What Will The Canes Bring to the Southeast Table?
And so it begins.
Things this offseason were swirling in Carolina, and one’s left to wonder exactly where this team is headed when the first official puck drops Friday night in Raleigh. The Hurricanes lost one established and respected defenseman in Joe Corvo while gaining another more well known for his ability to contribute on offense in Tomas Kaberle. Depth was added at winger in the form of Anthony Stewart, formerly of the Atlanta Thrashers, who’s currently slated to bring some of the speed and scoring potential to the fourth line. Veteran Alex Ponikarovsky, who’s struggled since he was traded from Toronto to Pittsburgh two years ago, was signed after one season in Los Angeles that was marked by injuries; he was a good third-line buy-low risk for a team looking to make strides in the competitive Southeast Division.
These changes, as well as the addition of veteran goalie Brian Boucher to provide a proven backup to All-Star Cam Ward, have fans and analysts alike looking to the 2011-12 season and saying, “Now what?” Perusing certain season previews, you’ll either see the Hurricanes completely absent from the mix or only mentioned once (check the sidebar that has them in the basement and lacking any upside). In these two examples, I’m not sure which is worse. All of the Hurricanes moves were defensible – and the Kaberle/Corvo exchange was a bit of a big-name surprise to many – but they seem more like marginal improvements rather than the significant steps expected for a team with so much ground to make up to keep pace with the scoring of Tampa Bay and Washington. A 1-5 preseason isn’t exactly the script for converts, either.
“Caniacs” look to second-half accomplishments last year, both in Raleigh and in Charlotte on the Checkers (AHL) squad, and swaddle a warm, delicate sense of optimism. A front line of Eric Staal, Calder Cup phenom Jeff Skinner, and veteran Tuomo Ruutu can do that for folks looking for reasons to believe. Ruutu, by the way, served as the Alternate Captain on Finland’s gold-medal World Championships team in the spring after the Hurricanes saw their Stanley Cup playoff chances evaporate. Those unfamiliar with Carolina shouldn’t underestimate the leadership and toughness that he brings from the right wing on the front line. He’s not simply there by default.
Fans also take comfort in the stability offered by a strong AHL affiliate and its consistent supply of reliable talent to Raleigh. Like Patrick Dwyer a season before, Zac Dalpe has turned a part time stint in Raleigh (15 games last year) into a full-time spot on the Opening Day roster. Dalpe joins 2011 draft pick Ryan Murphy and 2010 draftee Justin Faulk, both defenseman, as the rookies on this year’s opening roster. The Charlotte affiliate received talented forward Riley Nash who competed for a roster spot until the final cut and is likely to be seen back in Raleigh at some point during the year.
Youth brings excitement, but a dash of realism is important. Dwyer’s 18 points in 80 games last year indicates that progress, even if it’s positive, isn’t accomplished overnight, so even the biggest advocates for home-grown system stability cannot realistically expect that this team’s offensive production will reach top-flight numbers right away. What they can (and will) rely on, though, is the leadership and steady play of Staal, Ward, and a squad of players that buy in to a conservative system that gives them a chance every night, especially in the friendly confines of an arena offering as good as a home-ice advantage as any in the division and conference.
The Hurricanes may be an also-ran or never-was candidate in the minds of many already looking ahead to the spring’s playoffs; however, the aforementioned 1-5 preseason record includes three one-goal losses, and this is a team that played spoiler left and right as it finished the last three weeks of 2010-11 with a 9-4 mark. The Lightning is the team that turned heads on its way to a very competitive showing in the Eastern Conference Finals. Washington is the team that has Ovechkin, the weight of analyst expectation, and a rep as a regular season monster but playoff underachiever. Winnipeg is the team without a real divisional home, enjoying its new friendly confines in Alberta while logging plenty of frequent flyer miles thanks to its Southeast-heavy schedule. And the Panthers, well… the Panthers have brought back the red jerseys at home!
That hasty divisional profile, teamed with league-wide issues of player safety, realignment, TV contracts, and international tragedy (the Canes are honoring alumnus Josef Vasicek, lost in the crash), illustrates the biggest hurdle the Hurricanes face as the season gets going. Unlike its namesake, this team isn’t on anyone’s radar. There’s not enough star power, too little media buzz, and too weak a mix of winning tradition and highlight bravado to have any respect (dark horse or otherwise) at the first face-off. But just as for any NHL team and its devoted fans, this much is true: anything’s possible when everyone’s starting at zero, and no one’s winning anything without a fight from Carolina.
Back-to-back games versus the Lightning and at the Capitals throw the season into full gear on opening weekend. And so it begins.