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.

Report: Rangers to hire Lindy Ruff as an assistant coach

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More coaching news on Saturday.

Lindy Ruff’s time with the Dallas Stars ended in April following a disappointing regular season, but it appears he’s found another coaching gig in the NHL.

It is, however, a different role than what he’s been used to for the past 20 years.

Per Larry Brooks of the New York Post, a deal has not been done yet, however, Ruff will join the Rangers as an assistant coach on Alain Vigneault’s staff. He’ll reportedly replace Jeff Beukeboom and will be in charge of New York’s defense.

Ruff certainly brings experience, with 1,165 games coached in the NHL. He’s been a head coach since 1997 when he joined the Buffalo Sabres, and hasn’t been an assistant since a four-year tenure with the Florida Panthers from 1993 to 1997.

The Rangers’ defense has undergone notable changes this offseason, with Dan Girardi getting bought out of his six-year, $33 million contract. With about $20 million now in cap space, New York may not be done making moves to their blue line this offseason.

The Rangers made a blockbuster trade with the Coyotes on Friday, sending Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to the Coyotes in exchange for the seventh overall pick and 21-year-old defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.

Vegas parlays second-round pick into prospect forward Keegan Kolesar

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The Vegas Golden Knights had a surplus of draft picks in the opening two rounds this weekend, and they used one of those to make a deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday.

The Golden Knights sent the 45th overall pick in this year’s draft to Columbus in exchange for 20-year-old prospect forward Keegan Kolesar, who has spent the last four years with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds.

In each of the last two years, Kolesar has put up good numbers, scoring a junior career high of 30 goals and 61 points in 64 games in 2015-16. He had 60 points this past season, but played in 10 fewer games due to a sports hernia surgery, so he was on pace to far exceed his totals from the previous campaign.

He was most impressive for the Thunderbirds in the 2017 WHL playoffs. In 19 games, he scored 12 goals and 31 points. Great production for that time of year. But in addition to those numbers, what may be most intriguing to Vegas is that Kolesar brings tremendous size down the right wing. Standing 6-foot-2 and 223 pounds, his physical play for the Thunderbirds was lauded during their postseason run, which resulted in a Memorial Cup berth.

“Keegan is one of the most important guys to our success,” Thunderbirds coach Steve Konowalchuk told the Columbus Dispatch. “He could easily have been a co-MVP of the playoffs. Not only does he produce a ton of points, but his physical play has had a huge impact on every playoff series.”

Having turned 20 in April, Kolesar will be eligible to play in the AHL or NHL next season, per the Golden Knights.

Kings sign Andreoff to two-year extension

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The L.A. Kings have brought back pending restricted free agent forward Andy Andreoff.

The Kings announced Saturday that they have re-signed Andreoff to a two-year deal worth an annual average value of $677,500.

He appeared in only 36 games last season, spending time on injured reserve, adding two assists. The previous year, however, he played in 60 games for L.A., scoring eight goals with 10 points.

At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Andreoff is known more for his physical style and checking abilities than offensive production, with 146 penalty minutes combined over the last two seasons.

Stars hope they got a second-round steal in Robertson

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CHICAGO — His stats jump right off the page.

On a Kingston Frontenacs squad that really struggled to score, Jason Robertson had 42 goals as a 17-year-old. Nobody else on his team had more than 26 goals.

For that reason, the Dallas Stars are hoping they got a steal in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft. Robertson, a winger, went 39th overall Saturday at United Center. A lot of scouts had him pegged as a first-rounder.

So why didn’t he go earlier?

Probably his skating.

“Everyone needs to work on stuff,” Robertson said. “Obviously, for me, I need to work on that. It’s something I’m always going to keep working on.”

But skating didn’t stop Robertson (6-2, 192) from shooting up the prospect rankings in 2016-17. At the midpoint of the season, NHL Central Scouting had him as the 34th-best North American skater. By season’s end, he was 14th.

“I think a lot of it came from confidence,” he said. “I gained more confidence in my game, my skating, my shot. Once I did that in the second half of the year, I really took off.”

He sure did, with 30 of his 42 goals coming in the final 40 games of the regular season. He then added five goals and 13 assists in 11 playoff games.

Robertson was born in Los Angeles, where his dad and grandpa were Kings season-ticket holders. He started playing hockey in L.A., then moved to Detroit when he was 10.