NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy: Sixth in the Eastern Conference and second in the Southeast Division (45-30-7, 97 points). Defeated the New Jersey Devils, 4-3, in the conference quarterfinals and the Boston Bruins, 4-3, in the conference semifinals. Swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference finals, which still wasn't good enough to get them on Versus this season.
It didn't appear the Carolina Hurricanes were headed for that level of success through their first 25 games, as Peter Laviolette was fired after going 12-11-2. Paul Maurice was hired for his second tour of duty with the team and Carolina won at a .623 clip under his coaching.
The primary benefactor of the change behind the bench was goalie Cam Ward(notes), who finally answered the question, "Hey, whatever happened to Cam Ward?" He played himself into the Vezina race with a renewed defensive responsibility in front of him by teammates, sharp mechanics and a bizonkers (tm Gary Bettman) work ethic that saw him end the season with 28 straight starts.
It was also a season that saw career years from players like Chad LaRose(notes) (19 goals) and Tuomo Ruutu(notes) (26 goals, 54 points) overcome a small decline in production from Eric Staal(notes) and an outright stinker from Rod Brind'Amour(notes) (that infamous minus-23).
The Hurricanes showed the Bruins and Devils last postseason they're a team that's taken lightly at your own peril; heck, we haven't seen Marty Brodeur that upset since that time they forgot the extra mayo on his bacon at Denny's. So while there are creeping doubts about capturing lightning in a bottle for a second straight season, can anyone say for certain that the Hurricanes aren't a contender?
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): Most of the praise this summer went to the pimp hand of Canes GM Jim Rutherford, which was stronger than granite. He waited out both LaRose and Erik Cole(notes), getting them back into the fold for lower than their respective asking prices earlier in the free-agent frenzy.
Beyond the re-signings, Rutherford made some intriguing, if not blockbuster, additions. On defense, former Flyer Andrew Alberts(notes) is a bruiser; and former Bruin Aaron Ward(notes), on his second tour with Carolina after being traded by Boston, averaged over 19 minutes a game. He's a solid veteran and a good team guy ... assuming he doesn't feel like a sucker anymore.
The pickup that had the most buzz: Tom Kostopolous, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens. Another gritty guy on a team full of them, and a 30-year-old that could have more offensive upside than his career highs of 22 points.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): Patrick Eaves(notes) was traded for Ward, bought out by the Bruins and then signed with the Detroit Red Wings. Talk about stumbling upward. Also getting a buy out: Defenseman Frantisek Kaberle(notes).
Defenseman Dennis Seidenberg(notes) wasn't re-signed but is practicing with the team. Power-play cannon Anton Babchuk(notes) is a restricted free agent who recently fired his agent and who the Canes are attempting to trade.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): Apologies to Ray "The Wizard" Whitney's outstanding season (24 goals, 77 points), but Eric Staal remains the star here. His 40 goals were a career second-best, even as his points dropped by six from the previous season. He averages 2.32 points per 60 minutes, best on the team. In the postseason, Staal was on a Conn Smythe pace (9 goals in 14 games) before he and the Canes ran into Pittsburgh.
He makes his teammates better, as Ruutu can attest. Getting Erik Cole back obviously made a difference for Staal, too. He's in a comfort zone and entering his prime.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): Tuomo Ruutu and Chad LaRose were breakout players in 2008-09 for their stellar offensive contributions. This year's potential breakout is much less seasoned and won't likely have the same level of impact, but 5-foot-10 forward Zach Boychuk(notes) could play his way into this lineup at some point this season. His hugely successful WHL career is done; the only things holding Boychuk back from making an NHL impact are a crowded lineup at forward and, perhaps, the need for some AHL seasoning. But he's going to be an outstanding pro.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): Joni Pitkanen's(notes) first season in Carolina was stellar: 33 points, the team's leader in ice time (including 26:28 per game in the playoffs) and a plus-11, which is a decent number made spectacular when you consider he was a combined minus-28 in the previous two seasons. Both of this primary partners last season, Babchuck and Seidenberg, weren't re-signed; how will that affect him?
Joe Corvo(notes) (14 goals, 38 points, 24:19 TOI) and Tim Gleason(notes) (20:39 TOI) were a solid pairing last season, and Corvo's in a contract year. So is Niclas "Secret Weapon" Wallin, who contributed in 64 games last season. The additions of Ward and Alberts make this a more physical group than last season's.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Cam Ward was being taken for granted by the hockey world, never getting mentioned among the true franchise goalies in the NHL ... despite, you know, that Stanley Cup ring and Conn Smythe. His MVP performance for the Canes down the stretch was his reintroduction, and probably put him back into the Canadian Olympic conversation, too. That outstanding play extended into the postseason, where he posted a 2.67 GAA and a .915 save percentage in outplaying guys like Brodeur and Thomas in their respective battles. Michael Leighton(notes) will have backup duties again.
And Now, a Short Message From Tim Gleason:
The Inventor (The Coach): Maurice made a difference on this team in a way few predicted: Reconfiguring the system, managing the talent well and getting the Hurricanes to buy into a team concept that carried them to the conference finals. Plus, he didn't drop dead of a heart attack during any of their last-second victories, which is always a good thing.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B- (Middle of the road, and the power play loses Babchuk's cannon.)
"For the first time since the lockout, Carolina has made some significant off-season moves. The common denominator among the new additions is that stuff called "size and toughness". Hopefully, the result is that they won't get pushed around like they have in years past. More importantly, we hope that the Hurricanes don't push /each other/ around. It's refreshing to know that all four forward lines are made up of NHL-calibre players. The Hurricanes should be a more exciting team to watch this season, and there should be fewer 2-1 games. Barring a catastrophic injury to Alexander Ovechkin(notes), the Canes aren't going to win the SE division, but they should make a return to the playoffs."
"What team has the third most total wins in the East since the lockout? The team Versus loves to ignore, the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes figure to be televised nationally sooner or later though because since the turn of the century they have fared pretty well following the Winter Olympics. 2002- Stanley Cup Finals, 2006- Stanley Cup Championship, 2010-?"
"Unlike the seasons following 2002 and 2006, the Hurricanes will be a playoff team after a great run in 2009. Hey, third time is the charm."
"The team is essentially the same team that went to the Eastern Conference Final last season, but with some added physicality and without some dead wood on the defense. As long as injuries don't plague the Canes too much, there is no reason that the Canes should not make it as far (or farther) this season."
"While everyone continues to overlook Carolina (‘Hurricanes? meh.') and peg them as Southeast runner-ups, they'll just continue to hammer the competition and eventually ruin your favorite team's Cup chances."
Don Draper Says ...
"Go ahead and keep insulting the Carolina Hurricanes. You'll grin like a fool for a monent, but in the end you'll die alone, sitting in your cheap seats; the partial season-ticket holder with Lucky Strike burns on his sweater, the one who women go home with out of pity."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): Did the stars align for the Hurricanes last season in a way that won't again this season? Or were the contributions from Ruutu, LaRose and Sergei Samsonov(notes) (48 points in an uncharacteristic 81 games) aberrations? Can the reconfigured defense be better than last season's? Can Jussi Jokinen(notes) continue to build on his amazing postseason (11 points and that historic game-winner against the Devils)? Will the special teams come close to how good this team is at even strength?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): The Hurricanes are built for another postseason appearance, and unless some of the contract players from last season completely regress it's hard to imagine they won't make the cut in the Southeast. There's a lot to like here, from Staal and the offensive standouts to grit down the lineup from guys like Scott Walker(notes). And once they're in the playoffs ... well, it's still hard to call them a Cup contender with that defense on paper, but they were only eight wins away last season.