Considering the NHL’s lengthy 82-game seasons, it’s a bit surprising how often a playoff berth can come down to a team’s final contest. The Carolina Hurricanes stared that situation straight in the eyes in April – and ultimately blinked – as the Tampa Bay Lightning handed them an embarrassing 6-2 defeat.
When you get walloped like the Canes did in such a big game, the loss probably lingers for everyone involved with the team. That being said, the heaviest burden might have fallen on the shoulders of the team’s best player and captain, Eric Staal. Staal assisted on one of Carolina’s two goals while registering a -4 rating in that decisive game, a performance that must have left a bitter taste in the former Stanley Cup champion’s mouth. Whether it’s fair or not, that pressure comes with the territory when you’re a four-time All-Star making $7.5 million (with an $8.25 million annual cap hit).
Staal admits that he will allow that feeling to linger a bit for motivational purposes, but also noted that there will be some new faces in Carolina next season. While the Hurricanes will probably maintain their image of being an attacking offense with a shaky defense that leans heavily on the underrated work of goalie Cam Ward, there’s no denying that the team will be a little different.
The Charlotte Observer’s Chip Alexander caught up with Staal to discuss the departure of his successful linemate Erik Cole along with some of the team’s off-season additions including forwards Anthony Stewart and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
“He’s been a good friend and a guy I got to know real well, coming in at a young age in this league,” Staal said of Cole. “It was a lot of fun. But that’s the way this business works. He’s gotten a great opportunity in Montreal and great security for his family. I’m excited for him.”
Then there were the free-agent acquisitions: Stewart, Ponikarovsky, center Tim Brent and goalie Brian Boucher. Finally, there was defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup last season after being traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“We picked up some good players, including some who might have been a little under the radar like Anthony Stewart,” Staal said. “Obviously, Ponikarovsky has had a lot of good seasons under his belt although he was injured last season. Brent had a good strong season with the (Maple) Leafs as a fourth-line center and played his role to a T, which is what we’re looking for. And Boucher is a quality goaltender and quality guy.”
The Canes are investing $12.75 million over three years in Kaberle. Staal called him a proven player who “has a great presence on the blue line” and should help improve the power play.
Skeptics will point to Kaberle’s ineffectiveness when it came to improving the Boston Bruins’ power play, but the former Toronto Maple Leafs PP quarterback might benefit from having more time to build chemistry with his teammates (rather than learning on the fly after being traded at the deadline). If recent trends continue, an improved power play could make a significant difference for Carolina; they’ve received more man advantage opportunities than any team in the NHL since the lockout.
An improved power play would be wonderful, but it’s hard to argue against the notion that the Canes took a step back during the summer. It’s understandable that they balked at matching Montreal’s hefty contract for Cole, but they’re essentially swapping that rejuvenated power forward and Cory Stillman for Stewart and Ponikarovsky. It’s hard to picture that being anything but a downgrade and there’s also the worry that Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner might have trouble matching his fantastic first season.
Staal scored 76 points last season, which is about what you can expect from the big and talented center since he hasn’t come very close to his breakthrough 100-point campaign in 05-06. Carolina will probably need quite a bit more than that from their captain if they hope to make the playoffs in 2011-12, though.