Here’s the full version of my Carolina Hurricanes 2007-08 season preview, as published in my “Behind the Glass” column from Oct. 3:
Cullen’s return gives Canes high hopes
Matt Cullen won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06, then walked away to the New York Rangers during the off-season for more money.
When he returned to the Canes in July after a mediocre season in the Big Apple – traded for Andrew Hutchinson, a prospect and a draft pick – it was a like a shot of adrenaline for the Hurricanes and the team’s prospects for 2007-08.
Cully’s back and, if you’re a Hurricanes fan, all is right with the world.
The Hurricanes, who open the NHL season at home tonight against the Montreal Canadiens, are coming off their own mediocre season: a 40-34-8 record, good for 11th place in the Eastern Conference. That put them four points out of a playoff spot. Cullen’s absence, even as a third-line center, was felt in many places, but none more than in shootouts. Carolina was 0-5 in shootouts last season with one goal in 17 shots. Cullen alone scored six goals in nine shots in the shootout during the Cup season, helping the Canes to an 8-2 shootout record.
With him back, the team is projected to not only make the playoffs, but picked to finish in the upper fourth of the Eastern Conference by many prognosticators – earning home ice for the playoffs and making a serious run (their third in six seasons) at a Stanley Cup.
Having Cullen back is only part of the story. The Hurricanes enter 2007-08 well-rested after a playoff-less summer and, for the most part, healthy – a far cry from the beaten-up warriors who spent the summer of 2006 battling for and then celebrating the Stanley Cup.
Any door can be unlocked with the right key. The Hurricanes had the right keys during the Cup season, carrying a combination of goaltending, balanced scoring, solid special teams, coaching and good breaks to the championship. Last year they just couldn’t put the key in the lock. But with Cullen back, some old doors may open again for Carolina.
Here’s an outlook…
Goaltending: Cam Ward finished the 2006-2007 campaign with a 30-21-6 record. The 30 wins put him the middle – tied for 15th – among NHL starting goaltenders, and his goals-against average (2.93) and save percentage (.897) were a less-than-satisfactory 31st and 33rd in the league, respectively.
The struggles Ward had last year were almost understandable. Dealing with his new celebrity (as one of only a handful of rookie goaltenders to win the playoff MVP award), his very short summer (which included his wedding) and a banged-up roster of teammates, a Stanley Cup hangover was almost expected.
But Ward dedicated himself to an off-season fitness and nutrition regiment that saw him lose more than 20 pounds and gain a new level of quickness. He was outstanding in the pre-season and looks to be in playoff form once again.
He’ll be backed by John Grahame, who posted only a 10-13-2 record last year. Grahame’s GAA (2.85) was better than Ward’s, but he didn’t get much goal support from the team and didn’t consistently display the talent he showed in Tampa Bay, where he was exiled after what Lightning Coach John Tortorella thought was too many stretches of poor play. Grahame’s in the last year of his contract, though, and that usually means a step up in performance.
Bottom line: Ward and Grahame will give the Hurricanes a solid one-two goalie tandem and win 48 games games between them.
Defense: If the Hurricanes have a weak spot, this is it. With only seven defensemen under NHL contract, there’s little margin for injury. The faces are the same: Glen Wesley, Mike Commodore, Niclas Wallin, Tim Gleason, Dennis Seideberg, Frantisek Kablerle and Bret Hedican. The top three are proven and reliable. Wesley, 38, will be a solid presence on blue line, but age has slowed him. Commodore, almost 28, has matured into a solid NHL regular and provides toughness when needed. Wallin, 32, who very nearly was traded this summer, has also matured and should provide plenty of stability. Gleason and Seidenberg were so-so last season, the former dealing with injury and the latter not reaching the level the Canes hoped for him after getting him in exchange for Kevyn Adams in January. Even though both have NHL experience, this season is critical to their development.
That leaves Hedican and Kaberle. They were mainstays in Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup-winning season, but injuries limited Hedican to only 50 games last year and Kaberle to just 27. If they’re healthy for the entire season, then the team’s power-play will be significantly improved over last season and the usual bumps and bruises amongst the rest of the blue liners will be tolerable.
Bottom line: any defensive deficiencies will be made up for balance and good goal-tending – provided the defensive corps stays relatively healthy.
Forwards: Here’s an area where Carolina is blessed. Cullen will join most of the same faces amongst forwards from the Cup-winning team, including 30-goal scorers Justin Williams (33 goals, 34 assists, 67 points), Ray Whitney (32g, 51a) and Eric Staal (30g, 40a), who’s looking to rebound after a sharp drop from his 100-point season in 05-06. Erik Cole (29g, 32a), Rod Brind’Amour (26g, 56a) and Scott Walker (21g, 30a) and a healthy Cory Stillman (5g, 22a in just 27 games) will provide the usual veteran presence offensively, while newcomer Jeff Hamilton (18g, 21a with the Chicago Blackhawks) and Andrew Ladd (11g, 10 a) will compete for ice time on the top three forward lines. Hamilton, incidentally, was 5-for-10 with Chicago in shootouts.
Bottom line: Scoring shouldn’t be a problem for the Hurricanes. They’ll need consistency from this group of forwards and a return-to-Cup-form season from Eric Staal. If they get it, then the sky’s the limit.
In the final analysis, 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, I’d predict 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.
Big News About the NHL Schedule
Details are still being worked out, but work out of the NHL Board of Governors Meeting this week is that the NHL schedule will see significant changes in 2008-09. Read more here from The Hockey News:
The current NHL schedule has each team playing the other teams in its own division four times at home and four times on the road, plus each other conference team twice. There’s limited inter-conference play between Eastern Conference and Western Conference teams. Speculation is that the “unbalanced” schedule will be changed so that each team plays the other 29 teams in the NHL at least once during each season.
Winter Classic Sells Out
All 42,000 seats for the NHL Winter Classic – an outdoor game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins, set for Jan. 1 in New York – were sold in 30 minutes Tuesday.
Hurricanes unveil new jerseys…see pictures here:
If you’re interested, you can check out my Webshots hockey page here, where you can see some of my game-worn hockey jerseys: