The Hurricanes had to wait until the end of the regular season’s final game to learn that they missed the playoffs two points behind the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference. Equipped with a blend of youth and experience, Carolina endured times of inconsistency and brilliance last season, resulting in subpar performances in multiple categories. Of course, the team put on a lot of miles at the beginning of the season by opening in Helsinki, Finland and subsequently got off to a poor start, especially on the penalty kill, ultimately finishing 20th in the league at a mere 81.2% clip despite ranking fourth best in that category post All-Star break.
GM Jim Rutherford’s offseason was a busy one filled with drama surrounding his pending free agents. This past summer, any big-name free agent like Erik Cole, Chad LaRose, Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen could have left to play elsewhere around the NHL. But in reality, only Cole departed via free agency and was replaced by former Maple Leaf standout Alexei Ponikarovsky. The only other key departure was that of defenseman Joe Corvo, via a trade that saw the higher-prized Tomas Kaberle land in Carolina on the heels of a campaign split between the Leafs and Bruins, winners of the Stanley Cup.
Moving forward, Carolina plans to continue building around captain Eric Staal, goalie Cam Ward, and reigning Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner. Without a significant roster shakeup, the debate begins on whether the team is doomed to the same ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, or if the continuity will create better synergy this season. The catalysts for success or failure will hinge on the development of the young talent in Carolina. Expect 23-year-old Jamie McBain on the blue line, and newcomer Anthony Stewart up front, to become integral parts of the Hurricanes’ plans. Alternate captain Brandon Sutter, 22, is also worth watching as an up-and-coming forward in Raleigh.
Overall, the Hurricanes have cornerstones in Staal and Ward to be competitive every night, but does the team have the drive necessary to land in the postseason? Stay tuned to find out.
THE BIG GUNS
Eric Staal (C): Staal had another solid season last year, as he strung together 33 goals and 76 points. There are very few guarantees in the NHL, but the big center is remarkably consistent, making him one of the surest bets in the league. In the past six seasons, Staal has scored at least 70 points in each campaign. Although Staal has never had an elite plus-minus rating, his solid play in all other categories validates his standing as one of the best centers in the NHL. Draft accordingly.
Cam Ward (G): Ward was a busy man in 2010-11, as he led all NHL goalies with 74 starts and 4,317:35 minutes between the posts. Thanks to the enormous workload and a sparkling save percentage (.923), he was able to deny 2,191 shots, easily setting a new career high in the saves category. And despite the Hurricanes failing to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year, Ward posted a robust record of 37-26-10. Fantasy owners should feel safe using the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner as a No. 1 option at the goalie position, even though he’s expected to be rested more often in the upcoming season with Brian Boucher now on board.
Jeffrey Skinner (C): As the hockey world prepared for the 2010-11 season, there seemed to be endless hype about Skinner, Carolina’s first-round (No. 7 overall) draft selection from 2010. Apparently watching him plow through the junior ranks, where he tallied 141 points (77 G, 64 A) with the Kitchener Rangers, was enough for the Hurricanes to let him skip over the minors altogether and give him a shot in the NHL. At the tender age of 18, Skinner combined his natural sniping ability and excellent vision to capture 31 goals and 32 assists, a point total that led all rookies and helped him earn the Calder Memorial Trophy for being the league’s top rookie. He’ll be a hot commodity in fantasy drafts this season.
Honorable Mentions: Jussi Jokinen (LW), (D), Tomas Kaberle (D)
ON THE RISE
Jamie McBain (D): McBain enjoyed a fine sophomore season, tallying 30 points (7 G, 23 A) in 76 games for Carolina last year. An excellent passer, McBain could establish himself as a top-pairing defenseman with a little more experience. But despite his offensive talents grabbing all the headlines, the young blueliner's skills in his own zone continue to improve, which bodes well for his level of playing time in 2011-12. McBain had shoulder surgery after the conclusion of the regular season, but considering that he was able to finish out the campaign with the injury, it probably isn't much of a concern.
Anthony Stewart (RW): Stewart enjoyed a breakout season last year for Atlanta, reaching career highs in goals (14) assists (25) and games played (80). If the power forward can build off this campaign in Raleigh, then the two-year, $1.8 million dollar contract will be a great bargain for general manager Jim Rutherford and the Hurricanes.
Brandon Sutter (C): One of the brightest forwards in Carolina's system is Sutter, who signed a contract to remain with the club for at least three more seasons. His point totals dropped from 40 (21 G, 19 A) in 2009-10, all the way down to 29 (14 G, 15 A) last year, though he did have a plus-13 rating in the most recent campaign, which was far and away the best differential of any Hurricane. The rapid emergence of Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner takes some of the spotlight off Sutter, but he should not be a forgotten man in the fantasy realm on draft day. Expect close to 35-40 points from Sutter if he can log another full season's worth of hockey.
Honorable Mention: Tuomo Ruutu (RW)
TWO TO AVOID
Alexei Ponikarovsky (LW): Ponikarovsky is the biggest of the new additions to Carolina, literally and figuratively. The 6-foot-4 power winger signed a new one-year deal worth $1.5 million this offseason and could see time with either captain Eric Staal or Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner. Look for Ponikarovsky to rebound from his disappointing 15-point effort last season and return to the neighbourhood of 35-55 points.
Chad LaRose (LW): Rather than letting LaRose walk as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford was able to keep him in Raleigh at the cost of $3.4 million over the next two seasons. Some might be puzzled by this move, as the 29-year-old finished with an unsightly minus-21 rating in 2010-11, and continues to have trouble shooting the puck with accuracy. However, the team appears willing to be patient with him considering his entire six-year career has been spent exclusively with the ‘Canes. Whether or not fantasy owners share similar loyalty to LaRose could depend entirely on his ability to elevate his game with fellow forward Erik Cole no longer donning a Hurricanes sweater.
Zach Boychuk (C): The Hurricanes have yet to take the training wheels off Boychuk, a top prospect picked by the club in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He failed to make the team out of training camp, but a series of recalls afforded him the chance to play in 23 games with the Hurricanes in 2010-11. Still, the better chunk of his season was spent with AHL Charlotte, where he reached 65 points (22 G, 43 A) in just 60 games. Boychuk doesn’t have ideal size for a center – he’s 5-foot-10, 185-pounds off the skates – though he makes up for it by possessing quick wheels and scoring upside. However, he isn’t worth endorsing outside of keeper leagues until he can start playing full-time.
Drayson Bowman (C): Bowman is another young gun in the Carolina development system hoping to get a shot at the big time this season. The 6-foot center was unremarkable for the Hurricanes last year, having totaled just one assist for his only point in 23 NHL games. He has the talent necessary to be a physical force at the next level, but will most likely be assigned to a checking role if he wins a roster spot with a solid camp.
Ryan Murphy (D): It would be a gross understatement to say that Murphy, the 12th overall selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, is an offensive-minded defenseman. The 18-year-old tallied 26 goals and 79 points in 63 games with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL last season, and if he can improve his defensive, Murphy will find himself playing for the Hurricanes sooner than later.
Zac Dalpe (C): Dalpe, a prospect of the Hurricanes, was frequently shuffled between AHL Charlotte and the parent club in 2010-11. The well-rounded Ontario native collected 57 points (23 G, 34 A) in 61 games with the Checkers, and three goals and an assist during his 15-game sampling of the NHL. As a young center, he'll need to work on his skills in the face-off circle after losing 22 of 33 draws a season ago. Still, Dalpe will only get better with experience, and one can expect him to assume a bigger role with the Canes this season.