Few moves are not enough moves for 'Canes

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

It was an interesting tack taken by Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford this offseason. His team was coming off consecutive non-playoff seasons after winning a Stanley Cup – the first time in league history a team accomplished that dubious distinction – and Rutherford didn't do very much at all.

The one transaction of note was the trade of forward Erik Cole – last season's third-leading scorer – to Edmonton in exchange for defenseman Joni Pitkanen as Carolina tweaked the blue line some with that deal and the signing of a pair of players who toiled in Europe last season. Really, wouldn't you have expected more roster movement?

Rutherford might want to further assess his team, which added a few pieces at the trade deadline – Sergei Samsonov and Joe Corvo in particular – to see what he really has before he starts making wholesale changes. But you can bet if the Hurricanes struggle out of the gate, that will be his intention.

One part of the Carolina attack missing at the end of the season but expected back is team center Rod Brind'Amour, the ageless team captain who appeared in 59 games before needing surgery to repair a knee injury.

Brind'Amour leads on the ice and by example. He sets the tone, and as Brind'Amour goes so do the Hurricanes. But Brind'Amour is 38 now, and even with this and two more seasons left on his contract, it's not a given that he can log 22 to 24 minutes per night like he has recently. In fact, Carolina probably would be more effective if it didn't depend so much on Brind'Amour, one of the league's best two-way forwards who is especially efficient on faceoffs.

Brind'Amour's influence on Eric Staal is huge, too, because the 23-year-old center, already embarking on his fifth NHL season, soon will be the face of the franchise.

Staal has appeared in 327 of a possible 328 games to start his sure-to-be-long-and-successful career. His goal-scoring totals the last three years are 38, 30 and 45, respectively. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Staal still is growing into his role as a league superstar, which almost is a must in the Southeast Division, considering the marquee players that perform in Washington (Alexander Ovechkin), Atlanta (Ilya Kovalchuk) and Tampa Bay (Vincent Lecavalier). Staal, too, will be a restricted free agent at season's end, unless Rutherford signs him to a long-term extension, which wouldn't seem out of the realm of probability.

One interesting behind-the-scenes point to consider in terms of approaching things a new way is Ron Francis' addition to the staff last fall as director of player development. Since the Hall of Famer has come aboard, the Hurricanes have grown from eight junior and college prospects and half an AHL team to 12 prospects and a full farm club.

With the possibility of improving from within, that may be the reason Rutherford stood pat this summer.

Last season: 43-33-6, 92 points, second place Southeast Division, ninth in the Eastern Conference. Carolina finished two points behind Boston for the final playoff spot and also two points behind Washington for the division title and the automatic third seed in the East.

The Hurricanes improved four points in the standings but missed the playoffs for the second straight year after winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. While Carolina has missed the playoffs in three of the past five years, both times the 'Canes did make it they reached the Cup finals.

Imports: D Joni Pitkanen (2007-08 team: Edmonton Oilers), D Anton Babchuk (Russia), D Josef Melichar (Sweden), C Dwight Helminen (Finland).

Exports: LW Erik Cole (Edmonton Oilers), D Bret Hedican (available free agent), C Keith Aucoin (Washington Capitals), John Grahame (available free agent), C Jeff Hamilton (Chicago Wolves, AHL), Trevor Letowski (available free agent), D Glen Wesley (retired).

Three keys to the season: It's a recurring theme for all teams Southeast, but goaltending in general and Cam Ward specifically have to be better for Carolina. Ward is 24 now, well removed from his surprising and clutch play during the 2006 Stanley Cup run that he capped with a Conn Smythe Trophy. But like his Feb. 29 birth date, he needs to show up more than once every four years. True, Ward's save percentage has improved each season (.882 to .887 to .904 last year) while his goals-against average has dropped at the same time (3.68 to 2.93 to 2.75 last season), but we all can agree these are average to subpar numbers for today's netminders.

Second, and let's face it, Ward only can do so much, his team has to get its head, stick and skates around the notion of team defense. It's going to be interesting because if the personnel hasn't changed, and the coaching hasn't changed, how is the mindset supposed to change? Any way you slice it, finishing ahead of only five out of 29 other teams and sporting the 26th-ranked penalty kill is not getting enough of a defensive job done.

Third, getting off to a decent start will be important, but it's not a given considering all but two of Carolina's nine games in October are on the road. The Hurricanes weren't particularly good as visitors last season, finishing with the 12th-best road mark in the conference. The opening month figures to be a time when the team will be closely scrutinized, so that only ups the ante on a fast start – or, at least, a non-disastrous one.

On the hot seat: Coach Peter Laviolette has been at the helm for five seasons, and that's about the time when you have to ask if the message still is getting across. It's hard to imagine he has enough job security to afford missing the playoffs a third straight season. And an even more real scenario is the possibility of an early-to-midseason change if the 'Canes don't show enough signs of life.

Poised to blossom: Chad LaRose isn't going to run out and score 40 goals, but he just might approach 20 or even 25 if he continues to improve at the rate he's going. Last year he managed a career-high 11 in 58 games, a considerable upgrade over the six he scored in 80 games the previous season. He avoided an arbitration hearing by signing a one-year deal, so the 26-year-old will still be plenty hungry and motivated to reach a new level. He's the kind of player who can take some pressure off Brind'Amour and Staal if he keeps his game simple and contributes here and there, something he appears ready to accept.

Analysis and prediction: Don't like a lot of things here. Don't think Ray Whitney can continue to produce as he has without some decline in his numbers, don't think Sergei Samsonov is anything more than a one-way player who is going to be a defensive liability in the end, don't like the lack of a defensive posture, or the soft defense. And don't like the way the team stacks up against Washington and a potentially improved Tampa Bay outfit. Third place in the Southeast isn't going to get this team anywhere but early-April tee times.

What to Read Next