2010-11 NHL season preview: Carolina Hurricanes

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paulmauricecoach.jpgLast season: (35-37-10, 80 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference) It seems the Hurricanes alternate good seasons and bad seasons. One season they charge deep into the playoffs (or even win the Cup), the next they don’t even make the playoffs. In 2009-10, they had one of those bad seasons.

Head coach: Paul Maurice is their coach, one of those rare guys who was fired only to be re-hired by the team. If he falters, GM Jim Rutherford will be in big trouble too.

Key departures: F Rod Brind’Amour (retirement), F Ray Whitney. The Hurricanes didn’t lose a lot of players, but both guys were big parts of the team. Rod the Bod was a heart-and-soul leader and a big part of the team’s Cup-winning run while Whitney is an underrated playmaker. Both will be missed.

Key arrivals: D Joe Corvo, D Anton Babchuk, F Jeff Skinner. It’s almost as if Rutherford lacks a pro scout as he goes the nostalgia route with a lot of his moves. Corvo and Babchuk both have been to Carolina, left and came back again. Kind of like Maurice.

ericstaalsweaty.jpgUnder pressure: Don’t worry, Eric Staal. All you have to do is carry an offense full of castoffs such as Sergei Samsonov and guys who turned around their careers like Jussi Jokinen. The team depends on Staal and goalie Cam Ward to carry the load, so if they don’t succeed, neither does Carolina. No pressure there.

Protecting the house: Last season, Ward went down with an injury and his team collapsed with him. With a Stanley Cup on his resume and plenty of hockey ahead of him, he’s one of the genuine franchise goalies in the NHL. Unfortunately, the team depends too much on Ward. If he gets injured, backup Justin Peters doesn’t seem like a goalie who can handle the workload. Will they need to turn to someone like Manny Legace in desperation again this season?

Wow, that defense isn’t very good. Joni Pitkanen is a solid player who would be fantastic on a deeper blue line, but I’m not sure I’d want him to be my No. 1. Perhaps the group will be decent if promising youngster Jamie McBain improves, but I’m not very impressed by a group that includes Tim Gleason, Corvo and Babchuk.

Top line we’d like to see: Jokinen-Staal-Tuomo Ruutu. There’s an obvious drop-off from Staal to every other forward on this roster. Still, this line would include the elite talents of Staal, the crafty skills of Jokinen and the rugged play of the superior (but more injury prone) of the Ruutu brothers.

Oh captain, my captain: How could it not be Staal?

Street fighting man: The Hurricanes aren’t big fighters, but Tom Kostopoulos would be the man to throw some punches.

camwardgoalie.jpgBest-case scenario: The Hurricanes use their hard-charging style to take the second spot in the division. Staal, Ward and Cole stay healthy and play their fullest potential. Samsonov bounces back from injury problems while Jokinen keeps up the positive momentum from last season. The team makes it to the Eastern Conference finals by playing aggressive, exciting and opportunistic hockey.

Worst-case scenario: The season ends up being a mirror image of last season, with Carolina falling short of the playoffs while not getting a good enough pick to nab a high-end prospect.

Keeping it real: The Hurricanes are alarmingly dependent on their two best players, but Staal and Ward are legitimately good. The problem is that they’re no longer the only semi-competitive team other than the Capitals in their division, so getting into the playoffs by default isn’t an option any more. Expect a season on the playoff bubble for Carolina.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, Carolina deserves a 2. I almost want to say they should get a 3, but this team only went backwards this summer. They seem to work off of mojo and momentum, though, so I wouldn’t put it past them to have another Cinderella run.

Hitchcock going to more aggressive attack for Blues

Ken Hitchcock
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ST. LOUIS (AP) After three straight first-round playoff exits, the St. Louis Blues have learned to temper expectations.

They have been consistently among the NHL’s best in the regular season and realize it is past time to build something for the long haul. The sting still lingers from the latest failure, against the Minnesota Wild last spring.

“We’re all disappointed, everybody can agree on that,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “It’s never easy to kind of think about your failures, but we grow every time it happens.”

Management isn’t ready to tear it all down yet.

“We play, in my opinion, one of the toughest if not the toughest division in the NHL, and we’ve finished first or second in the last four years,” forward Alexander Steen said. “So we have an extremely powerful team.”

Maybe a change in strategy will be enough: Coach Ken Hitchcock is back with a mandate for a more aggressive, even reckless, style of play from a roster that hasn’t changed appreciably.

“We’re coming hard from the back and we’re coming hard to see how close we can get to the attack,” Hitchcock said. “I think it’s where the game’s at; I think it’s where the game’s going to go.”

The 63-year-old Hitchcock is pushing forward, too, unwilling to dwell on the flameouts. Coach and players agree that would be “wasted energy.”

“My opinion is when you sit and think about the past, you do yourself no good,” Hitchcock said. “If you learn from the past, that’s when you do yourself a whole bunch of good.”

There were only two major roster casualties. Forward Troy Brouwer came from Washington in a trade for fan favorite T.J. Oshie. Defenseman Barret Jackman, the franchise career leader in games, wasn’t re-signed.

“If you were expecting 23 new faces to be on the roster this year, I don’t think that was realistic,” captain David Backes said. “We’re going to miss those guys in the room and on the ice, but there has been some changeover and I think it’s pretty significant.”

Things to watch for with the Blues:

GOALIE SHUFFLE: Just like last year, there’s no true No. 1 with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen sharing duties. The 25-year-old Allen missed a chance to seize the job last spring when he failed to raise his level in the playoffs.

TOP THREAT: Vladimir Tarasenko had a breakout season with 37 goals and was rewarded with an eight-year, $60 million contract. The 23-year-old winger is by far the Blues’ most dangerous scoring option and said he won’t let the money affect his play. “I never worry about it,” Tarasenko said. “If you play good, you play good.”

NEW FACES: Brouwer and center Kyle Brodziak add a physical element that was perhaps lacking a bit last season. Brouwer has three 20-plus goal seasons and Brodziak, acquired from Minnesota, fills a checking role. Veteran forward Scottie Upshall got a one-year, two-way deal after being coming to camp as a tryout. Rookie forward Robby Fabbri, a first-round pick last year, will get an early look. Another promising youngster, forward Ty Rattie, begins the year at Chicago of the AHL.

RECOVERY WARD: Forward Jori Lehteri bounced back quickly from ankle surgery and opens the season without restrictions. Another forward, Patrik Berglund, could miss half of the season following shoulder surgery.

TRACK RECORD: The Blues won the Central Division last season and Hitchcock, fourth on the career list with 708 regular-season wins, has consistently had the team near the top of the standings. “He is our coach, tough cookies if you don’t like it,” Backes said. “From my experience, he puts together one heck of a game plan.”

It looks like Havlat won’t make Panthers

Martin Havlat

As PHT’s mentioned before, the Florida Panthers stand as a fascinating contrast between youth and experience.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though; fresh faces usually beat out gray beards, at least when it comes to teams that are still trying to build toward contender status.

While it’s by no means official, two Panthers beat writers – the Miami Herald’s George Richards and the Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Harvey Fialkov – report that the Panthers are likely to pass on Martin Havlat.

It wasn’t just about the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad leading the charge. Other young Panthers (maybe most notably Quinton Howden and Connor Brickley) made the team, thus making Havlat less necessary.

One would assume that it might be tough for the 34-year-old to find work, at least if he insists upon only an NHL deal.

Health issues continue to dog him, but he’s no longer one of those guys who tantalizes with talent when he is healthy enough to play.

Havlat also doesn’t really bring much to the table defensively. While other veterans can kill penalties and show a little more verstaility, Havlat’s greatest selling point is scoring.

Could this be it for a solid career that may nonetheless end with a “What if?” or two?