By Adam Vingan
Since transforming from sea creatures to natural disasters, the Carolina Hurricanes have made a name for themselves by proving to be one of the NHL’s peskiest teams. One season, they’re winning the Stanley Cup or powering through to the Eastern Conference Finals. In recent seasons, however, Hurricane Country has felt more like Depression Country (meteorology humor) as the ‘Canes have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and the fourth time in five seasons since winning the Stanley Cup.
There was plenty of promise last season for the Hurricanes as they used their balance of youth and experience to come within one win of making the playoffs. The Hurricanes factor to be in the mix once again in the Eastern Conference this season, but whether they turn into Fran or Earl will be something to keep an eye on.
Save The Date (season matchups): October 8 in Washington; November 4 in Carolina; January 15 in Washington; January 20 in Carolina; February 20 in Carolina; March 6 in Washington.
Stocking Stuffers (notable additions): F Alex Ponikarovsky (free agency via Los Angeles); F Anthony Stewart (free agency via Atlanta/Winnipeg); F Tim Brent (free agency via Toronto); D Tomas Kaberle (free agency via Boston); G Brian Boucher (free agency via Philadelphia).
Gift Receipts (notable losses): F Erik Cole (signed with Montreal); D Joe Corvo (traded to Boston).
Ghosts Of Christmas Past (last season): 40-31-11 – third in Southeast Division – ninth in Eastern Conference.
Compared to the 2009-10 season, where the Hurricanes started 2-12-4 before finishing strong, the 2010-11 season saw a return to form for Carolina as one of the NHL’s most solid teams. The Hurricanes hovered (no pun intended) right below the .500 mark all season long, but it was still good enough to give them a chance of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth time in the team’s 13 seasons in Raleigh. With their fate in their hands, all Carolina had to do was when its final game of the season at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning to qualify for the playoffs and face the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Yet, the Lightning struck thrice in the first period and ended the Hurricane’s playoff hopes in a 6-2 win that allowed the New York Rangers to take the eighth and final spot.
While the season ended in disappointing fashion, the Hurricanes had plenty to be happy about in terms of player development. Rookie phenom/former figure skater Jeff Skinner, who made the team out of training camp, turned 31 goals and 32 assists into a Calder Trophy-winning season. Captain Eric Staal’s 76 points were his most since the 2007-08 season, while three other players – Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen and Cole – finished with over 50 points. Perhaps most importantly, Cam Ward bounced back from an injury-plagued 2009-10 season where he played in just 47 games by playing in 74 and boasting a 37-26-10 record. Those 74 games played and started by Ward were both NHL-leading totals among goaltenders.
Wish List (season outlook): The Hurricanes did not make many roster moves during the offseason and will rely on their re-signed players – Jokinen, Chad LaRose and Joni Pitkanen – to improve on their solid seasons with better efforts, especially to make up for Cole’s production (26 goals, 26 assists). Those who were brought in – Ponikarovsky, Stewart and Brent – will have plenty of pressure on them. Stewart is coming off a career season (14 goals, 25 assists), while Ponikarovsky had one of the worst seasons of his career and Brent showed promise in his first full year in the NHL.
The biggest question mark surrounding Carolina will be its defense. According to NHL.com, the Hurricanes gave up a league-high 33.2 shots against per game. By acquiring Kaberle, the Hurricanes now have a Stanley Cup-winning defenseman that can move the puck. Yet, Kaberle’s defensive acumen is mediocre compared to his offensive skill (which will help the Hurricane’s 24th-ranked power play). Even with a world-class goalie like Ward and a tested veteran backup like Boucher, Carolina cannot afford to give up as many shots this season if they want to make the playoffs for the first time in three years. It might not matter, however, if Staal and Skinner lead the offense once again.