The past year has brought both good and bad to the Carolina Hurricanes. The NHL All-Star Game was a huge success, showcasing the area as a legitimate hockey market. Jeff Skinner took home the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league's top rookie. And GM Jim Rutherford was able to keep several key unrestricted free agents at a reasonable cost. On the bad side, Paul Maurice lost his job here for the second time, Eric Staal struggled, the Tomas Kaberle era came and went, and the team failed to make the 2011 postseason and saw its start to the 2011-12 campaign make a return to the playoffs in 2012 unlikely.
What will come in 2012 is a mystery, but there are definite pressing issues as the Canes embark on a new year.
1. Getting Skinner Healthy. The Hurricanes got great news this week when Skinner returned to practice (in a non-contact jersey), but the big test will come once Skinner is back on the ice. The fear of concussions is at an understandable all-time high, but the Canes seem to be taking every precaution with their concussed players and not rushing them back. That could be the difference between being the next Eric Lindros, whose promising career was cut short by injury, or the next Brandon Sutter, who has bounced back from a concussion his rookie season and shown no ill effects.
2. Defense Decisions. Joni Pitkanen's concussion has kept the choices on defense relatively easy. With seven healthy D, new coach Kirk Muller has, for the most part, dressed his top six and scratched Derek Joslin. The decisions going forward — for Muller and Rutherford — won't be as easy. Once Pitkanen is healthy, Muller will need to decide who the odd-man out is on the blue line. Does he potentially stunt Jamie McBain's growth by scratching Carolina's young rearguard? And what of impending veteran UFAs Tim Gleason, Bryan Allen and Jaroslav Spacek? All three could bring a deadline return (more on this later), but Rutherford will need to decide who fits into the team's future plans. Ryan Murphy, the team's top pick in 2011, could be ready for the NHL as early as next year, and Rutherford won't want to make the same mistake he made this year when he signed Kaberle without realizing that rookie Justin Faulk would be ready for a major role.
3. Backup Success. Jan. 9, 2011. That's the last time someone other than Cam Ward has won a game between the pipes for the Hurricanes, when Justin Peters defeated Atlanta, a team that no longer exists. The addition of Brian Boucher was supposed to alleviate the issue, but Boucher was 0-4-1 in seven games before going down with a lower body injury. It's gotten so bad that rookie Mike Murphy lost his first ever NHL appearance, in relief of Ward, without even allowing a goal.
4. Muller's Way. Carolina's already showing a different playing style under its new coach, but Muller will need to time to implement exactly what he wants his team to do on a nightly basis. That may not fully come to fruition until next year's training camp, but so far the Hurricanes are making strides in transitioning from Maurice's systems to Muller's.
5. Wing Man. A top priority for Rutherford and Muller is finding the proper linemates for Staal. The latest to audition is rookie Zac Dalpe, who so far has looked OK alongside the Carolina captain. With a lot of money coming off the books this offseason, Rutherford will have plenty of options — be it by trade or free agency — plus Muller could try Skinner, Jokinen or others alongside Staal.
6. Deadline Purge. As mentioned above, Carolina will have assets to peddle at the trade deadline. With the playoffs seemingly already out of reach, the Canes could shop several of their players to try and expedite their rebuild. Don't be surprised if two of Allen, Gleason and Spacek are gone, and Alexei Ponikarovsky is all but assured to be dealt to a team in need of third-line scoring help. The biggest decision will swirl around Tuomo Ruutu, who is in the final year of his hefty contract and is putting together a big year with unrestricted free agency looming. Can Carolina afford to lose him? If they traded him, could they re-sign him in the offseason? And would he be worth a deal worth probably more than the $3.8 million he averaged the last three seasons? Ruutu is entering his prime (he'll be 29 in February), but the physical nature of his play and history of injuries could mean he has more miles on him than most 29-year-olds.
7. Drafting Wisely. While it hasn't yet translated into a ton of on-ice production, the Hurricanes have drafted well the past half decade. If Ryan Murphy winds up as good as expected, the Canes will have hit home runs in back-to-back years. The Canes need to do it again. All signs point to Carolina picking in the top 10 again, if not the top five or even three. Throw in whatever draft assets are stockpiled at the deadline, and the Hurricanes need a big year at the draft table.
8. Surviving Realignment. Rutherford seems genuinely pleased that the Canes were grouped with big gate draws like the Rangers, Flyers, Penguins and Capitals (oh, and the Devils and Islanders). But four of those teams rank in the NHL's top 10 in player payroll spending this season, and only the Isles spend less than Carolina among the teams in the new conference. Dollars don't equal dubyas, but the Hurricanes face an uphill battle in what is arguably the toughest conference in the new-look format.
9. Sutter Rising. It's fast becoming time to see what kind of player Brandon Sutter is going to be. Everyone knows he's already among the league's best defensive forwards, now the question becomes if he's more like John Madden or Rod Brind`Amour. There's no shame in being the next Madden, a winner who would score around 25-40 points per year while making life a living hell for top lines for more than a decade. But if Sutter can evolve into the type of scoring threat Brind`Amour became, the Hurricanes will have one of the best one-two punches down the middle in the NHL.
10. Wither Jokinen. As Carolina's most versatile forward, Jokinen has played just about everywhere on the ice in every situation. But if the Canes are going to thrive, they need a permanent home for the Finnish dynamo. Ideally, that would be at left wing, the position where Jokinen is most comfortable. That would also mean Carolina had found a suitable second line center (see No. 1, No. 7 or No. 9), and getting Jokinen back on the wing could also help out immensely with No. 5. In a lot of ways, the path taken — or given — to Jokinen is the most pivotal to the Hurricanes' short-term success.