September's finally here. And given how slowly teams are coming together, we decided to put off the previews until September this time. We go in alphabetical order because hey, why not? We'll be doing this until September ends. With that said here we go.
And now, the Carolina Hurricanes.
Team M.O.: The team, owned by Detroit's Peter Karmanos and run by GM (and former Red Wings goaltender) Jim Rutherford, is one that constantly and consistently relies on shrewd moves over assembling blockbuster teams in order to get by. The result of this is maddening inconsistency, with the team being able to follow up deep runs into the playoffs (winning a Stanley Cup in 2006) with teams that completely miss the playoffs the following season. While not typically mentioned in the same breath as "failing" expansion market, they generally are "just getting by" when it comes to their hockey operations.
Last Season: 11th in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoffs. The team had made the Conference Finals the year prior, so it's needless to say that things didn't necessarily go as expected for the team, even if they were in the weakest division in the league. Injuries played a significant part in that last season and there's no guarantee that won't be an issue again this year.
Offense: Eric Staal has developed into one of the elite centers in the league and will no doubt have another point-per-game season for the Hurricanes. Jussi Jokinen has thrived since coming over off waivers from the Tampa Bay Lightning, putting up a career season with the Hurricanes through amassing 65 points; the team will do well if he can keep it consistent through this season too. Brandon Sutter did significantly better in his sophomore season (in terms of point production and avoiding injuries) and looks poised to handle second-line center duties for the upcoming campaign. Both Tuomo Ruutu and Erik Cole provide solid offense and grit when they can remain healthy, but it's the health concerns that ultimately cut into their effectiveness with the team; they're a little too high on the depth chart to miss the kind of time they do. Sergei Samsonov is terribly inconsistent when it comes to production yet this is a contract year for him; he's either going to produce and get a one-year deal next season in the NHL or poo the bed and retreat to Russia. Chad LaRose missed some time due to injury, but looks to be improving on his point production and could have the opportunity to crack the top-two lines should injuries or inconsistency hamper anyone above him. Tom Kostopoulos plays an energy role for the team and would be excellent if he could win more fights than he loses. Patrick Dwyer managed to spend most of last season with the Hurricanes and looks like he can secure a checking role for the team if he has a good camp.
Going further down the depth chart you see a lot of promise but a significant lack of experience. Both Zach Boychuk and Jiri Tlusty are talented and promising prospects yet you can't help but wonder if they'd be better served by starting the season in the minors as opposed to potentially having spots on the roster (the latter of which is likely given the lack of depth on the team.) Jerome Samson might be out of waiver options and looks suitable for an energy role; he can secure more ice time if he can improve the defensive aspects of his game. Beyond them, the remaining players on their depth chart are young prospects who, by and large, lack NHL experience (Drayson Bowman appeared in 9 games last season while Oskar Osala appeared in one.) This should be a significant concern for the Hurricanes, who had plenty of injury issues last season and may not want to rely entirely on prospects to carry the load if it should happen again.
The team would do well to go out to sign a few veteran forwards. One of the scoring variety would be nice to push LaRose and Samsonov for the Number 6 forward spot. The team could also use another checking forward to improve special teams and a depth forward to either hold down the fort or report to their new minor league affiliate Charlotte Checkers and help the kids on the farm. Considering that they're in the Eastern Conference, they should definitely grab an available enforcer as well.
Defense: Joni Pitkanen has given the team a solid offensive presence on the blueline and will rightfully come into the season as the team's top defender. Anton Babchuk will be returning to the team from Russia this season, should he play as well as he did during the 2009-09 season then he will definitely be one of the team's top-pairing defenders. Joe Corvo's coming back as well after the trade to the Washington Capitals didn't quite work out as planned. Tim Gleason's quietly making a name for himself around the hockey community with his superior ability as a shutdown defenseman.
After them the team's going to have something of a competition out of camp to figure out who will get the third-pairing and reserve spots. Brett Carson looks like he'll be their Number 5 pivot, after putting up an impressive campaign last season that shows he can keep it simple while even contributing a few points. Jay Harrison got a better look in Carolina than he did as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but there are still some concerns that linger over his ability to defend properly at the NHL level. Jamie McBain, Bryan Rodney, and Bobby Sanguinetti will likely battle over the role as the puck-moving offensive defenseman and while Rodney lacks waiver options, McBain was more impressive than the other two during his call-up with the farm club last season and may be their better option.
No extra depth should be necessary here; the team has the ingredients necessary to have a successful defensive corp, even if injuries arise.
Goaltending: Cam Ward faced a freak injury and was limited to 47 games, but he still put up some good individual numbers on a non-playoff team; he will no doubt be the "starter" for the team. After him in the goaltending pecking order is Justin Peters (who appeared in 9 NHL games last season) and Justin Pogge (who spent all of last season in the minors.) Though the competition for the backup may be good, the overall depth may not be good enough and the team would certainly benefit from seeing what options remain in the goaltending free agent market.
Management: Rutherford obviously has vision but an "internal salary cap" has somewhat forced his hands into making additional moves; he needs to hit up Karmanos and be like "Hey, I know the recession's bad but it ain't that bad!" Coach Paul Maurice is set to return and has had maddingly inconsistent results with the team himself going back to when the team still played as the Hartford Whalers (the team's had about a .500 shot at making the playoffs with him, and the years they lose it's downright awful.) If he wants to have any chance at sticking around for this season or beyond, he'll need to get the team off to a fiery start and fast.
Prediction: Fifth in the Southeast Division, out of the playoffs, and picking within the first three picks of the 2011 draft.
The forwards lack veteran depth, the goaltending situation looks like it will have a Number 2b/3 goaltender backing up someone who shouldn't start more than 65 games, the team as a whole looks prone to injury, and the management seems unmotivated to change. In short, success in Carolina relies on up-seasons and down-seasons and this appears to be one of the latter. If the team tanks this season it might not be all bad; some salaries will be off the books at the end of the season and some of the young guys who compete hard might prove why they should stick around next season. I think that the other teams in their division will ultimately do better (yes, even the Florida Panthers) and there aren't many other teams in the Eastern Conference (save perhaps the New York Islanders) that they'll look to have a competitive advantage on.