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2011-12 season preview: Carolina Hurricanes

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2010-11 record: 40-31-11, 91 points; 9th in East, 3rd in Southeast

Playoffs: Did not qualify

If the Hurricanes won just one more game, that sad category above could have been very different. Instead, the Tampa Bay Lightning absolutely flattened the ‘Canes 6-2 in a win-and-you’re-in game in Carolina. It seems harsh to sum up an 82-game season full of ups and downs by a single loss, but that defeat is the lasting image of the 2010-11 season.

This Hurricanes team only sports subtle differences compared to last season, so it’s going to come down to execution in 2011-12.

Offense

The Hurricanes basically exchanged veteran wingers Cory Stillman and Erik Cole for prospect Anthony Stewart and journeyman forward Alexei Ponikarovsky. It’s understandable that the Canes balked at Cole’s asking price, but the bottom line is that their offense might take a step back next season.

One can imagine that a Carolina fan’s reflexive answer might be “Jeff Skinner.” The seventh pick of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft burst onto the scene to win the Calder Trophy, but with even less offensive support, teams will be able to gear more attention toward him (although Eric Staal’s obviously remains the top threat). That might make a “sophomore slump” more probable.

Ultimately, the Hurricane’s offense looks like it will take a step back – on paper, at least.

Defense

The big defensive change is in the higher end of their offensive blueliners. Rutherford opted to sign Tomas Kaberle to a substantial contract, which forced Joe Corvo out of town (they traded him to Boston).

It’s easy to judge Kaberle too harshly for his flat performance with the Bruins after the trade deadline, but considering how well his lesser brother Frantisek fared with the Canes, one could assume Tomas will fit in better in Carolina. The Canes generated the highest number of power play opportunities since the lockout, but haven’t been able to capitalize on those chances very often. He didn’t help Boston’s PP much in that short time, but if the Hurricanes continue to force their way to the man advantage as much as previous seasons, the Kaberle signing could be very beneficial.

Kaberle could be a difference-maker, but the onus remains on Joni Pitkanen. While he’s not an ideal top defenseman, Pitkanen brings a nice set of skills to the table for a team that’s shaky in the back end. Things could look far more respectable if Jamie McBain takes “the next step” too.

Goalies

Cam Ward would have a chance to put up Vezina Trophy-level numbers if he played in a conservative defensive system. He earned 37 wins and put up an outstanding .923 save percentage in 2010-11 while making a league-leading (and franchise record) 2,191 saves.

The team simply leans too much on Ward and Staal, but at least their franchise goalie has a suitable backup next season. Brian Boucher comes in from Philadelphia, where he quietly put up solid numbers here and there despite being a frequent scapegoat. Sure, he isn’t an ideal top goalie, but you won’t find many backups who are as stable and experienced as Boucher. Of course, he probably won’t put up fantastic numbers behind a leaky Hurricanes defense, so maybe you should just ignore that positive paragraph.

Coaching

Paul Maurice continues his second tour of duty with the Hurricanes, as he was the coach who saw the team transition from being the Hartford Whalers to the Canes. (His first stint ran from 1995-2004.) Maurice seems like he does a solid job of getting the most out of an extremely top-heavy roster, but one cannot help but wonder if he’ll be on the hot seat if the team missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season.

Breakout candidate

For the Hurricanes to sneak into the playoffs, they’re going to need support beyond the usual suspects. The team has high hopes for two-way forward Brandon Sutter, who managed a +13 rating last season. If he can add a little more offensive oomph to his significant defensive chops, then the 22-year-old center could have a breakthrough year.

McBain and Stewart are also players to watch, although one could argue that McBain already broke through.

Best-case scenario

If you’ve followed the Hurricanes franchise, you’re probably aware of their remarkable tendency to rotate hot-and-cold seasons. At times, it seems like they’ll either a) go on a red-hot run deep into the playoffs or b) miss the postseason entirely. In an ideal scenario, the Hurricanes use their aggressive style to make the playoffs and ride a world-class set of seasons from Ward and Staal into the Eastern Conference finals. Skinner, Sutter and other younger players mature nicely while Ponikarovsky finds a system that suits his style. (See: Nik Antropov’s first season with the Atlanta Thrashers.)

Reality

When you have elite players like Staal and Ward, it isn’t wrong to think that you can put a deep run together. The thing is, the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning Hurricanes featured a ton of scoring depth. It wasn’t just Staal carrying the load; they enjoyed a Conn Smythe-worthy run from Rod Brind’Amour and a fleet of dangerous scoring veterans from Ray Whitney to Mark Recchi and Doug Weight. Now Staal must hope for the best from Tuomo Ruutu and other players who’ve done a commendable job of putting their careers back together.

The Hurricanes should be around the same place they were last season: the Eastern Conference playoff bubble. The problem is that a lot of bubble teams got better while they remained stagnant (or maybe got worse). ‘Canes fans aren’t crazy to hope for a seventh or eighth seed, but they’re just as likely to miss the playoffs again.

Flyers’ Couturier has street named after him in his hometown

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Most people will never be able to say they have a street named after them, but Flyers center Sean Couturier isn’t most people.

The 23-year-old’s name is now on a street sign in his hometown of Bathurst, New Brunswick. Sean Couturier Avenue leads to the rink where he began his minor hockey career.

“It’s special, it’s a great honour,” Couturier said, per CBC.ca. “It’s not something you dream of growing up, but if you can be an example for other young kids and remind them even coming from a small town like Bathurst, anything is possible if you make the sacrifices and believe in what you can do.”

The month of July has been kind to Couturier for the second straight year. Last year at around this time, he signed a six-year contract extension worth $26 million. The new deal kicks in at the start of the upcoming season.

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Report: Veteran center Moore says he has offers on the table

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The chaos of free agency has subsided. And the list of notable players out there has thinned down as the summer has carried on.

Still looking to sign an NHL deal is veteran center Dominic Moore, who is about to turn 36 years old next month and is coming off a two-year deal with the New York Rangers that paid him an AAV of $1.5 million. It was evident way before free agency that Moore likely wouldn’t be back in New York, and would go to the open mark.

“The free agency period goes in fits and starts. Things open up and close along the way. You just try to be proactive but patient. You also don’t want to put yourself in the wrong spot, so you wait to find the right fit, the right role,” Moore told Sportsnet.

“You want to be on a good team that has a great chance to win but you also want to have a responsibility, some value on that team. It’s about marrying all of those factors and making the best decision.”

Moore has never been known for offence. With the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010-11, he hit 18 goals. That was a career high. His highest point total? Forty-one in 2008-09 with Toronto.

But a team looking for a veteran player in the middle, on a reasonable contract and among the bottom six group of forwards, that can have success in the faceoff circle and play on the penalty kill may eventually get him under contract.

According to Sportsnet, there have been offers made to Moore. Now, it appears, the ball is in his court.

Related: Patrick Eaves bests big hockey names at Smashfest V

Coyotes have work to do, with RFAs Murphy, Stone still unsigned

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: John Chayka of the Arizona Coyotes attends the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Arizona Coyotes added a defenseman with a right shot to their roster, signing Luke Schenn on Saturday. And there could be more moves to the back end on the way for Arizona.

They still have work left with respect to two restricted free agents. Defensemen Connor Murphy, 23, and Michael Stone, 26, are still looking for new contracts.

Stone, another right-shot blue liner, had a career-best 36 points in 75 games last season for the Coyotes and has an arbitration hearing scheduled for Aug. 4.

His previous contract was a three-year deal with an average annual value of $1.15 million. But he’s also coming off surgery to repair the ACL and MCL in his left knee, according to azcentral.com. In April, it was expected he could be out at least six months.

“I know he’s running well and moving pretty well,” said Coyotes GM John Chayka, as per azcentral.com. “ … He’s a big part of our blue line, so we’re hoping to get him back as soon as we can.”

However, when it comes to a new deal for Murphy, it appears there is some distance between the two sides.

From Arizona Sports 98.7:

While Chayka said the tenor of talks with Murphy has been good, Murphy’s agent, Brian Bartlett, said on July 18 that he was uncertain when a deal might be struck, and he reiterated on Saturday that nothing has changed in those negotiations.

“I hope we are close,” he wrote via text message last week. “Still have a gap to bridge, but confident we will get it done eventually. Could wrap up with one phone call but I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a little longer to get on the same page.”

Murphy is a Coyotes first-round pick from 2011. His entry-level contract, with its AAV of more than $1,075 million, is expired.

He appeared in 78 games for the Coyotes last season, increasing his point total from seven in 73 games in 2014-15, to 17 points in the 2015-16 campaign.

Blues’ Allen says he still needs to prove he’s a ‘legit’ No. 1 goalie

St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen (34) is scored on by the Edmonton Oilers during second period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alta., on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The goaltending roles in St. Louis have been clearly defined this summer. Jake Allen is the No. 1 netminder and Carter Hutton, a free agent acquisition, is the No. 2.

For the past two seasons, especially, Allen and Brian Elliott were both counted on to shoulder the goaltending duties, but the platoon scenario was ended when Elliott was traded to Calgary last month.

Allen recently commented on what was a positive working relationship between himself and Elliott, but seemed relieved that the leash may not be as short as it may have been in the past if he has an off night.

“It was tough to make mistakes when Brian was around because one game — you had a bad game — he was right back in the net and vice versa with him and me,” said the 25-year-old Allen, as per a video on the Blues’ website.

“I think you get a little bit more leeway, I guess, now. But not a whole lot. Carter’s a great goalie and I’ve heard a lot of great things about him.

“I feel that I had to etch myself into the league consistently. Now that I’ve done that, I still have another place to go and prove I’m a legit No. 1 guy.”

Allen just wrapped up only his second full NHL season.

The highest number of starts he’s made in a single season at the NHL level is 44 — in the 2015-16 season.

Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong said in June that Allen lost the crease, with Elliott taking it over with his strong play down the stretch and in the playoffs. He also made it clear Allen would have to battle to get it back in September. That changes to some degree now that Elliott is no longer in St. Louis.

Hutton, 30, was the back-up in Nashville, but made a career-high 34 starts in the 2013-14 season, posting a .910 save percentage.