The Carolina Hurricanes officially put an end to the wildly successful NHL All Star Weekend, returning to the ice Monday for the stretch run against the Boston Bruins. But the Canes fell short in another close game with the B's, 3-2, to remain one point out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. Here are five observations from Tuesday's loss.
1. You'd better believe the Hurricanes are relieved to not have the Bruins on their schedule again this season. Outside of the 7-0 drubbing they took in Boston Jan. 17, Carolina played extremely well against the Bruins but managed just two points in the season series. Vezina frontrunner Tim Thomas started all four games against the Hurricanes and boasted a 3-1 record with a 1.75 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. For Thomas, those numbers are on par for the rest of his season, but the Canes learned that means losses for his opponents. All that being said, wouldn't a Carolina-Boston playoff series make for a great matchup?2. The Canes continue to struggle against the NHL's best teams. Against the top eight teams (based on point percentage) they've faced, the Hurricanes are just 2-14-4, with their only wins coming against Tampa Bay and Boston. Here's a look at how Carolina has fared against the other top teams: Vancouver (0-1), Philadelphia (0-2), Pittsburgh (0-2-1), Tampa Bay (1-1), Boston (1-3), Dallas (0-1-1), Washington (0-3-1), Nashville (0-1-1). The Hurricanes have not played Detroit (third in point percentage) and still has one game with them, play the Flyers and Caps two more times, the Pens one more time, and Tampa four more times. In those 10 remaining games, Carolina needs to fare much better than they did in the first 20 against the NHL's elite.
3. Patrice Bergeron, the NHL's player of the month for January, and Gregory Campbell absolutely schooled the Hurricanes in the faceoff circle. Bergeron is currently 10th in the NHL in faceoff winning percentage at 56.6 percent, but it's not just how many faceoffs he wins (15 of 21 Tuesday), but when he wins them. Against Carolina, Bergeron won five of seven against Eric Staal, many during clutch situations. Campbell was even better, winning nine of 11, including all three defensive zone draws he took. The Canes have come a long way from their early season struggles in the faceoff circle — Staal was 11 of 19 against the B's, and Brandon Sutter was at 50 percent (11 of 22). But Tuomo Ruutu continues to struggle (lost seven of 10) and Ryan Carter — normally reliable at 51.6 percent — lost all six of his faceoffs, and overall it seems like the team loses key faceoffs more than they win them.
4. The Hurricanes kept the Bruins off the power play, with their only penalty of the night coming via the Jay Harrison vs. Milan Lucic fight in the first period. The last time Carolina didn't allow an opponent a power play opportunity? It was Nov. 24, 2008, in Florida. The last time it happened at the RBC Center was also against Florida on April 4, 2008. In case you don't remember that date, it was the final game of the 2007-08 season and the 4-3 loss cost the Hurricanes the Southeast Division title and a spot in the playoffs that season. Tomas Vokoun — who left due to injury — and Craig Anderson combined for 43 saves to deny Carolina a return to the postseason.
5. News & Observer columnist Luke DeCock's article today offered the opinion that the Hurricanes should be buyers at this year's trade deadline. It's an interesting topic, for sure: is Carolina enough of a Cup contender to mortgage some of their future to try and secure a playoff spot in 2011? Here are DeCock's reasons:
• DeCock's point: Having another scoring winger could have given Carolina a win last night instead of a loss, and imagine what that could do in the postseason. Counterpoint: That winger is already in Raleigh in Jussi Jokinen, who left the game in the first period, leaving Carolina shorthanded and without one of their top scorers. And we all know what a solid playoff performer Jokinen has been.
• DeCock's point: Taking on a high-priced player late in the season doesn't cost all that much against the budget, as the team would only be responsible for about 22 percent of the salary. He points out that a player making around $4.5 million would only cost the team about $1 million. Counterpoint: Like DeCock mentions, the team is already $3 million over its budget. Making a million-dollar bet that adding such a player would lead to not only the postseason, but could spark enough playoff success to offset the cost, is easy to do with play money. But owner Peter Karmanos is trying to sell 49 percent of the team, and the better the bank numbers the look, the more likely he could get that done.
Furthermore, it would cost the Hurricanes a top-end prospect or high draft pick — two things Carolina should hold on to. Why? Well, as DeCock mentions, the team has several players with expiring contracts. A slide out of the playoff race would mean selling off many of those assets to further build the team's young depth. But with the team in the thick of the playoff hunt, chances are Rutherford wouldn't ship out players like Joni Pitkanen, Erik Cole, Chad LaRose and others without getting back something valuable or knowing that he has the horses in Charlotte to fill those roles during a playoff push. Adding a veteran at the cost of one of Carolina's young players could set the franchise back significantly because not only would Rutherford lose one of is young assets, he would also risk losing the players on expiring contracts at season's end with no return.
If the Canes are still battling for the playoffs, no one would fault Rutherford if he held on to players like Pitkanen, Jokinen and Cole, even if it meant possibly losing them for nothing in the offseason. But losing them and dealing one of the young players ready to step in to an NHL role could be catastrophic to the roster going forward. If Karmanos is willing to spend the cash on another player, it probably makes sense to take on an overpriced player who wouldn't cost as much in a trade than adding a top-end winger who would require a big return. Could you get someone like Florida's Cory Stillman (making $3.5 million this season in the final year of his deal), who is familiar with the organization — and, more importantly, Staal — without giving up a big-time prospect? Maybe. And don't look now, but Stillman has 11 points in his last 10 games. If Rutherford is going to bring someone in, I'd much rather see him make a move that cost something less than a first round pick or top prospect than sacrificing the depth the team worked so hard to build.