Forgive the Carolina Hurricanes if they're a bit impatient. Despite bursts of adrenaline last season—most notably the emergence of teenage superstar Jeff Skinner—the Cardiac Canes did not survive their last defibrillation. They fell out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot on the season's final day, losing 6-2 at home to the Tampa Bay Lightning, an ellipsis on a season that deserved an exclamation mark. The Canes can exorcise that demon Friday night when the Lightning visit to start this season. Maybe Linda Blair should sound the warning siren before the opening face-off. Here's what to expect on ice in Raleigh this year.
The league gifted the Canes franchise with two special honors last season, which unfortunately coincided with the team's two swoons. Carolina opened the season in Finland and then spent two weeks on the road once they returned to North America. Dead legs from all that travel kept them from winning two in a row until the second week of November. Then the team got hot before hosting the Jan. 30 All-Star Game but won only four of 13 games in February. Excepting several new trips to Winnipeg, this year's ho-hum schedule should tip the scales in the Canes' favor.
Carolina finished third in the Southeast division. The Washington Capitals remain a motivated, elite team and added a veteran goalie in Tomas Vokoun. The Lightning's chemistry experiment worked last season as they emerged as a force down the stretch, almost winning the Eastern Conference title. Carolina's still a notch below these rivals.
The perennially mediocre Atlanta Thrashers bolted to Winnipeg in the offseason, where freakishly excited fans could buoy the Jets enough to challenge the Canes, although they've the same old players in those snappy new Jets sweaters. Doormats once again, the Florida Panthers had to take on overpaid, unwanted veteran free agents just to get above the salary cap floor. They should threaten no one but their ownership group's accounting team.
Eighteen million loonies lured the clutch scoring and angry edge of forward Erik Cole to Montreal. Caniacs will sorely miss his breathtaking, half-berserk rushes down the wing. He returns wearing number 72 for the Habs the night before Thanksgiving. Other departures: Defenseman Joe Corvo garnered a draft pick from Boston and forward Cory Stillman retired to join the Panthers' staff.
The Canes bolstered all three areas of their team in the offseason. Although they're each a bit of a reclamation project, wingers Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart bring size, skill and hopefully around 20 goals apiece. Canes coach Paul Maurice oversaw Ponikarovsky's 20-goal years in Toronto before the Russian underwhelmed in stops in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. He's been on the Canes' top line this preseason, giving Eric Staal that much-desired winger who skates straight to the net.
It's less certain where Stewart will fit in—he looked good in a preseason tilt filling Jussi Jokinen's spot with Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu—but the former Panthers first-round pick is just looking for a chance to stick in an NHL lineup. "I can play a top-line role with a little bit of skill or I can play more of a banger role down low," he noted after a recent practice. "Wherever Coach wants to put me."
Fresh off winning the Stanley Cup with the Bruins, albeit as a rental player, Tomas Kaberle brings his subtle passing and quick shot to the Carolina blue line. Kaberle's been criticized for being soft in his own zone, but he fits Maurice's puck movement system. Pairing with re-signed Joni Pitkanen on the points, he could be what the toothless Canes power play has been missing.
Perhaps the most significant addition has been in net. Veteran goaltender Brian Boucher gives all-star Cam Ward the reliable backup he lacked last season when he started 74 games and faced by far the most shots of any netminder. Carolina allowed a league high 33.2 shots per game. If Boucher's steadiness could reduce Ward's load to around 67 games, then the Canes' best player could stay fresh enough for Vezina consideration.
Since the trading deadline, when Sergei Samsonov was shipped to Florida for the stalwart Bryan Allen, general manager Jim Rutherford has remade the Carolina defense. He hopes that allowing fewer shots is the lowest hanging fruit. It's up to the coaching staff, however, to bring in that harvest. "I still think we have ways to improve in our defensive game," Maurice noted, calling the blue line a work in progress. "We've done defensive zone coverage in every practice. It's markedly different when you put Staal down low. All due respect to the young kids, but our defensive zone coverage has not been that good. Part of it is just physical strength."
Patience may be the key to a better D. Jamie McBain and Jay Harrison are a year older and wiser, which McBain reflected on during camp: "There was definitely a learning curve last year. Towards the middle to end of last year, I really felt I was in a comfort zone."
Maurice also focused on the face-off circle, where last year Carolina had the second-to-worst success in the league in winning draws. "We've done some things differently off face-offs to allow us to get some recoveries. We weren't a good face-off team last year so I'm not going to try to sell that we were." New Hurricane Tim Brent brings tenacity to the dot, as will Riley Nash if he sticks with the team.
His was the ultimate rookie season: 31 goals and 32 assists, an All-Star Game appearance, nightly wedding proposals from the stands and the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year. And Skinner's still 19. After another rigorous offseason of training, there's no reason to believe he'll drop off, but everyone's summoning caution. "I don't want to put limitations on my expectations for him, but there's got to be a certain amount of realism," hedged Maurice after a practice. "I'd like him to start where he finished. We'd be happy with that." Fan expectations, however, are through the RBC Center roof. Standing in the beer line, you'll see more 53s ahead of you than Staal's 12 or Ward's 30.
Skinner drew more penalties than any player in the league last season, but the Canes, 24th-ranked in power play goals, failed to cash in. Face-offs undermined the Canes' zone time, and Pitkanen developed an allergy to shooting the puck, something that Kaberle's presence could cure. Both Ponikarovsky and Stewart have shown the ability to set up shop in front of the net during the preseason. The pieces are there; they just have to snap together.
Overall, this year's Carolina Hurricanes should be a shade better than last year's squad, although a 1-4-1 preseason doesn't promise a strong start. If they're more consistent, perhaps they'll win that one last game that determines the playoff cut line, and they'll be playing instead of watching. As Caniacs well know, anything can happen when this squad makes the big dance.