Hurricanes Look to Gain Strength Over Off-season

It feels a bit odd that my first thoughts at The Checking Line are not about my beloved Penguins of Pittsburgh, but Chuck Gaston, Jr., did such a good job discussing their off-season to date that it’s best for me to look a little closer to my current home of Charlotte, NC, and the Carolina Hurricanes. For those relatively unfamiliar with the Canes, they landed in Raleigh, NC, in 1999 after moving from Hartford, CT, in 1997 and spending two seasons playing in Greensboro, NC.

They’re the only pro team from the four major North American sports in Raleigh, and they’ve cultivated a devoted following (Caniacs) and an in-house atmosphere at the RBC Center that’s very intense, often compared to the collegiate feel found in nearby college football and basketball venues.

The Hurricanes are only five years removed from being 2005-06 Stanley Cup champs, the first of the post-lockout era, but these last five seasons haven’t been easy. They’ve failed to make the playoffs in four of the five years, with their only postseason run coming in the 2008-09 season where they were swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by the eventual Cup champion Penguins.

But things are looking up. The 2010-11 showed signs of improvement as they earned 11 more points than the previous season for total of 91, finishing third in the Southeast Division. Captain Eric Staal is a four-time All Star at center and member of the heralded Triple Gold Club, winger Jeff Skinner was just awarded the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie after a 31 goal (63 point) season, and Cam Ward is a Conn Smythe winner and 2010-11 All Star in goal.

February 26, 2009 - Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America

The team’s AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, just completed its inaugural season in the Queen City after relocating from Albany, NY, and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals of the Calder Cup tournament. Checkers’ regulars Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman, and Jerome Samson made enough of an impact on the front office in limited NHL action to earn a place (for now) on the roster, and there’s still plenty of talent (Chris Terry and Jacob Micflikier, for example) developing for future call-ups. All of that being said, the Hurricanes were also active in free agency, and the new-look squad poses some questions and a great deal of promise going into the new season.

The two most notable losses this offseason are winger Erik Cole & his 26 goals and blue-liner Joe Corvo & his 40 points. Cole signed a four year deal with Montreal as a UFA while Corvo was traded by the Canes for the second time in as many years. Corvo was sent to the Capitals at last year’s deadline and this year, in a surprising move, was sent to Boston for a fourth-round pick on the same day that Carolina signed Tomas Kaberle to a three-year deal worth an average of $4.25M/year. Kaberle’s a familiar name in Raleigh; his brother Frank scored the game-winning goal in game 7 of the team’s Stanley Cup Final victory and Frank’s overall experience on the team and in the community played a role in Kaberle’s free-agent decision.

In addition to this back line swap, Carolina signed wingers Anthony Stewart and Alexei Ponikarovsky to offset the loss of Cole; center Tim Brent was added to provide fourth-line leadership, and journeyman goalie Brian Boucher has been signed to back up Cam Ward following his second stint in Philadelphia.

Point Share calculations at Hockey-Reference.com are a useful tool to compare players and measure the approximate impact of replacing one with another. They’re not exact, but the 2010-11 season values show a push when you look at the Hurricanes (91.5 in 2010-11, 90 for the same season using 2011-12 lineup). It’s unreasonable to expect a large variation without overhauls of a whole line and/or defensive pairing; however, it does help give you a sense of how the team’s performance may change and the pressure points for big wins.

Kaberle (7.4) is a statistical improvement over Corvo (6.2) because of his impact on the offensive end; the loss of Cole (5.9) is huge, and the question at winger gets bigger when you consider the departure of Sergei Samsonov (2.5) departure in a midseason trade. As for the incoming players, Stewart took a significant leap in his first season of full-time play in Atlanta (3.3) and the Hurricanes are obviously hoping for continued improvement when he’s on a line with the likes of Staal and Skinner.

Ponikarovsky enjoyed his best days in Toronto as a teammate of Kaberle’s (6.4, 5.2 in his last two full seasons in Toronto); things haven’t been the same for him since he was traded to Pittsburgh and then spent last season with LA (1.1). The combination of his cap number ($1.5M) and hope for a return-to-form through a fresh start make him a solid third-line and power play option. The success of prospects Boychuk and Dalpe in limited time last year are certainly being counted on, too, as valuable insurance for the Canes’ scoring.

One final asset the Canes have at this time wis a wealth of cap space. According to CapGeek.com, Carolina has over $16.5M in cap room and only two roster spots left to fill. Assuming those two spots are taken by a couple of two-way contracts, the Hurricanes could be a major player for an in-season trade. If they are in the middle of the playoff hunt, Carolina could be in the market for a higher-price rental or a player with years left on a contract if it could push them deeper into the postseason.

A few smart decisions and inexpensive risks in free agency compliment a well-developed farm system to build a team in Carolina that stands to reward it's dedicated fan base with another playoff run this year. As a team that has traditionally performed well in the Southeast division, this could be their last chance to strike against recent rivals with possible realignment on the horizon.

4 Comments

Adam Pardes's picture

Great job on this post and welcome to the team! Carolina is definitely built for the future & that cap space will go a long way in the coming years.

George Prax's picture

Great blog. I'm not sure they're going to make it into the playoffs next year with this team, but they're definitely going to compete. Kaberle I think will be a good fit there and their young players are only going to get better.

Chuck Gaston Jr's picture

Nice article. Depending on the progress made by Skinner, I dont think this club is going to have what it takes to get through what is going to be a very competitive east. Now, if they have solid goaltending all season and Eric Staal has an 80 point season, this club could very well make the playoff, but I just don't see it happening.
Thanks for the good word too, appreciate it.

rynrrck's picture

Thanks or the warm welcome, guys. The Caps and Lightning are certainly the cream of the Southeast crop, but this team's leadership can give it a fighting shot. I agree that they're probably a year away and regret that they don't get more love on this side of the state.