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Metropolitan Division Preview: Carolina Hurricanes

January 17, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Carolina Hurricanes head coach Kirk Mueller (right rear) reacts as he listens to referee Mike Hasenfrantz (left) against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the overtime period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Pens won 2-1 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

Continuing on our journey through the newly formulated, inexplicably named Metropolitan Division, the next look will be at another new rival for the Flyers: The Carolina Hurricanes. Peter Laviolette’s former team, which he won a Stanley Cup as the head coach for, is long removed from their mid-2000s success and, despite a reasonably talented roster, have struggled to return to the form that saw them capture one of the more unlikely championships in recent history. Part of their struggles have had to do with sharing a division with the Capitals, who dominated the Southeast for the better part of Carolina’s post-title stretch. However, entering last season, most thought that the ‘Canes had surpassed Washington in terms of overall team talent, and were a trendy pick to win the division and perhaps make another surprising Cup run.

All signs were pointing up for Carolina early in the season, as they posted a 15-9-1 mark through their first 25 games. Yet a combination of unfortunate injuries and a fall-off in production from some of the team’s rising young talents quickly sent their campaign into a tailspin and they ultimately finished 3rd in what many considered to be the weakest division in the NHL. Head coach Kirk Mueller went from the toast of the league, having reportedly ‘solved Alex Ovechkin’, to heading up an inconsistent group with very little commitment to team defense and an extremely erratic defensive unit. High-profile additions such as former Capital Alex Semin and former Penguin Jordan Staal quickly soured as the team piled up losses and the Hurricanes finished the season with tons of question marks.

Injuries to key players, such as goaltender Cam Ward and defenseman Joni Pitkanen, marred what was already a miserable second half for Carolina. Their lockout-shortened season ended in very unceremonious fashion, dropping 12 of their last 15, allowing over four goals per game in the process. There was a silver lining to the Hurricanes struggles, as they were awarded the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft, and nabbed the extremely talented, Swedish, two-way forward Elias Lindholm. Lindholm is one of a handful of players selected in the draft who has an NHL-ready skill-set and should make a name for himself early with his relentless effort and veteran-level awareness.

While Lindholm is a nice piece for the ‘Canes moving forward, they will need contributions throughout the roster from established players should they hope to contend in the newly created division.

2013 Season: 19-25-4 (3rd in division) Missed Playoffs

Forwards: 

April 27, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Carolina Hurricanes center Eric Staal (12) on the ice before playing the Pittsburgh Penguins at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Upon first glance at the Hurricanes crop of forwards, one would think they would be boasting one of the more impressive units in the league. Between Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, and Jiri Tlusty, Carolina boasts as impressive a trio of centermen as there is in the division. While the acquisition of long-time captain Eric’s brother Jordan appeared to be a savvy acquisition early in the season, both players did not perform to their normal standards and their shortcomings were indicative of the struggles suffered by the team. Tlusty was a very impressive bright spot in a lockout shortened season, posting a team-leading 23 goals while managing to lead the team in plus/minus along the way at +15.

Much like the Flyers, the Hurricanes are a team that is built up the middle on offense. If their centers are not able to cycle through the top three lines and maintain an offensive presence while excelling in the defensive zone, their struggles will continue. A great deal of the Hurricanes’ issues came from their inability to keep themselves from being hemmed in their defensive zone for large chunks of time. With fatigue setting in from chasing the puck and preventing the opposition from peppering their net, Carolina’s extensive firepower was somewhat neutralized and more and more weaknesses were exposed. There is nothing to say that the Staal brothers (leaving Jared out of the equation for now) should not be able to regain their once all-star caliber form. A lot of high-end players went through their struggles in the 48-game season, and the Staal brothers, while among some of the more notable strugglers, play the type of game that is catered more to the grind of a full season.

Apr 18, 2013; Winnipeg, MB, CAN; Carolina Hurricanes forward Alexander Semin (28) puts the puck past Winnipeg Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec (31) while Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (33) defends during the third period at the MTS Centre. Winnipeg wins 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

On the wing, should the Hurricanes hope to return to the playoffs, they will have to depend on the production of a couple of all-world talents who have a tendency to disappear for stretches. Alex Semin and Jeff Skinner are each just as special as a great deal of the NHL. Semin, the longtime Capital, crossed rivalry lines to join the ‘Canes last season, and his 44 points (31 assists) and +14 rating earned him a hefty contract extension to remain on Carolina’s top line. While his goal output probably left some to be desired, Semin showed a level of activity and aggression that had started to dwindle in his last years with the Caps in his opening season with Carolina. He is still prone to lapses in judgement and activity, yet it is hard to imagine his new team being any happier with the Russian’s production after taking what many thought to be a gamble on a player who some feared would return to his home country. There has never been any questioning of Semin’s talent. Some years it is on display from the drop of the puck to the final horn, some years it is overshadowed by loafing in the defensive zone and taking dumb penalties. Carolina will need the former to be the case if they have a prayer to challenge in the Metro division.

The other player in question is Jeff Skinner. The mercurial young talent burst onto the scene his rookie season, tallying 31 goals in 82 games played. While production dipped slightly the following year (20 goals in 64 games), most figured the league had made some adjustments and it would only be a matter of time before the budding star did the same. Unfortunately for the ‘Canes, Skinner’s digression continued into the 2013 campaign, and what was once seen as a sure thing in terms of projecting forward became much more blurry. Skinner’s creativity and timely aggression turned into selfishness and lack of awareness. At a team-worst -21, Skinner’s shortcomings in terms of playing in all three zones made him much more of a liability on the ice, negating the small handful of highlight-reel goals he managed to score. At 21 years old, Skinner is far from a lost cause, quite the opposite in fact. That being said, he is entering a division with some of the biggest stars in the game and he, much like many other young players, could fall by the wayside if his production does not return to some resemblance of what it was before.

Jun 30, 2013; Newark, NJ, USA; Elias Lindholm receives his team cap after being introduced as the number five overall pick to the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2013 NHL Draft at the Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Lindholm is a prospect to keep an eye out for. The Swedish forward’s two-way game and nearly unconscious awareness made him a slam-dunk selection at the 5th overall pick in a very impressive, deep draft. While it will certainly take some adjusting to the pace and physicality of the North American game, all signs point to Lindholm, whenever he does arrive (I expect it to be this season), to contribute immediately.

One player to keep an eye on entering the next season for Carolina is Tuomo Ruutu. The 30-year old Fin entered last season scoring 18 or more goals in 3 of the 4 seasons prior. However, a hip injury stemming back to the 2012 offseason kept him out until the Hurricanes were all but finished as far as a playoff push. If healthy, look for Ruutu to provide an extra punch on the offensive end to go along with valuable experience that seems to be lacking on this team that allowed adversity to get the best of them last season.

Defense:

April 2, 2013; Raleigh, NC, USA; Carolina Hurricanes defensemen Joni Pitkanen (25) lays on the ice after getting hurt during the 2nd period against the Washington Capitals at the PNC center. The Capitals defeated the Hurricanes 5-3. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Starting with the bad, one of Carolina’s more polished two-way defenders, and a name that should sound all too familiar to Flyers fans, Joni Pitkanen will miss at least the beginning of the season. Perhaps sparking the debate of a potential rule change, Pitkanen’s 2013 season was cut short when he was chasing down a potential icing against the Capitals, only to slide feet-first into his own boards at a dangerous speed. Pitkanen suffered a broken heel bone and, while most expect Pitkanen to return at some point during the season, his absence will be especially noticeable as the team adjusts to some of their new opponents.

March 16, 2013; Tampa FL, USA; Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk (27) against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period at Tampa Times Forum. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries aside, the Hurricanes actually have a fairly solid grouping of defensemen, both young and old. 21-year old Justin Faulk, already having proven to be a dynamic offensive defenseman (8 goals, 14 assists in his rookie year), stepped up the defensive aspect of his game last season, finishing with a +1 rating while logging a team-leading 24:00 average time on ice. Faulk is a special talent and is considered as untouchable as anyone on the Hurricanes roster. He will have his hands full this season as the team’s top option, but has already had to deal with the likes of Ovechkin, Stamkos, and Evander Kane in his young career.

At the draft, the Hurricanes shipped Jamie McBain and the 35th overall pick for longtime Sabres blue-liner Andrej Sekera. Sekera has the potential to be one of the top playmaking defensemen in the league, but had seen his production start to dwindle with the meddling Sabres. GM Jim Rutherford must be banking on the fact that a change of scenery may re-ignite the fire for the Slovokian-born defenseman.

The ‘Canes made a bit of a gamble signing former Canadiens / Maple Leafs product Mike Komisarek for a one-year deal to see if they can revive his once-promising career. The hulking Komisarek showed promise with Montreal, enough to garner a 5-year deal from Toronto. Yet things have trended downward for the formerly tantalizing player, and some think Carolina may be grasping at straws with the move. Still, and Flyers fans can attest, the pressure of playing in Canada sometimes gets the best of young players, and often times a change of scenery can get a career back on track.

Jay Harrison and Tim Gleason round out a solid group of players that, if Pitkanen is able to return to full health, all have the capability of contributing on the offensive end while shoring up a shaky performance from 2013.

Goaltending:

Mar 3, 2013; Sunrise, FL, USA; Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason (6) looks at goalie Cam Ward (30) after being injured on a collision in a game against the Florida Panthers in the second period at the BB

The Hurricanes could either be in fantastic shape at this position, or in dire straights yet again. A healthy Cam Ward is among some of the top goalies in the NHL. He stood on his head when the ‘Canes won the Stanley Cup, and his been consistently good, to very good in the years following. However, a knee injury that sidelined him from early March to the end of the season, spelled doom for the ‘Canes as they saw their division lead vanish into thin air.

All indications are that Ward will be ready to go come training camp, as he looks to regain the form that saw him take home the Conn Smythe trophy during his team’s title run. With that being said, knee injuries for goaltenders can be a complicated matter to deal with, and should Ward’s injury flare up, the Hurricanes might have to go with another option; something they would rather not do.

Should that be the case, Carolina does not want to be in as bleak a situation as they were last year. To address the issue, the Hurricanes inked former Bruins backup Anton Khudobin to a one-year deal. While Khudobin was almost exclusively relegated to the bench late last season, as Tuuka Rask carried his stellar play straight to the Stanley Cup Finals, the 27-year old Russian netminder impressed in his limited action, going 9-4-1 with a 2.32 GAA in 14 games. Ideally, one would expect Carolina to prefer not using Khudobin for even close to the fair share of games next season. However, if Ward deals with injury struggles again, the team probably has more faith that it can withstand a stretch without the wheels completely falling off with Khudobin between the pipes compared to others.

Outlook:

The Hurricanes have a lot of extremely talented players on their team. In fact, in that same sense, they remind me somewhat of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Star players litter their top-6 groupings and a once-dominant goaltender hopes to regain the form that made him one of the biggest names in the league. What they have in talent though, they lack in overall depth. Five players (Semin, Skinner, E. Staal, J. Staal, and Tlusty) accounted for over 60% of their goals and they were the only ones in double-digits. While this can be a good thing at times, as teams are overmatched by Carolina’s top-2 lines, it also leaves the team vulnerable should an injury or an untimely scoring slump come about. Whether it is Lindholm, Ruutu, or someone unexpected, Carolina desperately needs another player to step up and take the pressure off some of the more high-profile players. Eric Staal is one of the great leaders in the NHL, and I expect that if his game returns to the level we are used to, the performance of the rest of his team should follow.

With all that in mind, the only way this team has a chance of sniffing the playoffs is if Ward is fully healthy and playing like the top goaltender that he is. Ward’s legendary status has bought him all the time in the world for the Carolina-faithful, but at a cap hit of $6.3 million, the organization expects him to compete night-in and night-out and, at times, put the team on his back. When he is healthy, Ward is capable of doing so. If I were to pick a transplant into the new division to go along with the former Atlantic members to make the most serious run at the playoffs, I would, with some hesitancy, go with Carolina. I think Kirk Mueller is a fantastic schematic coach. The next challenge for him is to teach his team to deal with adversity more effectively and guide his club through the arduous course of the season, rather than ride the highs and lows of twists of fate. Should this team be able to play on an even keel, I expect them to be a surprise contender in the Eastern Conference.

Prediction: 4th in Metropolitan Division; Winner of Wild Card Spot

Topics: Carolina Hurricanes Preview, Carolina Hurricanes Season Preview

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