Hockey Stuff: Hurricanes Preview

Most teams begin a season with a certain level of optimism, but even before the puck drops on the Carolina Hurricanes’ upcoming campaign there’s plenty of room for concern.

Injury-riddled since 2006-07, Carolina lost a whopping 337 man-games to injury last season. When they open up the 2008-09 campaign Friday at home against the Florida Panthers (7 p.m., RBC Center in Raleigh), the storylines will be very familiar: the Hurricanes will be without two of their top six forwards, with two others barely healed.

Justin Williams, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, tore his Achilles tendon during a pre-season workout and may not play until the spring. Scott Walker had surgery Monday to repair a ligament in his left hand and is out six weeks. And even though Rod Brind’Amour, sidelined the latter half of last season after surgery to repair an ACL tear, and Tuomo Ruutu will be in the lineup Friday, both are recovering from pre-season injuries.

It’s an ominous start for the Hurricanes.

The 2006 Stanley Cup champions missed the playoffs in 2007 and again last season and come into Friday’s opener with a re-tooled defensive corps and without veteran forward Erik Cole. It’s a younger team – first-round Entry Draft picks Brandon Sutter (11th overall, 2007) and Zach Boychuk (14th overall, 2008) are on the opening-day roster, also featuring three others who played outside the NHL last season. So even with the bulk of the lineup which finished 5th in the NHL in scoring in 2007-08, that combination of inexperience and last season’s maddening inconsistencies cast doubts on how well the Hurricanes will weather the injury storms.

Here’s a preview by position…

Goaltending: Cam Ward won 37 games in net for Carolina last year, 5th in the league, but his goals-against average (2.75) and save percentage (.904) were, like the season before, outside the top 30 in the NHL.

He’ll have to be much better this year.

After a hot start that seemed to signal a return to the confidence level he displayed in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, Ward was only mediocre from mid-November until early February, concurring with a stretch of poor play that doomed the team. Ward helped rally Carolina with better performances down the stretch, but he lost four of his last six games to end the season as the Hurricanes were passed in the standings by the streaking Washington Capitals. Already prone to a lack of confidence, Ward’s pre-season hasn’t been stellar; aside from a 31-save shutout in Sunday’s win over Nashville, he’s been shaky.

As was the case last year, the Hurricanes’ performance as a team will reflect Ward’s as an individual. He’s proven himself to be a capable netminder, but Ward has to be able to carry the team on his shoulders from time to time – something we saw flashes of last season between his bouts of doubt and the team’s struggling defense.

Backing Ward up will be Michael Leighton, who was 28-25 at Albany in the American Hockey League last season while being recognized as the league’s most valuable goaltender; he had an impressive GAA of 2.10 and a .931 save percentage. At 27, Leighton has played only 50 NHL games, winning just 11. But he should be an upgrade to the unsteady John Grahame, who won only five games last season and is playing this season in Russia.

Defense: By design, Carolina’s blue line has a decidedly younger flavor this season. Gone are stalwarts Glen Wesley (retired; his #2 jersey will be hung in the rafters by the team on Feb. 17) and Bret Hedican, who moved with his wife – figure-skater turned “Dancing with the Stars” winner Kristi Yamaguchi – to the West Coast and is still looking for a team.

Joining the club are Joni Pitkanen, 25, coming off a disappointing season with the Edmonton Oilers, and two players who spent last season in Europe: Josef Melichar, 30, who played in Sweden, and a familiar name, former Cane Anton Babchuk, 24, who played in Russia.

Babchuk’s maturity and his play in Russia last season (9 goals, 17 assists in 57 games) led Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford to take a gamble on him a second time. It’ll likely pay off. But Pitkanen and Melichar are bigger gambles: Pitkanen, a Finn, is a highly-skilled puck mover but his bad habits on the ice (turnovers, lackadaisical play) have unnerved coaches and teammates. He’ll have to do a lot to earn his three-year, $12 million contract and to convince fans that it was worth trading the popular Cole to get him. As curious a move was the addition of Melichar, who patrolled the ice for six seasons in Pittsburgh before last year. This summer’s free agent crop was full of defensemen, including former Hurricanes Mike Commodore, Aaron Ward and Marek Malik, but Rutherford thought Melichar, at 29, seemed to fit the hole created by Wesley’s retirement.

That trio will join a defensive corps anchored by Tim Gleason, Joe Corvo, Dennis Seidenberg and the two “old men” amongst the blue liners, veterans Niclas Wallin and Frantisek Kaberle.

There’s depth and some skill at defense, and upside potential, but not much offense. The key will be chemistry, especially with the leadership of alternate captains Wesley and Hedican now absent. If Corvo stays healthy and Pitkanen fits in, the defense could be fine.

Forwards: The only major change in the team’s lineup of centers and wingers is the loss of Cole, who scored 51 points (22g, 29a) in 73 games. What the team will miss even more than his scoring will be the intangibles Cole brought to the ice – feisty play, hustle, grit and a penchant for drawing lots of penalties.

So once again Carolina will count on centers Eric Staal (38g, 44a) and Rod Brind’Amour (19g, 32a in only 59 games) and winger Ray Whitney (25g, 36a) for offense, along with last year’s additions: Patrick Eaves (1g, 4a in 11 games after being acquired in February from Ottawa) and Sergei Samsonov (14g, 18a in 38 games after being claimed off waivers in January). They’ll make up the top two lines until Williams and Walker are back. Matt Cullen (13g, 36a), Chad LaRose (11g, 12a) and Ryan Bayda (3g, 3a in 31 games) will make up the third line, with Sutter, free agent Dan LaCouture and Wade Brookbank – a combined 32 NHL games between them, all by Brookbank, last season – as a fourth line, with Boychuk as a spare.

Bottom line: Washington is strongly favored to with the Southeast Division, and a reconstructed Tampa Bay Lightning will also be tough. The Hurricanes will be on the bubble for the playoffs – likely on the “burst” side. Prediction: 2nd in the Southeast, 9th in the Eastern Conference.

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One Response to Hockey Stuff: Hurricanes Preview

  1. Jamie says:

    We are so excited for opening night here in the Stamm household. I bought Anthony an early birthday present (a No. 30 jersey – Cam Ward is his favorite player – with “STAMM” across the back), which we plan to give him just before the game tomorrow night. Now I just hope they outdo predictions – hockey season is so much more fun when it lasts into June.

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