Finally, we have arrived. The Hurricanes are a mere three days away from dropping the puck for the first time this season. That means that on this final edition of Tuesday's Top Ten, I'm going to be taking a look at how I think the Canes season will shape out.
The Hurricanes won't be opening the season in Finland or hosting the All-Star game this year, but that doesn't mean that this year won't be exciting and full of edge-of-your-seat kind of moments. With all of the question marks there are coming into this season, it should be a fun adventure to see how the storyline unfolds. Will Anthony Stewart and Alexei Ponikarovsky fill the void left by the departure of Erik Cole? How will sophomore Jeff Skinner fair after such an impressive rookie season? Will the Hurricanes make the playoffs?
I wish I knew the answers to these questions (I'd probably be off to Vegas), but for now I will have to stick to simply predicting how things will end up after the Hurricanes end their regular season on April 7.
10. Hurricanes fans will fall in love with Tim Brent
I think that Canes fans will develop the same set of emotions for the rugged fourth-line center as they once held for Kevyn Adams. Brent is a hard-nosed player who will go to the front of the net without anyone demanding it of him. He is a very team-first player who blocks shots, kills penalties and does all of the little things right during the course of a game. Players like Brent usually go unnoticed around the NHL, but here in Carolina, Caniacs understand and appreciate Brent-like players (sometimes more than the superstars).
9. Sutter returns to his goal-scoring ways
There is no doubt that Brandon Sutter is a key piece to this franchise. Even when he is not lighting the lamp every game, he is playing hard defense and aggravating the opposition the way only a Sutter can. That being said, a 14-goal season seems a bit odd for a player drafted so early and thought of so highly. I think Sutter will turn last season around as he continues to mature and understand the rigors of an NHL season. I think he could double last season's totals, but to keep everyone modest, I'll predict that he reaches the 25-goal mark.
8. Ward and Boucher excel
This might be the greatest goaltending tandem the Canes have ever seen. Ward is the All-Star caliber starter and Boucher is a goalie who, for the first time in a long time, can step in and play at a high level for 25 games. Fans thought they were in store for a treat when the team signed former Tampa Bay Lightning goalie John Grahame, but Grahame was already known to be a little flaky and unstable (something he only reinforced with the Canes). Boucher has had his ups and downs with the Flyers, but I think that might be due to inconsistencies within the organization. No one knew who the starting goalie really was at times. A more structured system will do Boucher a world of good.
7. Skinnermania 2.0
I think Jeff Skinner is a good kid. NHL.com followed him around in Las Vegas during the NHL Awards and it was revealed that he did everything you would expect an 18-year-old hockey player to do in Vegas... he brought his family. While some of the other young players were busy tweeting about the beverages they enjoyed and living up the nightlife while in Sin City, Skinner and his family were taking in shows and sightseeing.
Being such a tremendous hockey talent is just an added benefit for the youngster. Now 19 and getting ready for his second full NHL season, Skinner spent the summer in another Gary Roberts conditioning camp. He has shown a commitment to excellence and that he knows duplicating last year will be tough to do. I think he will continue to impress pundits around the hockey world this year by maintaining his numbers from 2010-11. I think 40 goals is a little extreme, so settling for the 30-35 mark is surely plausible. I think he will also be looked to more in crunch time - hopefully netting a few more game-winning goals than last year.
I do think that he will grow tired of the Justin Bieber comments though.
6. Stewart and Ponikarovsky both hit 20
When Erik Cole bolted for Montreal this offseason, he left a giant void in the Carolina lineup. It's hard to replace his 26 goals and 52 points, but it's harder to replace the speed and size he possessed. Rutherford's plan? Replacement by committee. Anthony Stewart and Alexei Ponikarovsky were both brought in to add some scoring touch and decent physical size/toughness to the team. Rutherford is hoping that Stewart can build off of the start he had last year with the Winnip... err Atlanta Thrashers and that Ponikarovsky can find the scoring touch he once had with the Paul Maurice-led Toronto Maple Leafs. Both players have the potential and I think that both will find it. 20 goals is not out of the reach for either of these players and Ponikarovsky has shown the talent in the preseason and Stewart finds those "not-so-nice" areas and is not afraid to score a dirty goal. I think the ceiling is higher for Ponikarovsky, but hopefully Stewart proves me wrong.
Sadly, every season will feature some trades; bringing in new faces while having to say goodbye to old ones. There have been trades of relief for the franchise (Keith Primeau, Arturs Irbe, Sergei Samsonov) and then there have been trades that are hard to swallow (Keyvn Adams, Danny Markov, Justin Williams, Erik Cole). This season will be no different as some names on the Hurricanes roster will probably be different by season's end. I think the two mot likely to be traded this season would have to be Zach Boychuk and Bryan Allen. Boychuk, once agin, didn't make the cut out of training camp as players like Jiri Tlusty, Zac Dalpe and newcomer Riley Nash all outplayed him. Boychuk is on the last year of his entry-level deal and would make a nice "cherry on top" to a deadline deal. Allen, like Boychuk, is on the last year of a contract. When the Hurricanes traded for him during the deadline last year, they were acquiring what they wanted, a big and tough defenseman that could play with Joni Pitkanen. Now the picture looks a bit more muddy. With youngsters Ryan Murphy, Brain Dumoulin and Justin Faulk all knocking on the door, there seems to be less room in the already crowded space for defensemen. Plsu the Hurricanes would love to get rid of some of the $2.9 million he is owed this season.
As for who could come in, that's a bit tougher. The Canes have been looking for a winger who could play with Eric Staal consistently ever since the Staal-Cole-Stillman experiment started to falter. A deadline deal or something worked out a little sooner could bring in someone at the right price. Someone like Daniel Alfredsson's name is bond to come up in rumors, as well as Brain Rolston's.
4. Speaking of trades...
The Hurricanes will be buyers at the trade deadline. Management will not want to appear to be soft this season after the way 2010-11 ended. Fans are already upset that this team cannot maintain a high level of play throughout a whole season. Fans want playoff hockey in Carolina! The Finland experience was unique. The All-Star game was unbelievable! Jeff Skinner's story was remarkable. But the point always remains, the fans want their team in the playoffs!
Peter Karmanos might give Jim Rutherford the green light to go after at least one top-tier player in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline. If the Canes miss the postseason the way they did last year, then at least it wouldn't be because of bad management.
3. Staal tops 90
I think this is the year that Eric Staal breaks out. I don't think he returns to the 100-point plateau that he reached in 2005-06, but I think a 45-goal, 45 assist season might be in his fear future. If the Canes can manage to stay healthy and give Staal some consistent line mates, then I don't think that there is any reason that Staal couldn't top 90 points this season.
2. Nash, Faulk make their NHL debuts
Riley Nash has impressed a lot of people with his strong play this preseason. He will probably be assigned to Charlotte to start the regular season with the Checkers, but his name will certainly be in the mix for the season's first recall. Justin Faulk has done everything right so far in his journey to the NHL. He waited for the right moment to turn professional and seized his opportunity. He excelled with the Charlotte Checkers in the playoffs last season, even on short notice and just barely meeting his new teammates. Both of these kids will certainly be thought of whenever someone goes down with an injury or someone's not playing up to their potential.
1. The Carolina Hurricanes will make the playoffs as a 7 seed
Yep, you heard me right Canes fans. Your team will not only make the playoffs, but they will play postseason hockey as a 7th seed (as opposed to the daunting task of winning as an 8 seed). To go even further, I think they will play the Washington Capitols (the 2nd seed) in a tight series to kick things off.
The season won't come down to the last game this year, as the Hurricanes should have wrapped things up around early April. The last 3-4 games won't be do-or-die scenarios, giving the coaches, players, and most importantly the fans a decreased risk of a heart attack this season. And we all know that whenever the Canes get into the playoffs they like to make it count.
2. Washington Capitals
7. Carolina Hurricanes
8. Tampa Bay Lightning
11. Toronto Maple Leafs
12. Winnipeg Jets
13. Florida Panthers
14. Ottawa Senators
(1) Flyers def. (Lightning) 4-1; (7) Hurricanes def. (2) Capitals 4-3; (3) Sabres def. (6) Rangers 4-2; (4) Bruins def. (5) Penguins 4-2
(1) Flyers def. (7) Hurricanes 4-1; (4) Bruins def. (3) Sabres 4-3
(1) Flyers def. (4) Bruins 4-2
9. Dallas Stars
10. St. Louis Blues
11. Phoenix Coyotes
12. Edmonton Oilers
14. Minnesota Wild
(1) Red Wings def. (8) Blackhawks 4-0; (2) Canucks def. (7) Ducks 4-3; (3) Kings def. (6) Flames 4-1; (5) Predators def. (4) Sharks 4-3
(1) Red Wings def. (5) Predators 4-3; (3) Kings def. (2) Canucks 4-2
(3) Kings def. (1) Red Wings 4-3
Stanley Cup Finals:
(3W) Kings def. (1E) Flyers 4-3