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Last season, the Carolina Hurricanes finished outside of the playoff picture. This was the 4th season in a row that the Canes failed to make it to the big show. And let’s not forget, they were in what was consistently the worst division in hockey. In fact, since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, team Captain and longest tenured Canes Eric Staal and Cam Ward have been back to the playoffs once. They are still the faces of the franchise, they are still great players, but they have taken themselves out of the conversation for best players around.
After the cup win and the Conn Smythe, Cam Ward was arguably one of the best goalies in the league, and many were arguing that he was the best. Since then, there hasn’t been a whole lot of buzz around him. He still has the deserved respect that comes with the silverware, and he was an all-star in 2011, but nobody is putting him at the top of their goaltending lists these days (Sam Mccabe of Yahoo, recently ranked Ward the 10th best goalie in the league, a far fall for a guy who used to be top 3). It doesn’t end with Ward, though. Staal was supposed to be an offensive star of a similar magnitude, but since finishing with 100 points in 2006, he’s only been over a point per game once. Luckily for the resurgent Canes, that season was last season. The addition of oft-maligned forward Alexander Semin has done exactly what it was supposed to do; reinvigorate Staal’s offensive game. Not that consistently hitting the 70 point barrier was bad or anything, but who wasn’t thinking that Staal would be contending for the Art Ross trophy regularly after the number he put up his sophomore season? There aren’t too many guys with his skill set that peak at year two (though I admit that his defensive game has improved).
The Hurricanes have backup plans in place this season though. Not only does Staal have more offensive help than he’s had in a while with his younger brother, Semin, Jeff Skinner, and suddenly potent goal scorer Jiri Tlusty, but it’s also a deeper collection of forwards that also includes highly touted prospect Elias Lindholm. The Canes have a Plan B if Ward struggles or gets injured again this year with the signing of Anton Khudobin too. Last season the Canes had Dan Ellis as backup (and then as starter when Ward went down), and Khudobin looks to be an improvement. Although Khudobin is going to be playing on a lot weaker of a defense than he was in Boston. Which brings me to Carolina’s Achilles heal…
Defense. Carolina’s was putrid last year. They allowed 3.31 goals per game, which was at the bottom of the league (only above Florida) and far below most of the good teams that let in between 2-2.5 per game. They basically need to let in 1 less goal per game to be a top tier team. While I doubt they’ll get there this year, they did improve their defense by trading for Andrej Sekera and signing Mike Komisarek. A healthy Cam Ward and Joni Pitkanen would also go a long way towards solving this problem, but it’s still a tall order for a team that has been in the bottom ten in goal against each of the last 4 seasons.
It’s also not an inspiring set of additions this offseason, just a handfull of depth players for a squad in need of a few more game changers. The Hurricanes are also relying a lot on getting similar numbers out of Jiri Tlusty, who excelled playing with Semin and Eric Staal last season. He managed to set career highs in goals and points in a shortened season. Is this a sign of things to come or a flash in the pan? If last year was a fluke, could this hurt the chemistry with Semin and Staal too? Only time will tell, but it does put the Canes in a risky situation. They also need more out of Skinner, who hasn’t put up the kind of numbers his rookie season hinted that he was capable of. The Hurricanes could really use a dangerous second line and Jordan Staal and an improved Skinner could potentially give them that. However, for the Canes to have a successful year, most everything has to go right for them, especially in a deeper and stronger Metropolitan Division. Oh, and more of this please….
Optimism rating (out of 5): 2.0