2011-12 season preview: Carolina Hurricanes

2 Comments

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.

Bergeron bombastic in return, but Bruins lose Krejci to injury

Getty
Leave a comment

The roller coaster isn’t slowing down for the Boston Bruins.

With Tuukka Rask‘s concussion looming over the proceedings, the Bruins gave fans some reason to celebrate; Patrice Bergeron scored a goal and three assists in an impressive 6-3 output by the B’s top guns against the overmatched Vancouver Canucks.

Even Anders Bjork enjoyed some measure of redemption after bowling over Rask in practice, as the young player scored two goals and an assist despite being limited to 12:29 TOI.

Other big guns like Brad Marchand did their increasingly reliable damage, with David Pastrnak probably providing the most exhilarating goal of the contest:

Yeah, that might get some attention from Canucks coach Travis Green in film sessions, assuming he doesn’t just burn the tape.

Bergeron broke down his night to Sportsnet’s Dan Murphy after the game:

The Bruins really made Erik Gudbranson and the Canucks pay for boarding Frank Vatrano, as they scored three power-play goals on the major penalty. Vatrano’s another health situation to watch, although it’s heartening that he returned during the game.

(That doesn’t mean he won’t have a setback … but all things considered, the Bruins will take it.)

So … solid stuff overall, as the Bruins provided ample evidence that they might have the weapons to scrap through all this bad luck.

Then again, if opponents can slow the top-end guys, you wonder what kind of supporting cast the Bruins will have left through this run of attrition. David Krejci is the latest name to land on Boston’s troubling list of walking wounded.

Here’s hoping that it isn’t a big issue for a veteran center who’s dealt with nagging injuries in recent years.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Kucherov’s goal run ends, but he helped Sergachev make history, Bolts win

Getty
Leave a comment

Gosh, that Nikita Kucherov is such a slacker.

The underrated, rising star saw his historic, season-opening seven-game goal streak end with eight in seven games. This leaves him just one game short of tying Wayne Gretzky.

It’s fitting, though, that Kucherov made a little history even as his historic run ended. He earned two primary assists on the first two goals of Mikhail Sergachev‘s NHL career, factoring into the Tampa Bay Lightning’s surprisingly low-scoring 2-0 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

(C’mon, you pictured some fireworks there too, didn’t you?)

Here’s the first-ever goal for Sergachev, who matched trade mate Jonathan Drouin‘s two goals with tonight’s outburst.

And here’s the second:

Yeah, you can’t give Sergachev that kind of space and time; then again, maybe the Blue Jackets were a little preoccupied with stopping Kucherov and his red-hot partner-in-crime, Steven Stamkos?

The real star of tonight’s game/reason why it was so low-scoring was probably Andrei Vasilevskiy. Another key Russian for the Lightning, Vasilevskiy stopped all 43 shots for an impressive shutout. This marks his first of the season and only the fifth of what’s been a promising young career.

After falling just short against the New Jersey Devils via a shootout, the Bolts improve to 6-1-1 while winning another early temperature check against Columbus, who are still off to a strong start at 5-2-0.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

McDavid dazzles again, Oilers break slump with OT win vs. Blackhawks

Getty
1 Comment

Update: The Edmonton Oilers ended up needing every bit of Connor McDavid‘s brilliance, as goals weren’t coming easily against the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday night.

(Even though, as you can see with that highlight-reel assist, McDavid often makes it look easy.)

McDavid also managed a secondary assist on Mark Letestu‘s overtime-winner, ending the Edmonton Oilers’ losing streak at four games. The Blackhawks continue to be resourceful in getting standings points, in this case falling 2-1 in OT.

Anton Forsberg made 40 of 42 saves, but it wasn’t enough against a driven group led by number 97.

Here’s the OT goal.

If you haven’t seen the more amazing of McDavid’s two helpers, do yourself a favor and check it out. You won’t regret it.

***

Connor McDavid’s speed and skill are glorious, but the thing that makes him extra-sensational is just how unstoppable he seems. Even against some of the NHL’s best.

To start the season, McDavid made very-solid Calgary Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie look downright permeable during the most impressive goal in his opening-night hat trick.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, the superstar tore through the Chicago Blackhawks – including certain future Hall of Famer Duncan Keith – and then sent absolutely obscene pass to Patrick Maroon for an easy goal.

You know how people used to say that a fire hydrant could score 50 goals with Mario Lemieux? We might need to bump that down to 30 for modern hockey, but either way, Maroon might laugh uncomfortably at such jokes.

If you prefer your jaw-droppers in GIF form, drop away:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Schneider injury puts damper on Devils win, Hischier’s big night

Getty
Leave a comment

Update: Nico Hishier was one of the biggest stories as the game went along, but a lot happened in an eventual 5-4 OT win for the Devils.

Tonight served as an “I’m back” moment for Erik Karlsson, who served up three assists as the Senators turned a 2-1 deficit to a 4-2 edge after a dominant second period. Ottawa wasn’t able to sit on that lead, however, as the Devils rallied to send the game to overtime.

Hischier didn’t get his hat trick, but he did manage a third point, assisting on John Moore‘s overtime-winner.

Karlsson and the Senators fell short of spoiling this big night for Hischier, yet the Devils have something to worry about, as Cory Schneider suffered an injury that ended his evening early.

***

One remarkable thing about the New Jersey Devils’ hot start is that Nico Hischier, the top pick of this past draft, had yet to score his first NHL goal.

Of course, there’s a danger to looking at only goals. After all, the 18-year-old had four assists in six games, with three coming in his last two contests. The Devils were justified in all of those comments about it being just a matter of time …

… As it turns out, it didn’t take Hischier much time against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday.

Not only did the Swiss scorer find the net for his first goal by roofing a nice setup from Taylor Hall and Drew Stafford.

He also showed some savvy in scoring his second goal less than two minutes later.

Hischier now has two periods and change to collect his first-ever hat trick in that same game.

A quick look at how he’s been doing, overall

Even when other Devils stole some of his thunder in what might have been an opening statement of a first win for New Jersey, Hischier showed some dynamic moves.

Nice.

As NJ.com’s Chris Ryan reported, Devils coach John Hynes was left raving about Hischier after he collected two assists in the Devils’ shootout win against the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier this week.

“He was very good in all aspects,” John Hynes said on Wednesday. “Defensively he was excellent, going back to the video this morning, some of the chances he had that he didn’t score on were excellent. When you look at the chances he created, the assists he had, the assist on the game-tying goal, he set up (Taylor Hall) very well in the offensive zone. I’d say that was his most complete game to date.”

Hischier began the season being used sparingly, but he logged more legitimate top-six minutes the past couple games. He sure seems like a quick study so far. Hischier’s getting some protected zone starts and other situations, but there’s also sense that Hynes is going to take off the training wheels very quickly.

Thursday seems like the reward, or the flashing light, for all that good early work. This post will be updated as we wait to see if Hischier can manage that hat trick.

***

Look, it’s very, very early.

All we can judge Hischier and the Devils on, right now, is how they’ve played so far … and with each game, this team looks more and more legit. And so does their prized prospect.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS: