Canes open season with questions, potential
Posted October 6, 2011
Updated October 7, 2011
If, could, can, maybe, potentially, but. These are the words that dot the preseason predictions for the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Canes continued to get younger this summer and are banking on young talent. Carolina owned a roster that was among the NHL’s oldest two seasons ago. It is now one of the youngest. Just four of the twenty-three players in Paul Maurice’s line-up are over the age of 30, but this team is not without experience.
Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Chad LaRose are the only holdovers from the Stanley Cup winning team of 2005-06, and all three of them are under 30, but those players have only been in the postseason once since winning it all.
The Hurricanes front office is hoping that youth will be served. If this team is going to make the playoffs, the youth has to do more than serve, it has to score.
Last season’s rookie of the year, Jeff Skinner, will take a huge step forward just by replicating last year’s 31-goal, 32-assist campaign.
This will be a far different season for the 19-year-old; he will have bullseye on his jersey all season long. Opposing head coaches will remind their defensive pairings and checking lines more often this year about how good Skinner can be. Space will be a commodity that is harder to find, but he will still have to find it.
Skinner has also been skating on the wing of Eric Staal of late, which will ensure more defensive attention. The good news is that Skinner is one of those rare talents who should only get better. Still, on this team, points need to come from somewhere else.
It’s hard to think of Brandon Sutter being anything but a seasoned pro, but it is easy to forget he is only 22. Sutter took a bit of a step back in the goal-scoring department last season netting 14, but made huge strides as an all-around player. Several times this camp, head coach Paul Maurice has praised the alternate captain for his maturity and his reputation as one of the hardest-working defensive forwards in the league.
Sutter scored 21 two seasons ago, and if he can get back to that mark while providing the same defensive effort, that might be the punch needed to put the Canes into the Eastern Conference's top eight.
This year the attention on Zac Dalpe might equal what Skinner saw last season, but there will be eyes on him to see if he can produce. Dalpe, who spent some time with the Canes last season playing in 15 games and scoring 3 goals, will be counted on to deliver some offense. How much the former Ohio State Buckeye contributes depends on who Dalpe is paired with, but look for him to deliver 10-25 goals.
Carolina is also going young on the blue line. Nineteen-year-old Justin Faulk has done more than make the club; he might be a fixture in the lineup. Faulk moves the puck and has a shot that the organization would like to see on the power play unit. It is unclear if Ryan Murphy, this year’s first-round pick, will be with the team for more than nine games.
If the 18-year-old is not returned to Kitchener in the OHL, the slick-skating defenseman will have to get some playing time. The back end is crowded this season, so the Canes do not have to rely on Faulk and Murphy. But if these two can step in and play, it gives the team options to improve as the season moves along.
Back to the forwards and the new guys:
Free agent acquisitions Alexei Ponikoravsky and Anthony Stewart will add size up front, something the Canes have needed for a while, but how many goals they add is more important. Ponikoravsky was a consistent scorer with the Toronto Maple Leafs especially when paired with future hall of famer Mats Sundin. If he regains that touch in Raleigh, the Canes might have more than 82 games this year.
Stewart was on the verge of a breakout last season in Atlanta. With his size and speed, it is easy to imagine him being a 20-goal scorer, The Canes need that potential to become reality. Stewart’s contributions could lead to a team that has three lines that would be tough to match up against.
The “older guys” still have to carry the weight if this team is going to have a successful season. Captain Eric Staal needs to be in the 40-goal range, no player feels the pressure of having to produce more than he does. Also take into consideration: When Staal scores 40 or more, the Canes make the playoffs.
The chance that Jussi Jokinen’s can return to a 30-goal scorer is part of the reason why he was re-signed by the team. The Finn played through injury last year, but his versatility is something the Canes need all year long. Same can be said of his countryman, Tuomo Ruutu. Staying healthy is priority number one, but scoring 20 is a close second.
The Canes will need something consistent from Chad LaRose and Jiri Tlusty. Both players have shown they can provide offense but injuries derailed Tlusty last season. LaRose has shown he can score goals in the NHL. Anything he can provide will be a big boost. Pat Dwyer and Tim Brent have been a nice combination in the preseason, could be a fourth-line scoring threat.
Defensively, Tomas Kaberle and Joni Pitkanen have the pressure of being the point men with the man-advantage. Kaberle has been a consistent point producer even on some weak Toronto teams and Pitkanen shows flashes.
If the "cans" turn into "does" and potential is fulfilled, the Hurricanes might make the playoffs. While it is no guarantee, it isn’t a no.