The question that many Carolina Hurricanes' fans are asking as we look ahead to the upcoming 2011-2012 season is, “Did the Canes strengthen themselves sufficiently with the summer moves to claw back into the post-season, after missing by a single point last year?”
No question the moves were encouraging. The Canes headed into free agency with a number of key players becoming unrestricted free agents (UFA)s. Jim Rutherford, (JR) the Canes bossman, made it clear at the end of last season that Erik Cole was the priority signing. He was more-or-less convinced that fellow Finns, D-man Joni Pitkanen and winger Jussi Jokinen, were going to bolt for higher paybacks. Other UFAs, such as Jay Harrison, a solid 6th or 7th defencemen, Chad Larose, a 3rd line winger, and depth wingers, Patrick Dwyer and Jiri Tlusty, were less concerning. Surprisingly, JR was able to quickly sign Pitkanen and Jokinen to long term deals. Pitkanen, a horse on defence, led the league in minutes-played two years ago, while Jussi, “the Juice” Jokinen, scored 31 goals just a few years ago, so is a proven offensive commodity . Both suffered through injury-plagued seasons last year, but were in high-demand, nonetheless. Expect both to return to form this year. Added to that, Larose, a spark plug and fan favorite, Dwyer, key on the penalty kill and a solid defensive forward, and, former Leaf, Harrison, a solid depth D-man, were all signed to two year deals, so the signs were encouraging. As July 1 hit, the only key Canes’ UFA who remained unsigned was Cole, a major surprise as he was one of the most vocal at seasons end about his plans to return.
As free agency kicked-off, Rutherford made one last offer to Cole but, when rebuked, quickly turned his attention elsewhere. The Canes had highlighted more size on the wing and a capable fourth line center as critical pieces needed. They also wanted a veteran back-up tender to take the heat off Cam Ward and supply him much-needed support, sorely lacking last year with youngster, Justin Peters.
Rutherford solved the fourth line center spot with former Leaf, Tim Brent, a solid defensive center, strong in the face-off circle. Interestingly, Brent, a late bloomer, was more known for his offence than defence in the minor leagues. Brian Boucher was added to back-up Ward and will be a major improvement over the more inexperienced Peters. He had an outstanding training camp and bets are he will see significant playing time. Next up was another former Leaf, Alexi Ponikarovsky, who played his best hockey for current Canes' coach, Paul Maurice. Poni brings much-needed size at 6’4” and 220, and if healthy, can be a strong offensive contributor, as he was when he patrolled the left side on the Leafs’ top unit alongside Mats Sundin. Much like Cole, Poni is at his best when playing an aggressive style, opening up space for fellow line-mates. JR next set his sights on former Thrasher, Anthony Stewart, a one-time Florida Panther first rounder, who was surprisingly not offered a new deal with the Winnipeg Jets. Stewart a big body at 6’2” and 240lbs, enjoyed a break-out season last year with 14 goals and 25 assists on a low scoring Thrashers team. For sure, Eric Staal would benefit greatly with Stewart on his wing. Unfortunately, Stewart battled injuries in camp and will start the season on the 4th line.
Make no mistake, Cole is a major loss. Erik started slowly last year but was red hot in the second half, scoring 17 goals and finishing with 26 for the season. More impressive were his 9 game winners.
Some of the slack will be taken up by Ponikarovksy and Stewart, but expect a major injection of hustle and effort from some of the youngsters vying for a spot on the big club. Highly-touted Zac Dalpe had a solid first season in Charlotte and will start the season with the Canes. Former Oiler first-rounder, Riley Nash, earned the position of most improved in the system over the last twelve months with his heady play in camp. He came to camp “bigger, stronger and better prepared”, according to coach Maurice and will be among the first players to be recalled. And, right on the cusp is Drayson Bowman, an industrious winger with big upside, who continues to struggle with scoring but is doing all the right things to earn the opportunity. Once he gains his confidence, Dray will be with the big club to stay. Interestingly, Checkers scoring machine, Jerome Samson, and former first rounder, Zach Boychuk, have slipped well down the depth chart. Boychuk, in particular, is puzzling. He has done pretty much all he can at the AHL level, but just can’t seem to transfer that success to the NHL level.
The defence looked to be set coming into camp, but all of that changed with the play of 19 year-olds, Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy. Faulk flat out made the top 4 with his outstanding all-around play, according to Rutherford. Murphy, straight from the Junior ranks, also raised some eyebrows with his slick offence and confidence. Murphy will head back to his junior club for another year of seasoning but expect him back for good next year. Another surprise in camp was the play of Jay Harrison. Jay may not be as talented as some of the other Canes’ D-man, but he makes up for it with his effort and overall exuberance. He has made a strong case to make the starting six, putting pressure on returning youngsters, Jamie McBain and Derek Joslin. Both were expected to play a key role for the Canes this year. McBain enjoyed a strong rookie season and Joslin impressed with his consistent play alongside Bryan Allen, after coming over from San Jose at the trade deadline. Allen, by the way, has had an excellent camp and looks ready to log big minutes in a shutdown role this year. With Pitkanen, Kaberle, Gleason and Allen a lock on the D, and Faulk claiming one of the open spots, that leaves Harrison, McBain and Joslin in a battle for the final spot. This could open up an interesting opportunity for Rutherford to move a McBain or Joslin, and acquire much-needed scoring for the top line. How about Ales Hemsky or Kyle Turris? Once they determine if Faulk is for real, they will be able to make a move.
As the Canes break camp, the lineup looks like this.
Skinner-Staal-Ruutu Pitkanen-Gleason Ward, Boucher
Not what we were hoping. This is a typical Paul Maurice line-up, but clearly not the way to solve the offence woes. Skinner is much better suited to the 2nd line. The line of Skinner, Jokinen, and Ruutu was lights out at season’s end. Why not leave them intact? Dwyer and Larose should be on the 4th line and Stewart and Dalpe should be moved up. In addition, Joslin or McBain should be in the top 6, probably both. With that in mind, here is what I would like to see.
Ponikarovsky-Staal-Dalpe Pitkanen-Gleason Ward, Boucher
The first line still lacks a top line winger for Staal. That has been a problem from day one. Maybe that can be addressed by trading a D-man. The other lines look to be very competitive.
It is critical the Canes get off to a quick start this year and stake their claim on a position in the top 8 quickly. All of the teams in the division have improved, so playing catch-up will not be an option. The success of the team will largely depend on the contribution of secondary players’, Ruutu, Jokinen, Gleason, and Kaberle. It is assumed that Staal, Skinner, Sutter, Pitkanen, and Ward, will carry the heavy load. Wildcards who could make a difference are Stewart, Brent, Faulk, and Joslin
It’s been a long wait. Too long. Time to drop the puck!
Follow me on twitter at [url]twitter.com/CanesTR