Trevor Letowski up front. Good signings, but not there is a drop off in offensive abilities.
When you look at the names on paper, the defense corps isn't a group that necessarily strikes fear into opponents. But as a group, they were very effective (33 goals, many of them timely). Veterans Wesley and Hedican once again anchor the blueline, but the loss of Aaron Ward to the NY Rangers is a blow. Frantisek Kaberle had shoulder surgery and may not be ready until the playoffs which will seriously test the depth of the Hurricanes.
Off season moves
The Hurricanes, as mentioned above, lost forwards Recchi, Weight and Cullen to free agency as well as defenseman Aaron Ward and goalie Martin Gerber. The loss of Recchi and Weight wasn't unexpected as both players were rentals for the playoff run. The addition of Scott Walker is a nice fit for Carolina's style and he could settle on the third line while Brad Isbister may have an increased role early in the season due to off season shoulder surgery for Corey Stillman (out 3-4 months).
A disappointment for Carolina is the fact that Jack Johnson (3rd overall pick in '05) has opted to return to the University of Michigan for his sophomore season. There is talk that Rutherford may try to trade his rights if the right deal comes along. Johnson has the potential to be a franchise-type defenseman.
Goalie Martin Gerber signed with Ottawa while Rutherford added veteran John Grahame in his place.
When looking back on Carolina's run to the Cup, remember that they started last season with Martin Gerber (54 total NHL GP: 17-23-7 record) and rookie Cam Ward (0 NHL games) in goal. Gerber was spectacular at times in leading the way in the regular season and of course Ward won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. So Carolina got performances from 4 players that even the most optimistic fan couldn't have predicted: Eric Staal (45-55-100), Eric Cole (30-29-59, 60 games), Gerber and Ward. Can Ward and Grahame repeat the goaltending performances of Ward and Gerber? Is Eric Cole healthy enough for an 82 game grind? Will Staal repeat his 100 point season? Based on everything I see, Carolina will once again be a force in the East.
Let's Drop that puck!