Going into the offseason, Jim Rutherford identified four areas where the team needed to find personnel to improve. I think his signings of Tim Brent, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart, Tomas Kaberle, and Brian Boucher addressed all of those issues. Additionally, we managed to resign all but one of our free agents. The one loss of Erik Cole will represent a substantial hole to fill, but I think that the offseason signings coupled with the emergence of one or more of our prospects (for this purpose, I will include as those prospects Bowman, Boychuk, Dalpe, Terry, and Tlusty) steps up and adds strong alternate scoring to our already established scorers of Staal, Skinner, Ruutu, and Jokinen. Further, I think Ponikarovsky and/or Stewart steps up to become 20-goal scorers or close to that. Additionally, I think Brandon Sutter having established himself as a strong defensive forward is able to pick up his offensive game more, especially when paired with two other players who can provide some secondary scoring themselves (LaRose and Stewart or Ponikarovsky).
It is time for annual predictions and I'm going to do the same. However, my predictions will be based on a more optimistic assessment of what will happen this season, though it is based at least in some part on what players and the team did last season and in previous years. While this may not be what actually happens this season, I think my predictions are at least as valid as the ones others are making using the same or similar data. I will start by predicting the Hurricanes finish either fifth or sixth in the Eastern Conference this year, fighting it out to the last day with Tampa Bay as to who is second in the Southeast Division. After the jump, my other analysis and predictions.
Additionally, I think that Eric Staal will become a point-per-game producer this season. Even without Cole, he will have another large body on one wing as well as a good playmaker on the other. I would expect Jokinen to start on the top line if Boychuk cannot establish himself in training camp as being good enough to take that position. That would then leave Dalpe capable of taking the open second-line wing. For the same arguments used last year to shield Skinner from being on the top line, I think Dalpe should be placed on the second line. Further, unless you going to move Skinner to the top line, you need to give Staal as strong a supporting pair of wingers as possible. Otherwise, you are crippling our best scorer and that would make it very difficult for this team to make its way into the playoffs.
I predict the powerplay will be improved over last year. Kaberle is only marginally better than Corvo at running a powerplay, but we will also have Ponikarovsky and Stewart to screen opposing goalies and create havoc in front of the net. This will lead to our powerplay improving to at least the league average and might actually get a little better. In any event, such an improvement will bring about a few additional victories or at least allow us to force overtime in games that we lost last season.
I expect an even greater improvement in the penalty kill. We will now have two superb sets of penalty killers at forward with Sutter-LaRose and Brent-Dwyer. This will also enable Staal to stay off the penalty kill most of the time which will keep him fresher for not only individual games but also the entire season. It could also help reduce the number of fatigue/frustration penalties that Staal takes. Staal and Jokinen/Ponikarovsky could also become a third penalty kill pairing but it would be the least seldom used. Additionally, I think Allen and Joslin will definitely help improve the defensive pairings on the penalty kill, depending on who is the defenseman being scratched on a given night. Thus, I predict our penalty kill will move from 20th in the league much closer to the top ten if not in the top ten.
Last year's defense started out extremely porous but did improve when Ian White replaced Anton Babchuk. By any standard measured, the defense also improved post the trade deadline with the arrivals of Allen and Joslin. If the GAA went from around 3.53 prior to the Babchuk trade to 2.42 post trade deadline, then I expect this year's team defense to be able to maintain a GAA of under 2.50, which coupled with the ability of the revamped offense to still score at approximately 3 goals a game will result in a strong playoff contender.
The addition of Tomas Kaberle can also help reduce Joni Pitaken's TOI. This will, as with Staal, reduce the number of fatigue/frustration penalties taken. It will also enable Joni to play stronger defense and perhaps not to make some of the seemingly foolish mistakes he did last year. However, as was shown by the fact that he was ninth lowest among defensemen for giveaways per point scored at even strength, I think his actual number of miscues was far lower than the anecdotal evidence would suggest. Still, reducing the amount of time he has to spend on the ice will be helpful.
Finally, the final improvement was in signing a strong backup goaltender who can take some of the load from Cam Ward. Brian Boucher played very well for Philadelphia last year even when forced by necessity to start almost half o the games. If as another posted predicted, he wins another 3 to 4 games over what Justin Peters did last year, as well as keeping Cam less fatigued for the playoff push in March and then the playoffs themselves, his might be the most important signing of the offseason.