We continue our trek through the Southeast Division and head up the coast to preview one of the old relocated teams.
It's been a long time since anyone thought of the Hartford Whalers, but that's mostly because they were terrible and never did anything while in Hartford. For Wing fans, the best thing that ever happened was when the Whalers traded Brendan Shanahan to Detroit for Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau.
However, since moving to Carolina, the Hurricanes have risen to become one of the better franchises in the NHL. They have one Cup to their credit and another Finals appearance, although I will always begrudge them for 2002 when they denied the Wings the opportunity to beat the Maple Leafs in the Cup Finals, giving me ultimate bragging rights over all of my friends for the rest of our natural lives.
Last year was an up-and-down season for the Hurricanes, but at the end of the year they fell just short of the playoffs. They went through some roster turnover in the offseason, and are hoping to make it back to the playoffs for just the second time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-06.
The Canes were part of the NHL's European premiere, sweeping the Wild. The rest of their season? Not that great. They struggled at times while looking good other times, but in the end they needed to win their final game of the season against a Tampa Bay team that was locked into the 5th seed and had nothing to play for, and they were blown out 6-2 at home to miss the playoffs by 2 points.
Arrivals: Tim Brent, Brian Boucher, Tomas Kaberle, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart, Chris Durno
Departures: Erik Cole, Justin Pogge, Joe Corvo, Bryan Rodney
Pertinent Stats in 2010-11
Points: 91 (19th NHL, 9th East)
Goals For: 231 (12th NHL)
Goals Against: 239 (21st NHL)
Power Play: 15.9% (24th NHL)
Penalty Kill: 81.2% (20th NHL)
Offense: When one thinks of the Hurricanes, the first name that comes to mind is usually Eric Staal. The oldest of the Staal brothers had another productive season, leading the team in goals and assists while being named captain of one of the All-Star teams. 76 points is just under a PPG, but that's around his career average for a season. The recently-departed Erik Cole chipped in 26 goals last year, and it's expected that former-Thrasher Stewart will be able to come in and replace most if not all of that production.
The biggest surprise last year was obviously Jeff Skinner. The 18 year old was strong enough in camp to earn a spot on the team, and he finished the year with 31 goals and 63 points, good enough to earn him the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. A big key to the Hurricanes' success this year will hinge on whether Skinner can either maintain or improve upon those numbers.
The Canes were able to re-sign a couple of their more important players in Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen, but the biggest move they made to their offense was to sign Kaberle away from the Bruins in July. Kaberle really struggled in Boston, but he won a Cup, and it will be interesting to see whether he can parlay that confidence and the experience of winning into a solid season in Carolina.
Defense: The aforementioned Kaberle is probably the biggest name on the Canes' defense, and he will be expected to step in and fill the role left by Joe Corvo as a PP quarterback and point-producer. Pitkanen is a good all-around defenseman who can play with size and contribute offensively.
The Canes don't have a lot of household names on defense, but one player that has always caught my eye is Tim Gleason, a very solid stay-at-home defenseman who can play more minutes and against the other team's top players. Jamie McBain is a younger player who could step into the lead "offensive defenseman" role in a year or two, but he still has some developing to do in his own end before he becomes a true #1 guy.
Goaltending: The Canes are set in this area with Cam Ward, the former Conn Smythe winner. Last year saw Ward post a career-best .923 SV% as he played in the All-Star game in front of his home fans. At 27 he is just entering his prime and could get some Vezina consideration if he gets some help from the team in front of him. I've always thought he'd look great in a Team Canada jersey in the next Olympics instead of Roberto Luongo, but that's just me.
The Canes signed Brian Boucher as a potential backup to Ward, but Justin Peters is a young player in the mix as well. Both will be second-fiddler to Ward, as he could play 70 games if needed.
Player to Watch: All eyes will be on Jeff Skinner to see whether he can replicate his rookie season and once again hit the 30-goal mark. He's already established himself as a goal-scorer in the NHL, but it remains to be seen whether he has the vision to truly excel as a center and passer. He's also still on the smaller side, but at 19 he's got plenty of room to get bigger.
Player With Something to Prove: After being the most sought-after defenseman at the trade deadline for the last 15 years, Tomas Kaberle was finally moved by the Leafs to the Bruins last year, but his play in Boston was not up to the standards that his fans have come to expect over the years. Nevertheless, he won a Cup and is still one of the better puck-moving defensemen in the NHL, and he used those skills in a thin market to score a 3-year, $12.75M contract from Carolina. A lot will be expected of him this year, and he needs to get back to being the marquee guy he was while with Toronto.
The Skinny: The Hurricanes have a nice mix of youth and veterans, and there's star power there in Staal, Skinner and Ward. I fear that their lack of a true big-name defenseman who can excel at both ends of the ice may hurt them over the course of a season, but they do have some players with the potential to step into that role. The Southeast is actually a tougher division than many believe, with Washington and Tampa both playoff contenders and Florida improving, so points will be tougher to come by. If Skinner can improve on his rookie season and the Canes avoid any injuries to their key players, a playoff berth is possible, but they are going to be in tough once again.