It’s a Wrap: 7 Burning Questions for Canes

With the dubious distinction of being the only team in NHL history to miss the playoffs two consecutive seasons after winning the Stanley Cup, the Carolina Hurricanes begin another long off-season with the usual questions any team faces after missing the post-season…and then some.

With one play – the short-handed goal Carolina gave up to Florida in the waning moments of the 2nd period in Friday’s loss to Florida to go two goals down in a game that would have put them in the playoffs – still etched in the minds of disappointed Canes fans, here are seven burning questions for the team:

Just how should this season be characterized?
The Hurricanes ended the season with 43 wins, the second-best season in the franchise’s 28-year history. Even if you factor out the two shootout wins, the 41 wins would still be the third-highest in team history. Only the Montreal Canadiens won as many regulation games in the Eastern Conference this season. And that was all done with a team-record 336 man-games lost to injury.

But you can’t call it a successful season if you don’t make the playoffs with a roster so similar to the Cup-winning team of 2006, regardless of the bad breaks. The team played its best hockey with players like captain Rod Brind’Amour and Justin Williams on the shelf, and put together its most impressive streaks late in the season when the pressure was the greatest.

The problem is that the team played its worst hockey – including a 5-10 stretch beginning in mid-November, followed shortly thereafter by a 2-7-1 stretch – when they were fairly healthy. And after playing phenomenal hockey following Brind’Amour’s injury, they could muster no better than a 2-3-1 finish when the season was on the line.

That maddening inconsistency, and the failure to live up to expectations, can’t mean anything but disappointment.

How will Cam Ward rebound?
He went from being one of the best in the league in October and early November to a place amongst the bottom among the “starting” netminders in statistical performance over the winter months. His late winter/spring rebound ended up giving Cam Ward decent numbers (37 wins, tied for 5th in the league) but his other statistical measurements were near the bottom among the regulars: a goals-against average of 2.75 and a save percentage of .904, both ranked 32nd in the league. And when the Hurricanes needed him to be at his best – against Florida the final game of the season – he was anything but.

Ward’s work with new goaltending coach Tom Barrasso helped him with his technique, which tended toward shakiness when his confidence waned. He’s proven he can work hard during the off-season. The question now is whether Ward can regain the confidence and unflappability he showed during the 2006 playoffs and become an elite goaltender.

What will the Hurricanes do about a backup goaltender?
John Grahame is the latest backup experiment to go astray for Carolina. After a 5-7-1 season that saw his goals-against average balloon to 3.75 and his save percentage drop to .875, he’s definitely played his last game as a Hurricane.

The question then becomes whether Michael Leighton, who’s played solidly for Albany in the American Hockey League this season and was named to the league’s all-star team, will be ready to step back into the NHL. It’s a safe bet the Hurricanes will try to find a bargain backup somewhere in the off-season, perhaps a veteran who can push Ward and challenge Leighton for the #2 spot. But will #2 win games for Carolina next season?

Will the defense rest?
Carolina’s biggest problem area this season was its defensive corps. Part of Ward’s struggles in net, and much of the team’s inconsistency, can be blamed on the team’s defensive performance.

It’ll be even more problematic if stalwarts Glen Wesley (who would turn 40 at the start of next season) and Bret Hedican (who turns 38 this summer) retire, which is at least a decent probability.

Already thin at the blue line, the Canes may release David Tanabe, who played in only 18 games after suffering a concussion from which he still hasn’t recovered. Tim Gleason and Dennis Seidenberg had pretty decent seasons, but Frank Kaberle didn’t score a goal and had a plus-minus rating of minus-4, and Niclas Wallin was a team-worst minus-18.

Of course, the Canes still have trade-deadline pickup Joe Corvo, who will be around next season, but aside from him Carolina didn’t get much offensive production from its defense. Aside from Corvo, who scored seven of his 13 goals with Carolina, the Hurricanes got only 10 goals from their defensemen this season. Nineteen defensemen in the league scored 11 or more goals by themselves.

Finding quality D-men will be difficult, especially since the price the Hurricanes will be willing to pay might not be high enough.

Will the fans return?
The lack of playoff revenue might make the payroll for next season lower, but that’s not the greatest of the team’s financial worries. What’s not publicized much is the fact that this year was the final season of discounting that season-ticket-holders received in the “Lockout Lock-In” program the Hurricanes launched four seasons ago.

Those ticket-holders who let the team keep season ticket payments over the course of the lockout in 2004-2005 and committed to three seasons with the team got significant discounts over that time – including 20 percent off season-ticket packages this year. Those will likely disappear for next season. And let’s face it – the team’s next home game is six months away. How much excitement will be built in that time?

Who’s coming back – and how healthy?
Everyone’s hoping Sergei Samsonov (32 points in 38 games with Carolina) will remain with the Hurricanes. His addition to the team in January helped signal the start of good things.
Other unrestricted free agents include Wesley, Hedican and Grahame, AHL call-ups Keith Aucoin and Ryan Bayda and off-season signee Wade Brookbank.

Assuming Samsonov stays and either Wesley or Hedican retires, and the Hurricanes retain their restricted free agents, that means the Hurricanes will be looking to fill mostly blue-line holes and one or two lower-line forwards. If Brandon Sutter, just 19 and just now playing in the AHL, is ready for the rigors of the NHL, that number will drop by one.

Even so, that’s a tall enough order even if the injured and gimpy Canes – Brind’Amour, Williams, Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney and Patrick Eaves – come back at 100 percent.

What will Brind’Amour do?
Recovering from ACL surgery is tough enough, but at 38 – what Brind’Amour will be in August – it’s even tougher. He was still a premier player before his injury, but his hardest job will be setting the tone in the locker room for a resurgence. If he’s as good on and off the ice next year as he’s shown himself to be, it’ll answer all the other questions.

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