Hurricanes pass the midterm
Posted March 16, 2013
The Hurricanes have crossed the halfway point of this condensed season and are sitting in first place in the Southeast. It brings up a chance to look at what has worked so far and the areas of concern down the stretch. There has been a lot to like, but that doesn't mean Carolina can coast into the postseason.
It is hard to say a team in the NHL has had more impact from offseason moves than the Canes.
Signing Alexander Semin to a one-year contract raised eyebrows around the league. Semin, according to teammates in Washington, had some baggage, but that evidently has not made the trip to the Triangle. Semin has been a dynamic playmaker, the exact fit for Eric Staal’s wing. Plus the reports from the locker room have been as positive as his plus/minus rating. Teammates have said that Semin has been a great addition to the club on and off the ice.
Jordan Staal was expected to make the jump to a top six forward in Carolina, and giving up Brandon Sutter a minor leaguer and a pick for Eric Staal’s brother has been worth the price. Jordan Staal has landed nicely in the role of second-line center and the chemistry between Staal and Jeff Skinner is evident most nights. The younger Staal has given the team a one-two punch down the middle and is creating match-up problems for the opposition. Much like the impact that Semin has had on Eric Staal, Jordan Staal has been able to help return Jeff Skinner to the dynamic player he was his rookie season.
Not to get lost in the name game, Jiri Tlusty and Patrick Dwyer have been solid throughout the season. While Semin and Eric Staal have been a dynamic duo, Tlusty is the player that has made the top line one of the most complete in the game. Having just turned 25, he is finally healthy, confident and leads the team in goals. That is not a by-product of being on a line with two world-class players; it is a testament that Tlusty is turning into top-flight NHL winger. That line has been the NHL's best for the last month and a half with a combined 33 goals and a plus-46 rating due to the advanced play of every member of the trio.
Dwyer has also taken a step forward this season, whether it has been playing on a line with Skinner and Jordan Staal or his dependable play on the third line. He should easily surpass his NHL season high totals in half the time this year. Dwyer’s consistency might be easy to overlook, but the coaching staff has said on several occasions how much of a key contributor the winger has been.
Kirk Muller has pushed the right buttons with his roster despite dealing with a myriad of injuries.
Tuomo Ruutu has been out the entire season, and the Canes have to go through stretches without defensemen Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen, Jamie McBain, forwards Jeff Skinner, Tim Brent, Chad LaRose, and starting goaltender Cam Ward appears to be out for the duration of the regular season.
But help could be coming soon. Pitkanen is getting ready to return from a lower body injury and not only is he a minutes eater on the back end, he can provide a boost on the power play.
There have been games this year where not having Ruutu in the line-up has been noticeable. His physical play adds a dimension that the Canes need. The natural fit is to slide him in next to Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner. The team might see him sooner rather than later as the Finnish winger has recently started skating with the team.
A revolving door of players from Charlotte have filled the gaps while players were on the mend, and some young players have started to step into roles the organization had hoped they could fill. The player who has done more than just fill a role the last three weeks and is cementing himself in the league is Riley Nash. He has been a different player since scoring his first NHL goal, and the Canes third line has allowed Muller to roll three lines and keep shifts short.
On the blue line with the injuries to Gleason and Pitkanen, the burden of playing top minutes has fallen to Justin Faulk and Jay Harrison. Both players have taken the opportunity and run with it. Faulk, at just 21, is only getting better, and Harrison’s versatility and communication skills during the game and in the locker room have made him invaluable.
There are still questions about whether this team can be elite. Yes, leading a division is important, but at this time there are five teams with more points than the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference and the Winnipeg Jets are breathing down their collective necks.
Can the goaltending hold up for the rest for the year without Cam Ward? Dan Ellis and Justin Peters have answered the early inquiries with solid play so far. Peters has shut out Washington and Ellis has been steady. If Ward isn't ready to come back for the postseason, it could cause the organization to take a look at a goalie with playoff experience if the fit is there. If not, Ellis and Peters have every opportunity to show they can keep this team as a playoff threat.
The power play has struggled to score. The team has only scored 13 power-play goals this year and is ranked 29th out of 30 teams with the man advantage. With the offensive skill level the Hurricanes possess, those numbers are hard to explain. Finding a player who can help out the power play is a viable option for General Manager Jim Rutherford. A top power-play performer could take the Canes from a playoff team to a playoff threat.
Another thumper on the blue line is on the wish list for every team in the NHL. A big body that moves the opposition from the front of the net is hard to find and expensive to acquire. With the trade deadline on April 3, some teams will wait a little longer than usual to determine if they are a buyer or seller at the deadline.
With fewer than two dozen games left in the season, Muller’s crew has the most important thing going for them. They don’t have to worry about what anyone else does.