Canes need three stars to have success
Posted September 18, 2013
The Carolina Hurricanes open up the preseason Wednesday night at PNC Arena against the Columbus Blue Jackets amid several questions and the pressure that comes with having missed out on the playoffs for the last four seasons.
In truth, the opponent is irrelevant, as Carolina's greatest adversary over the last few seasons has come from within. But as we race towards the Oct. 4th opener at PNC Arena against the Detroit Red Wings, now is as good a time as any to lay bare the more important talking points for the next six-plus months.
There are the obvious issues that have been evident over the last several seasons. Will one – heck, ANY – of the young forwards (Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuck, Drayson Bowman, etc.) finally establish himself as a top nine NHL forward?
Is this the combination of players on the blue line that will give Carolina enough physicality in front of their own net to allow Cam Ward to do his job to the best of his ability? And, will Jeff Skinner reclaim his rookie year magic? Let's be honest about No. 53: his freshman campaign looks a lot more like a quasar than the arrival of a superstar.
In year one, Skinner scored 31 goals, totaled 63 points and was a plus-3. In the two seasons since (amassing 106 games), Jeff has just 33 goals, 68 points and is a minus-29. Yes, he's had injury issues to deal with, most notably a concussion that ended his sophomore season, but that only explains a little bit of what's plagued him.
During the two years since invading the hearts and dreams of every teenage girl in the Triangle, Skinner has played with the attitude of a spoiled child. He should have played in Charlotte during the lockout a year ago. It was good enough for Justin Faulk. It was good enough for Eric Staal in 2004-05. It should have been good enough for Skinner.
With that said, barring a set of circumstances out of anyone's control, this season comes down to the performance of three people:
1) Cam Ward was limited to just 17 games a year ago due to a knee injury, which makes it very easy to rationalize his lost season. However, let's not fool ourselves into thinking that Ward was stoning the league before the injury. Prior to going down March 3rd in Florida, Ward's goals against average was 2.84 with a save percentage of .908 – numbers that are his worst since 2008.
He had allowed at least three goals in nine of his first 14 starts and at least four in half of his first dozen games. While some of that can be attributed to the failings of his defenseman and a lack of physical play in front of the net, those weren't issues foreign to this team in the past.
In order for the Hurricanes to be a solid playoff contender, Ward has to be their ace in net. Fortunately, two things are in place to motivate Cam this season. First is the presence of a legitimate, young, back-up goaltender in Anton Khudobin.
Khudobin is more than capable of stepping in and playing well. This isn't Dan Ellis, or Manny Legace, or Brian Boucher (who?) or Justin Peters. Khudobin is a couple of years younger than Ward and coming off a successful year backing up Tuukka Rask in Boston.
In addition, the Olympics are on the schedule this winter in Russia, and there's no doubt that Ward wants to be a part of Team Canada. The only way that is going to happen is if Cam is playing at an All-Star level when those decisions are made.
2) Jordan Staal is coming off the most disappointing season of his seven-year career. Whether or not Jordan is a top-10 player in the league, as team president Jim Rutherford claimed upon his arrival, isn't important. But Staal was brought to Carolina to be a dynamic, two-way player that all great teams have, and for whatever reason, it never happened.
He struggled early, scoring just once in his first 12 games, never developed a synergy with Skinner and ended up a career-worst minus-18 on the season. While plus-minus can be a misleading statistic, similar to ERA for a relief pitcher in baseball, minus-18 is hard to rationalize.
Adding to the pressure on Eric's younger brother is the fact that Rutherford not only traded away two players AND a top ten draft pick for Staal, but he also gave Jordan that massive, $60 million contract. History tells us it's never easy to live up to those expectations. The second Staal doesn't have to be a 30-goal guy for the Hurricanes to be a playoff team, but he's got to be in the vicinity, be tough to play against and return to being the defensive stalwart he was for a half dozen years in Pittsburgh. Another so-so season – and that's probably being kind – and the Hurricanes will be watching the playoffs for the fifth straight spring.
3) Kirk Muller is starting his second full season with the Hurricanes. Well, that isn't exactly true when you consider the fact that he has never had a legitimate training camp in Raleigh. He arrived mid-season in 2011-12 and then the lockout robbed him of any semblance of a preseason a year ago, so this will be the first time Muller will be able to shape his team from the start. But there are a couple of disturbing things that showed up last year that must change or Jim Rutherford is going to have some potential uncomfortable decisions to make.
The Hurricanes were, by far, the worst they've been since 2006 on special teams. The power play was something less than anemic, with less than a 15 percent success rate. However, that number was spectacular compared with the penalty kill. Carolina allowed teams to convert 22.36 percent in man-advantage situations, a rate that was more than 4 percent worse than the league average and twice as bad as any point in the last six years. No way this team sniffs a postseason bid with numbers like that again. You don't have to be great, but you can't be THAT bad.
In past years, the Hurricanes have enjoyed a home-ice advantage. Is it on par with Joe Louis Arena in Detroit or the Garden (whatever they're calling it these days) in Boston? No. But Carolina has to be a whole lot better than 9-14-1 on home ice if they want to be playing into late April, or May, etc.
Last year, the Canes went a month and four days between home ice wins! I mean, they didn't register a point at PNC from the March 9 win over New Jersey to the April 13 win over Boston. During that 0-8 stretch, Carolina was outscored 34-12 and it was an integral part of a 4-16-3 closing "run" that was among the most embarrassing stretches of hockey in franchise history.
Of course, the performances of those three men will ultimately reflect on the architect of this team. Jim Rutherford has twice been named the league's top executive, and has made far more great decisions than poor ones. But if you're going to claim to be a "budget," as opposed to a "cap," team, then you probably shouldn't be eighth in the league in payroll and a mere $1 million under the max. While relief will come when the team exorcizes the contract of Joni Pitkanen, there are still seven players who earn more than $4 million this year, four of them in excess of $6 million, and not nearly enough young, inexpensive talent filling out the roster.
With all of that said, there are several promising things about the upcoming season. The top line of Eric Staal, Alex Semin and Jiri Tlusty was among the most productive in the entire league a year ago. With Staal finally playing with a world class talent on his wing. Justin Faulk has established himself as Carolina's best blue-liner and the early reports on top draft pick Elias Lindholm are tremendous.
If Ward, Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner return to the form of previous years, the defensive additions of Andrej Sekera, Mike Komisarek and Ron Hainsey compliment Faulk and bring out the best in Tim Gleason and the special teams can even just manage to be close to the league average, there is more than enough talent to be a playoff team.
But if enough of these things fall short, it's going to be an awfully cold winter in the Triangle.