ERIK COLE | 30-goal season will help Canes make playoffs
Any door can be unlocked with the right key. Tumblers fall into place, you hear the “click” of the door assembly and the door swings open.
The Carolina Hurricanes had the right keys in 2005-05, winning the Stanley Cup with a combination of great goaltending, balanced scoring, solid special teams, great coaching and good breaks.
Last season? The key went all the way in, but it didn’t turn. The door didn’t budge.
This season? Here’s my prediction about the elements that will come together to take the Hurricanes to the post-season, where they’ll win at least one playoff round in the Eastern Conference. From the Stanley Cup year to last year to this year, personnel didn’t change that much. So if you know you’re holding the right key, all you need to do is work it into place. The Canes will.
Goaltending. A slimmed-down Cam Ward will bounce back from a mediocre-to-good last year this season. He’s been great in the pre-season and will be great this year. His backup, John Grahame, is in the final year of his contract and his NHL career will largely be determined by how he plays this year. The team’s goals-against average will drop to near or below 3.00, keeping team “in” more games and, unlike last season, actually winning a few for it.
Defense. Not deep, but at least it’s healthy. The long summer break will help minimize blue-line injuries. If there’s a weak spot with this team, this is it, but the team’s management has shown that it’ll fill a void when it needs to…and pre-season showed there are great prospects in Albany to make that happen.
Scoring. Some of the key players (Ray Whitney, Rod Brind’Amour) are another year older, but if chemistry in Coach Peter Laviolette’s line combinations works as planned, Carolina will have five 30-goal scorers (Eric Staal in a big-time bounce-back season, Erik Cole, Justin Williams, Matt Cullen and Whitney, if he stays healthy) and 20-goal seasons from Cory Stillman, Andrew Ladd, Scott Walker, Frantisek Kaberle and Brind’Amour.
Special teams. The penalty-kill, with Ward as the mainstay, will be great. The addition of Cullen back to the lineup and a health Kaberle and Stillman will mean that the power-play unit will be among the league’s 10-best.
Bottom line: Goaltending, injuries and out-of-character performances can either lift a team to unprecedented heights or drag it down to the bottom of the division. For the Hurricanes, this means that – because of their impact on the rest of their teammates and the tendency of a winning team to keep winning – as Cam Ward and Eric Staal go, so goes Carolina. If Ward plays as he did during the pre-season, and if Staal gets his engine going the way he did two seasons ago, the Hurricanes will go 48-30-4, good for 100 points and 4th in the Eastern Conference, behind the Ottawa Senators, the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’ll beat the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the playoffs and go on to face the New York Rangers in Round 2…
After that?? Stay tuned…the season begins tomorrow!