Now that training camp is open and the preseason is upon us, SB Nation NHL will be featuring daily season previews for each NHL team, along with five burning questions for each club. Today is the day selected for the Hurricanes.
We will handle the preview here. SBN will be posting the five questions, later in the day.
Last season was one which started off with lofty expectations, then quickly turned to bitter disappointment, but eventually ended up with bright hope for the future. It was a season of injuries. Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Erik Cole, Chad LaRose, Tim Gleason, Joe Corvo, Tuomo Ruutu, and Joni Pitkanen each missed significant time due to a variety of ailments.
While every team in the NHL has their fair share of maladies, most teams can not afford to lose so many top players and still expect to be competitive. This team was no exception.
The Hurricanes lost early and often as they dug themselves a hole they could not crawl out of, even though they played as well as anyone in the league down the stretch.
The team played their way out of the playoffs during the first two months of the season with a dreadful October and November performance which included a 14 game winless streak, (0-11-3), tying a franchise record. But from mid-January on, the team played on a pace which would have put them at fourth place in the East.
The franchise lost its Cup Captain and on-ice warrior, Rod Brind`Amour. Several other familiar faces who were fan favorites and steady performers over the years, moved on. Last season, Carolina started a brand new era with new leadership and a fresh perspective which has carried on to the current training camp.
To view this in better perspective, we should go back to the trade deadline last season. Gone are Matt Cullen, Stephane Yelle, Scott Walker, Aaron Ward, Andrew Alberts, and Niclas Wallin. Joe Corvo was also traded at the deadline but was re-signed for two years this summer.
Rod Brind`Amour retired and is now the Director of Forward Development. Ray Whitney decided to hold out for a better payday and eventually signed in Phoenix. All in all, the Hurricanes are now missing eight roster players with whom they started the ill-fated 09-10 season.
Their only free agent acquisition, (other than Corvo) was the recently signed Patrick O`Sullivan, a forward who was traded by Edmonton for Jim Vandermeer, but then was eventually bought out by the Coyotes.
1. Depth. The Hurricanes now have more depth than ever before and fans of the Charlotte Checkers are going to be in for a treat. The franchise is loaded with quality young players and there is simply not enough room for them all in Raleigh. Now with the addition of O`Sullivan and emergence of Jeff Skinner, two forwards are probably going to end up in the AHL when they could have easily been playing in the NHL. The good news is that when\if the injury bug bites, there will be players ready, willing, and able to step in.
2. Goaltending. Cam Ward has the ability to be "world class" in net and after enduring a disappointing season of injuries last year, he will be more motivated than ever to excel this season.
3. Offensive Defensemen. Even though last season's group was more physical, they were slow and lumbering at times in the back end. This season's blueline has more speed and can attack in the offensive zone nonstop. They also have plenty of skill and talent to man the point on the powerplay, which should be a huge improvement in that category from last season.
1. Physicality. Will the Hurricanes be tough enough, gritty enough, and physical enough to do what needs to be done to win games? Will the defensemen be big enough to clear the crease when they need to? Will the forwards be able to get to the "dirty" areas of the ice? The club lost a lot of grit, especially in the back end, and it will be interesting to see who will provide that in the new group.
2. Playmaking. The team has plenty of shooters and scorers, but few skaters who can set up a play and be depended upon to consistently get assists. This group will most likely replace Ray Whitney's goals, but who will pick up his assists?
3. Face offs. The Hurricanes lost Rod Brind`Amour, who used to take every important face off for the team. Last season Brandon Sutter was at 49%, Eric Staal at 42%, and Patrick Dwyer at 35%. Jussi Jokinen won 52% of his chances in the circle, but he's expected to play at wing this year. Who will step up and win some face offs for the team this season?
Some of the wingers are likely to be moved around all over that board.
(Players in parenthesis are most likely to be challenged for that position. Jiri Tlusty has been nursing a knee injury and is expected to be able to play soon).
The Hurricanes could finish anywhere between 2nd and 5th in the Southeast. It's highly unlikely they can contend with Washington for the division title, but if the key players on the team can stay healthy, the club should be in the mix for the playoffs.
But this group is also just one or two key injuries away from disaster because the youth of the team can not be counted on to carry it the bulk of the season. (Key players to watch out for: Cam Ward, Eric Staal, Joni Pitkanen, and Tim Gleason. If one of those players is out for a significant period of time, it's big trouble in little Carolina.)