Photo of Carolina's 2013 Red vs White game shot by the author
The Carolina Hurricanes head into an offseason of uncertainty after a 2013-14 season that many will look back on as one of the more disappointing campaigns in recent memory. Long gone are the aspirations drawn from the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, where Jiri Tlusty was a goal-every-other-game producer, Kirk Muller was still awaiting his first full season behind the bench, and fans were eager to see what could be in an 82-game scenario.
We know what could be now. And it wasn't pretty getting here.
But this isn't about the past. This is about the future. The Carolina Hurricanes are looking ahead, and fans are once again awaiting the start of a new year. The Canes have already made their intentions clear, having dismissed Muller and fellow bench associate John MacLean along with long-time defensive coach Dave Lewis. A new general manager is in place as well, as Ron Francis is now at the helm of a ship that has veered far off course in the years following the seemingly ages ago Stanley Cup championship in 2006.
What follows are four bold predictions - adequately explained, so grab some popcorn and a nice beverage for this one - for the upcoming offseason that will lead the Canes into the start of the regular 82-game schedule. Will they happen for sure? Is it just random musings from a dreaming fan? We will let history be the judge on that one. For now, these are mere predictions. Enjoy as such.
BOLD PREDICTION #1 -- The goaltending situation will be crystal clear by July 1st
The Canes have two goaltenders currently under contract to the tune of an $8.5 million impact on the bottom line. While this may not seem all that significant considering Carolina is unlikely to spend to the reported $71 million cap for the 2014-15 season, having that much tied into a position where one man should play about 80% of the games (in a perfect world, mind you) doesn't make a lot of financial sense.
Most people feel that Cam Ward looks to be the odd man out. And who could blame you for having those thoughts, considering Anton Khudobin was re-signed for two more years and looked sharp as the man while Ward was out with injury. But it's not so easy to move a goaltender with a history of injury issues who will be 31 by the stretch run next season - to say nothing about his $6.3 million salary for each of the next two years.
So how does this get settled? Will it be settled? Does Ward back up Khudobin or vice versa? What about Justin Peters? Peters, who performed admirably when Khudobin himself went down from injury and finally looked poised to stay in the NHL for good this time. Peters will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1st.
"We have a trade to announce..."
That familiar refrain will reverb off the walls of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on a sunny summer day in June, as Francis and the Carolina Hurricanes engineer a bold move by trading Cam Ward, along with Riley Nash, Austin Levi, and their second round pick in 2014 to the Calgary Flames for Curtis Glencross, David Jones, and Calgary's 4th overall selection in 2014.
BOLD PREDICTION #2 -- There will be a new captain to start the 2014-15 season
This isn't so much about Eric Staal losing the captaincy as it's about a new identity, both inside and outside the locker room. We can all speculate about what goes on in between periods, and we may think we're relatively smart on the ins and outs thanks to HBO 24/7 and listening to interviews. But the fact is we don't, and when we look at the results on the ice, the leadership must be held to account.
Eric Staal has been the captain of this team since taking over mid-season in 2010 from the nearly retired Rod Brind'Amour. Since then, this team has listed to and fro season in, and season out. To be sure, Staal is a born leader. I know a thing or two about being the oldest of many siblings. You aren't asked to be a leader - you just come to be one, before you even realize it. Staal is a workhorse, and he leads by example. And don't think he doesn't get fiery when needed.
However, this is about the future of the franchise. The identity of the franchise, moving forward into shark infested waters. The wave of the future is on the young up and comers, who are taking over the NHL en masse. And one such player of that calibre is among our Hurricanes. He's wise beyond his years, has matured before our eyes, and when given an opportunity to be the number one guy in his position, he took it and made it his own.
That man is Justin Faulk, and in a bold pre-camp move, the new head coach of the Hurricanes will appoint him as the team's fifth captain in Hurricanes (non-Whalers) history.
Many will say he's too young, and he's not ready. Many said that about Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby. Though both are forwards and have had plenty of individual and team success, you cannot discount the franchise's faith in our young rearguard. At 22, many will simply point to his age and perhaps feel the move foolish. But if we know anything about the caliber of #27, it's that he will rise to the occasion.
BOLD PREDICTION #3 -- Goodbye, farewell. We will miss you, after all.
Unrestricted free agency in today's NHL is such an interesting thing. Players come and go just about every year, keeping things fresh and moving. I've come to find it pretty neat as someone that has studied players over the years; particularly when a name I haven't seen in a while finds his way to the home ice of PNC Arena.
My musings aside, this will be an active offseason in terms of free agents for our Canes. No fewer than 11 players on the big club are in need of new contracts, while 15 down the road in Charlotte are also in search of a deal for next season (CapGeek, I truly love you). But which ones will we bid our adieus to? Which ones will be back in camp? And what if any newcomers will make Raleigh their home?
I think it's fairly easy to say that UFA's Radek Dvorak, Mike Komisarek, Mark Flood, Nicolas Blanchard, and Matt Corrente, along with RFA's Justin Shugg, Greg Nemisz, Kellan Tochkin, and Tommi Kivisto have skated their last shifts for the Hurricanes organization. Getting more of the Checkers out of the way, you can probably bet that Chris Terry, Brett Sutter, Aaron Palushaj, Rasmus Rissanen, Zach Boychuk, Michal Jordan, Mike Murphy, and Jared Staal will all be re-signed or at least brought into camp if not signed elsewhere.
Getting to the meat of the equation, I feel that Andrei Loktionov has earned himself a contract, along with Nathan Gerbe, Justin Peters (to back up Khudobin per my #1 prediction) and Drayson Bowman. Manny Malhotra shouldn't even be discussed - that's an automatic signing in my book for not only an inspiring comeback season, but his passion and leadership (both highly needed on this club). I like Ron Hainsey as a versatile plugger on the back end and though my personal opinion is to let him
hobble ride off into the free agent sunset, I fully expect Joni Pitkanen will be given a one-year contract once he's given the green light to wag his tongue around a practice ice rink near you.
This leaves only UFA Brett Bellemore and restricted free agent Jiri Tlusty. I feel Tlusty could be used as trade bait for an additional decently high draft pick in what many feel is a much deeper 2015 NHL Draft. He's proven to be a square peg in a round hole and his inconsistency, coupled with an emerging Elias Lindholm, means he's unlikely to return. Bellemore I like, but he had an opportunity to be a poor man's Tim Gleason this season and ended up looking more like Jackie Gleason.
So what new faces will be added to the mix? I'll save the big one for prediction #4 (spoiler alert), but from outside the organization, I like Kyle Quincey as a solid, if not spectacular defenseman. He's just what we need more of - size and strength, dependable play in our own zone and he's not afraid to mix it up. That would put our NHL-ready stable of D's at 7 (Faulk, Sekera, Liles, Harrison, Quincey, Hainsey, Pitkanen), with Ryan Murphy and possibly Jordan competing to steal a spot in camp.
BOLD PREDICTION #4 -- Time to let the 'Juice' run loose, 2.0 style?
Retreads. We've had our share of retreads, haven't we? Paul Maurice, David Tanabe, Erik Cole - just to name a few from those that have been here, done that, and been back again. It never seems to work out the way we intend, either good or bad. Maurice was a stop-gap that worked well for half a season, if you'll recall. But for the most part, things rarely return to the level they once were when we dip into the "bin of the past" to try to reclaim long sought glory.
Ron Francis knows a thing or two about retreads, having been one himself when drafted by the Hartford Whalers in 1981 and then signed as a free agent to return to the organization in 1998. And while history may not look kindly to the idea of going after a player in the free agent market that has spent time here in the past, one only has to look beyond that fact and make the best possible decisions for his team.
The player I believe that will end up back in Carolina red this coming season is none other than Jussi Jokinen. You'll remember the deal that sent Jokinen to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013. That year, Jokinen has struggled mightily to hit six goals in 33 games before being shipped out for a relative bag of pucks. But the change of scenery was just what the doctor ordered, as Jokinen would record 7 goals in 10 games with the Pens to close out the 2013 campaign, and then rattle off another 21 goals and 36 assists this past season.
He also chipped in seven goals in 13 playoff games before Pittsburgh fell to the New York Rangers a few weeks back.
With confidence restored and probably an inflated feeling of worth in a relatively decent market for scoring forwards, Jokinen could very well end up back in Carolina around the $4 million per year mark. He'd be a solid fit with Eric Staal and Alex Semin on a true #1 scoring line and allows for a much more natural look to the lineup (adjusted per my previous predictions):
Jokinen -- Staal -- Semin
Skinner -- Loktionov -- Lindholm
Glencross -- Staal -- Gerbe
Bowman -- Malhotra -- Dwyer
(in my scenario, David Jones would be bought out using our remaining compliance buyout)
Go ahead: tell me I'm nuts. I feel this is one retread, however, that might just work out well for us.
Now it's your turn, if you've made it to the end of this little ditty. Sound off Caniacs - what say you?