The Carolina Hurricanes self-destructed in the 2009-10 season, finishing below .500 for the first time since 2004. A freak leg injury to starting goalie Cam Ward was a major catalyst for the disastrous campaign, yet the ‘Canes added insult to injury with a collective inability to generate enough offense to contend in the Southeast Division. Ultimately, the ‘Canes finished the season behind the Capitals and Thrashers in the standings and missed the postseason.
As much of a calamity as last season was, head coach Paul Maurice was able to get a good look at several of the team’s prized prospects, including Brandon Sutter and Zach Boychuk. It will be up to Eric Staal to mentor the aforementioned youngsters and help them make the most of their offensive talents. Just 26 years old and now the team’s captain, Staal is the player the ‘Canes look to for leadership and offensive support. He’s a safe bet for 70-plus points in the upcoming season.
Carolina’s rebuilding process includes the departure of Ray Whitney to the Coyotes. Without the veteran, the door is wide open for prospects to assume bigger roles with the big club. Given the fact that Whitney was a perennial point producer for the ‘Canes, Maurice will be hard-pressed to find players capable of replicating Whitney’s yearly output of 60-70 points. Fortunately for the Hurricanes, the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Albany River Rats, moved to Charlotte (and became the Checkers). This will make it much more convenient for the parent club to shuttle around players with two-way contracts.
Unfortunately, the Hurricanes must also skate without veteran center, Rod Brind’Amour. Easily one of the most celebrated players in franchise history, Brind’Amour decided to retire after two decades worth of service time in the NHL, half of which was spent in Carolina. Much to the chagrin of fantasy owners who thought Brind’Amour still had gas left in the tank, he ended up being a complete bust and managed just 19 points last season, the second lowest output of his illustrious career. However, Brind’Amour supported the team’s decision to strip him of his captaincy, in favor of Eric Staal, so the franchise’s next star could assume a leadership role. Brind’Amour will be missed in a locker room that is now be occupied by plenty of promising, but inexperienced, skaters; but he will stick around and serve in a management role for the team.
Be forewarned that it could get messy at times without Whitney and Brind’Amour to provide veteran leadership on the ice. However, if it’s any consolation, GM Jim Rutherford has patched up the team’s blue line by bringing Joe Corvo and Anton Babchuk back to Raleigh. While neither player is too enticing in fantasy leagues, they should generate more offense from the blue line. At the very least, the duo will take some pressure away from Joni Pitkanen, which could result in an improved power-play unit.
With everything considered, the Hurricanes should become a smarter bunch as they learn from last year’s tumultuous campaign. In order to make a run at the playoffs, however, Staal must direct the storm away from home grounds and make winners out of the youthful group that will represent the Hurricanes in 2010-11.
THE BIG GUNS
Eric Staal (C): Staal stumbled out of the gate last season, posting only nine points (3G, 6A) before the month of December; but much of the downhill slide can be attributed to an upper-body injury that kept him out for the majority of November. When it was all said and done, Staal still managed a point-per-game average, racking up 70 points (29G, 41A) in a 70 games, which was actually a career low. Last year wasn’t completely unfriendly to the 25-year-old center. After all, he became the new captain of the Hurricanes not long before winning an Olympic gold medal as a member of Team Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Staal must lead a rebuilding Carolina squad in 2010-11. We think he has all of the tools to do the job, making him a great fantasy option once the elite skaters are off the draft board.
Jussi Jokinen (LW): The majority of the Hurricanes turned in down seasons in 2009-10, but Jokinen went against the grain and turned in a 65-point campaign (30 goals, 35 assists). His shooting percentage of 18.8 was eighth best in the NHL, and he excelled on the man advantage with 24 power-play points. Even better, the departure of Ray Whitney all but guarantees that Jokinen will remain a top weapon in the Carolina offense for the forthcoming season. Consider giving the Finnish winger a long look in fantasy drafts if you want a reliable forward who can light the lamp and set up scores just as easily.
Cam Ward (G): Ward deserves a mulligan after last year proved to be one of his worst campaigns. Due to a freak leg injury and problems with his back, Ward was limited to 47 games, in which he posted a losing record (18-23-5) for the first time in his five-year career. Also disappointing was his inability to record a shutout and the increase in his goals-against average to 2.69 (from 2.44 the year before). Despite the forgettable season, Ward remains a “big gun” as the primary netminder in Carolina. Barring an injury, he’ll get the majority of the work between the pipes, with sophomore Justin Peters as his backup. The ‘Canes are rebuilding, so temper any high expectations you have for Ward in the win column; but expect a noticeable improvement over the disappointing numbers he posted a year ago. Finally, don’t forget that the “Warden” is just 26 years old with plenty of good years ahead of him.
ON THE RISE
Brandon Sutter (C ): Sutter made tremendous strides in his sophomore season, making his fantasy owners in keeper leagues look like geniuses. In 72 games last year, Sutter accumulated 21 points and 19 assists, often playing more like a seasoned veteran rather than a 21-year-old prospect. Still, it’s only fair to expect growing pains from Sutter – he won’t always be consistent as a young skater on a rebuilding team, and his plus/minus rating could split as a result. But with upside that is difficult to ignore, expect No. 16 to take a tall man’s leap forward in the next season. Sutter should possess a fair amount of fantasy value, even in non-keeper leagues, which is not something we could have said last year at this time.
Joni Pitkanen (D): The Hurricanes love to employ Finnish stars, and Pitkanen is no exception. One of the league’s premier playmakers from the blue line, Pitkanen registered 40 helpers last season, tying him with Detroit’s Nicklas Lindstrom for the eighth most assists among NHL defensemen. In all actuality, Pitkanen could have done even more damage with the puck had he been paired with higher-scoring defensemen. Luckily, rearguards Joe Corvo and Anton Babchuk are back in town to provide Pitkanen with the offensive help he needs. If Pitkanen can just stay healthy – something he’s had a problem doing in the past – the stars will neatly align for Pitkanen in his seventh season.
Justin Peters (G): The Hurricanes selected Peters with the 38th overall selection in the 2004 NHL Draft. Since then, he’s drastically improved thanks to development time with the Florida Everblades (ECHL) and the Albany River Rats (AHL). But his ultimate test occurred last season when the ‘Canes needed a capable netminder to fill in for starter Cam Ward, who sustained a serious leg injury in the fall. Despite sharing the duties with veteran backup Manny Legace, Peters posted a 6-3-0 record, a .905 save percentage, and a 2.83 goals-against average in the first nine games of his NHL career. Obviously the Hurricanes brass like what they’ve seen from Peters. Following his impressive rookie campaign, Carolina re-signed the young puck-stopper to a two-year deal with the intent of slotting him directly behind Ward in the goalie pecking order. Peters will be a hot waiver claim in fantasy leagues if (or when) Ward goes down with an injury in 2010-11.
TWO TO AVOID
Tuomo Ruutu (RW): Ruutu is arguably the most aggressive player on the Hurricanes. You might say over aggression only poses a problem when it causes a player to go down with an injury. Unfortunately, “going down” is precisely what happened to Ruutu (and his fantasy value) following a fight with Darcy Tucker, formerly of the Avalanche. Ruutu eventually opted for shoulder surgery late in the 2009-10 regular season, hoping to recover in time for a full schedule in 2010-11. When healthy, Ruutu is fully capable of producing 50 points, but he has only played more than 75 games twice in seven years. If you’re a big Ruutu fan, go ahead and place your bets because, if anything, he’s sure to be a gamble. Conservative fantasy owners will be inclined to pass on him for healthier alternatives.
Anton Babchuk (D:) – Babchuk spent last season playing for Omsk Avangard (KHL) after turning down a one-year, $1 million contract from 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford. In Babchuk’s year overseas, Carolina failed to assemble a defensive corps that could do much damage with the puck, so Rutherford made a point to bring some offensive-minded rearguards back to Raleigh in Babchuk and Joe Corvo. Before you follow suit and reassign Babchuk to your fantasy squad, consider that only once has he played more than 70 games in season during his four-year career.
Jamie McBain (D): McBain is an offensive-minded defenseman that the Hurricanes sorely need in the lineup. Expect the crafty prospect to get a healthy dose of playing time in the NHL this season. He will have plenty of value in keeper leagues.
Drayson Bowman (LW): - Bowman tore up the junior leagues, posting 242 points (130G, 112A) in five years with the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL. His agility, combined with a natural scoring touch, should give him an extra push as he looks for a stable role in the NHL.
Zac Dalpe (C ): - With Dalpe, the ‘Canes have a young lamp-lighter in their system. He’s on the fast track to the NHL after signing with Carolina only two years after his collegiate hockey career with the Ohio State Buckeyes began. However, his defense needs work, making it likely that he’ll get at least a year’s worth of playing time with the Charlotte Checkers, the parent club’s new minor league affiliate.