I have been a long time lurker but a more recent commenter here at Canes Country. As a long time Hurricanes fan, I've lived and died with and by this team. So I thought I'd try my hand at a Fan Post to see what happens. Here goes:
The 2011-2012 season is nearly upon us (well, okay, a month and a half away) and we've all been thinking about this "new" Hurricanes team. When examining the roster, there are a few "new" faces as well as some "hopeful" youngsters trying to elbow their way onto the squad. By my reading, we have 5 new Canes:
Additionally, there are any number of "Checkers" vying to get on the roster as well. This group includes:
So what are the Challenges facing this team going into camp and ultimately the season?
- The New Guys - how will they fit in? What will they bring to the table? Personally I believe that this will be one of our lesser issues. Poni and Brent are known quantities to Maurice and Co., Kaberle as well. These guys were picked up because we knew what they could do and felt they met a marked need for the organization. Boucher is a professional and did a more than adequate job in Philly last year, even in the playoffs. In his back-up role, this is a serious upgrade and will add 3 or 4 wins in 2011-2012. Stewart is a wild card. He's got lots of talent but it is yet to be seen as to whether or not he's truly a "late bloomer".
- What About the Youth Movement? - We've got 2 or 3 guys not just knocking on the door, but beating it down. Will they prove that they are NHL-worthy? How do we get playing time (if deserved) for these talented youngsters? Right now our roster has room for exactly 1 forward (if you assume that Stewart and Ponikarovsky take positions in the top 9). Where does Zac Dalpe fit (given JR's insistence that he's ready and should make the team)? What does that do to Samson and Bowman's chances (not to mention psyche's)? This is truly a conundrum. It is hard to envision a scenario where Dalpe doesn't start the season in the top 6. If that is the case, I would argue it is equally hard to see where Samson, Bowman, and Boychuk fit....or how they fit if they do. Frankly, a very good case could be made to have LaRose play on the 4th line thereby freeing up a position for Jiri Tlusty on the third line. And I just don't see room for Bobby Sanguinetti on this team today. Lastly, would the Canes carry 13 forwards and 7 defensemen? If so would they do more of a "rotation" playing the hot hand when appropriate? That is a strategy I wouldn't mind seeing.
- Whither the Defense? - Let's just assume that Joslin and Harrison will rotate in and out of the press box. That gives the Hurricanes 3 pairings of a more offensively minded blueliner and one that is more of a "defensive" defenseman. Will that cut it? In my own calculations, it does appear that the defense got better with the arrival of Bryan Allen (and, perhaps, with the increased playing time of Joslin), giving up fewer shots per game and fewer "goals against" per game as well. But let's look at this in a different light...what if the defense can clear the puck out of our zone more effectively? That too happened with more frequency following the trade deadline. However, I would like to think that we would be better at leveraging the offensive abilities that exist on our blueline. Jamie McBain, in particular, is a year older and more mature. Kaberle's passing ability is widely heralded and respected. Pitkanen is solidified as a Cane for another 3 years, so that should help as well. Believe what you will, I think that this will be an under-rated defense that gets the job done, not with pure grit, but with finesse and skill.
So now for the fun part...the Predictions...how will this team fare this year? What will be the high points? The Why's? The Wherefore's? And all the rest...I'll start off with just a few of my own (I recall responding to a prediction thread last year and I was woefully off the mark, but that's why they call 'em predictions).
- The Hurricanes will make the playoffs, finishing 6th in the East. This team just feels too close not to over achieve just a bit. I think the combo of Stewart and Poni will more than make up for Cole's lost offensive presence. I think that both our PK and PP will improve and contribute to us winning an extra 3 or 4 games. Add my earlier statement that I believe Boucher will chip in for an additional 3 wins and the Canes should end up with over 100 points.
- Carolina will have one of the highest scoring defenses in the league. Sort of an easy prediction to make, but if Kaberle brings last year's scoring to the table, McBain improves in his sophomore year, and Pitkanen puts the puck on net a few more times, this could easily prove true.
- Skinner has a similar or even slightly better year. Defenses will be laying in wait for young Jeff. But this kid dedicated himself to an even more grueling conditioning program this summer. He's working to improve his skating. And he may end up on Staal's line by the end of the year. All of these things add up to a 70 point season IMHO.
- Staal likes his linemates and rediscovers his scoring groove. Not that he ever really lost it, but Eric should really be scoring closer to 90 points than 70 points. Add a sniper or a playmaker (either one) and that becomes a reality. Staal is a highly under-rated passer, even if he's a sniper himself. Assume an additional skill guy is going to surface for his line...whether Skinner, Stewart, Dalpe, or "an as yet unknown". The question is whether Staal ends up with 35 goals and 55 assists or 50 goals and 40 assists. Either one is a win for the Carolina Hurricanes.
- Two of the youngsters (not named Skinner) make their mark. At first I was going to say "Dalpe and another youngster...", but there are too many really good young players (sub-25) on this team to give "can't miss" status to one over another. I believe that Zac has a great shot at being that phenom. But we all forget about guys like Jiri Tlusty who has demonstrated significant, albeit inconsistent promise. Add in to the mix the undeniable hunger of Drayson Bowman, and the "put up or shut up" pressure on Boychuk and you have the makings of a real competition in camp. You also have the potential for break out years stemming from that type of desire.
- Paul Maurice is the head coach for the entire year. Given my prediction of a playoff run, I think Mo's job is safe. However, I wouldn't be surprised to see him "ease" into a front office position if things start out slowly. I just feel like he knows he's under the microscope, can't necessarily retain systems with which he's comfortable, and will be more flexible than in year's past. The mere addition of Tim Brent should recommend increased 4th line time, for example. If, as I suspect will happen after a month or two, one of our other 4th line forwards plays their way onto the 3rd line, that would indicate that one Chad LaRose will rightly take his place back on the 4th line (even if over-paid to do so). But if that occurs, that line becomes viewed as significantly more dependable and, therefore, deserving of more minutes. I would not be surprised to see 8 minutes a game for our 4th line by December (if one of Tlusty, Bowman, Samson, or Boychuk plays their way up).
- JR will make a significant trade prior to the trade deadline. This year this team was constructed for "creative asset management". We have too many good young players. We have a really nice "support cast" on great contracts. And I predict that we will force ourselves into the conversation as one of the better teams in the East. When that occurs, the "one last piece" argument will surface. Jim Rutherford is cagey and he won't wait until the deadline to make a deal. It will happen and it will include at least one player on our side that nobody suspects.
Well, there you have it. I'm on the record with my thoughts (such as they are) and my predictions (now too easily recalled for future flaming). How about you? Let's hear your ideas, thoughts, and hopes.