Goaltender Cam Ward and defensemen Ryan Murphy (38) and Justin Faulk (background) were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming preseason for the Hurricanes. (Photo by Jamie Kellner)
For the 2011-12 season, we're going to change up our coverage a little bit. Last year's "Five Observations" will be replaced with its 2.0 version, Game Analysis. Game Analysis will have much of what you're used to from last season: an every-game breakdown of some of the pivotal moments from Hurricanes hockey. But instead of doing just five different observations, this season's Game Analysis will have "Three Observations," one "Number To Know," and both a "Plus" and "Minus" player for the game.
So this is our test run — a Game Analysis for the entire preseason. Be sure and let us know what you think of the new format.
The Carolina Hurricanes closed out their preseason schedule Saturday, dropping a 2-1 decision to the Nashville Predators. The Canes finished their six-game exhibition campaign with a disappointing 1-4-1 record, and now will wait to kick off the regular season next Friday against Tampa Bay at the RBC Center.
1. With Erik Cole gone to Montreal, the Hurricanes will lean heavily on last year's top-two point producers, captain Eric Staal and reigning Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner, to provide offense in 2011-12. The fact that neither scored a goal this preseason is a big reason why Carolina managed just 11 goals during their exhibition games. In fact, only Alexei Ponikarovsky scored more than once this preseason. Otherwise the few goals the Hurricanes did score came from every corner of the lineup. Jerome Samson and Riley Nash — both will likely spend most of their season in the AHL — scored, Zac Dalpe, who is looking like a top-six forward, tallied, and even defense-first blueliners Bryan Allen and Jay Harrison found the back of the net. But the absence of production from Carolina's best returning scorers — Staal, Skinner, Jussi Jokinen (scored once) — and little from newcomers Tomas Kaberle and has to have coach Paul Maurice concerned that this team will not be able to keep up with high-flying Southeast foes Washington and Tampa Bay this season.
2. While there are concerns about scoring, there should be none about goaltending. Cam Ward and Brian Boucher were both stellar this preseason. The goals they did allow were mostly off rebounds, and often the result of defensive breakdowns that led to wide open nets for the opposition. With mix-and-match forwards and defensive pairings, those miscommunications are likely to happen in the preseason. But it's hard to argue with the effectiveness of Ward and Boucher — some third-period leads were relinquished by each, but on the whole this tandem may be the best Carolina has had entering the season since the move to Raleigh. Yes, the performance of the 2005-06 Martin Gerber/Ward combo will prove tough to top, but that duo was far from a sure thing when skates were laced back up coming out of the lockout. Ward and Boucher, if they get help from their teammates, could be one of the league's better tandems this season.
3. Maurice is in the final season of a three-year contract he signed during the summer of 2009 he led Carolina to a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals. But since then, Maurice's Canes have missed back-to-back playoffs and are seemingly off to a rocky start after an underwhelming preseason. He has new assistants — Rod Brind'Amour and Dave Lewis are newcomers, with only Tom Barrasso coming back — and the support of an organization that has a long-time relationship with him. But Jim Rutherford had to dismiss his good friend once before — leading to the hiring of Peter Laviolette and, ultimately, a Stanley Cup — and with a two-time NHL head coach in Lewis on the payroll and up-and-coming coaching mind Jeff Daniels steering the Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes have options if the team stumbles and the fan base again becomes impatient with Maurice. Maurice has his detractors, but he has also proven he is capable of steering a team deep into the postseason. But Maurice, Rutherford, the players and the fans all know that success in a nontraditional market means making the playoffs.
Number To Know
6 — The number of games defenseman Justin Faulk played this preseason, suiting up for all of Carolina's exhibition contests. And he didn't disappoint. Faulk's not the biggest nor fastest guy out there, but he already plays with poise and without fear in both ends of the ice. He logged big minutes, made hits, blocked shots and fired the puck all preseason. If anyone can find a reason to send him to Charlotte at this point, I'd love to hear it.
The Teens — Faulk and 2011 first-round pick Ryan Murphy made what seemed like a crystal-clear lineup on defense a cloudy one for Maurice. As mentioned, Faulk plays with control well beyond his years, while Murphy — well, wow. For those concerned that Murphy would be too free-wheeling, too erratic for Maurice's system, those concerns were put to rest pretty much as soon as he stepped on the ice with the Canes. Outside of Bret Hedican, he is probably the fastest d-man to pull on a Hurricanes sweater, and his offensive zone decisiveness is the kind of thing that cannot be taught. Murphy will likely get an early season look then return to Kitchener for the balance of the year, but I don't think anyone would put it past the 18-year-old to "pull a Skinner" and crack the lineup much sooner than Rutherford & Co. anticipated back when they drafted him in June. Actually, in the end it might be Faulk's readiness that makes Carolina decide that they can wait on Murphy for a year. Either way, these are decisions team's like to make — while hard ones, it's better to have too much talent than not enough.
Zach Boychuk — Nash's preseason was a pleasant surprise, and Drayson Bowman continues to look solid even though he's been unable to break through in the goal column. But Boychuk's second-straight underwhelming preseason has to have the Hurricanes wondering how many more chances the former first- round pick deserves to make his way into the NHL. With a glut of able defensemen, including some young ones knocking on the door, could the Canes entertain making Boychuk the sweetener in a package that would ship out a higher-priced blueliner to make room for one of the young d-men?