September 06, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Ninth in the Eastern Conference (43-33-6, 92 points), battling through some significant injuries (and one blockbuster trade) to come very close to being swept by Montreal in the first round of the playoffs.
Then things got a little weird: GM Jim Rutherford refused to give coach Peter Laviolette a vote of confidence after the season, prompting speculation he could be fired; in which case, he would have been snatched up quicker than a warm Budweiser at a NASCAR tailgate. After a meeting with Hartford's 1997 Citizen of the Year Peter Karmanos, it was revealed that Laviolette would remain with the team. At least for this season. (Cue ominous organ music here.)
Homecoming King (Top Player): Eric Staal, forward. Going from 45 goals and 100 points to 30 goals and 70 points, Staal's 2006-07 season was considered a letdown. Going from 30 goals and 70 points to 38 goals and 82 points last season was considered a rebound for Staal. Bottom line is that the guy is a star and the current face of the franchise, no matter how Rod Brind'Amour's nose is attention-diverting. The tentative plan is to have Staal play with Ray Whitney (25-36-61 in 66 games) and Justin Williams, who was limited to 37 games last season but had back-to-back 30-goal campaigns before that. Most intriguing: Staal is in his RFA walk year.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Joni Pitkanen, defenseman. Call it the Joe Corvo Theory: In 23 games last season with the Hurricanes, the former Ottawa defenseman tallied 21 points, including 13 on the power play (where Carolina was ninth in the NHL). Assuming Pitkanen, acquired from the Edmonton Oilers for Erik Cole this summer, is established as a top-pairing defenseman for the Canes, he could surpass his career-best totals in points (45) and power-play points (19) this season. Durability is a concern, however.
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Unless you're a John Grahame hater, there's really no significant advantage in the Hurricanes' roster deletions from last season. Glen Wesley's retirement means one less sage in the locker room. The somewhat enigmatic Jeff Hamilton signed with the Chicago Wolves this week. And the team is going to miss Erik Cole in a major way when it's desperately looking for a kick in the ass during the season. But if the notion was that this team needed a personality transplant after missing the postseason in the two seasons following its Stanley Cup championship, shipping off Cole was one of the most dramatic ways to meet that end.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Pitkanen could fit right into the Carolina system, just as long as fans realize there are times when his defense resembles a red carpet laid down on the ice to welcome opposing forwards. Also helping to ease the losses of Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican are Anton Babchuk, back after one season with Omsk in the Russian Super League (they get a Jagr, we get Anton Babchuk ... sigh), and Josef Melichar, who may still have pieces of Rob Ray's knuckles buried in his face.
The Canes also signed goalie Michael Leighton, he of the 98-save performance last season. And please note the potential addition of Brandon Sutter, keeping the Menudo of hockey alive for another generation.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The official team slogan for the Carolina Hurricanes appears to be "Our Team, Our Tradition." Which must have narrowly beat out "We will bug the living [expletive] out of you." They're a team of tenacious players that are willing to go to the corners and battle (occasionally hitting the ice to draw a call or two); a collection of flat-out pests at times. Which makes this unintentionally hilarious.
Leading the way is the Puck Daddy-approved Chad LaRose, who we learned this off-season is a rather lousy baseball pitcher who also despises both the violin and little girls that play it.
The Canes had 44 fighting majors last season, although some of the players who dropped their gloves with frequency -- Mike Commodore, Andrew Ladd, Craig Adams -- have now departed. Defensemen like Tim Gleason and Tim Conboy and winger Wade Brookbank picked up the slack, but the team's leader in pugilism is Scott Walker, as Matt Bradley discovered last season:
Voted Most Likely To Attract Weirdness: Tuomo Ruutu, forward. Perhaps the only player in the NHL whose been falsely accused of robbing an apartment building, had serious grammatical problems on his hockey card and played Guitar Hero on a Megadeath song. And that's not even mentioning the Snickers commercial. A good third-line player, but is he ever going to get back to his rookie season numbers again?
Teacher of the Year: The moment the Hurricanes decide to cut Peter Laviolette will be the moment the franchise takes a dramatic new direction, which will either be a good thing or a bad thing. For now, Carolina has one of the most respected men in the NHL coaching community behind the pine.
The Custodians (Goalies): Cam Ward's numbers improved after his post-Conn Smythe malaise, although they're still not all that stellar (his 2.75 put him right behind Vesa Toskala who, if you'll remember, played for the Leafs). Fans have begun to scapegoat him. He's an RFA in two years, so this season is a key one for Ward.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Seeing a Carolina Hurricanes defense without Glen Wesley is like waking up to find that Kelly Ripa has gone solo on the Regis show. The team is going to miss that steady hand. But give Rutherford credit for aggressively attempting to reconfigure this season, starting with last season's trade for Corvo and this off-season's additions of Pitkanen, Melichar and Babchuk. The physical Tim Gleason will play a key role, and holdovers Frantisek Kaberle, Dennis Seidenberg and Niclas Wallin provide quality depth.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): We've never been in the Sergei Samsonov fan club, a player who needs a free-agent contract for motivation like a racing dog needs a mechanical bunny. His 32 points in 38 games were outstanding last season; now it's just a matter of whether his spiffy three-year deal takes the edge off. The Canes desperately need him to juice a second scoring line, most likely with Brind'Amour and Patrick Eaves.
AV Club (Media): John Forslund and Tripp Tracy are the local voices. Carolina fans raised hell when writer/blogger Luke DeCock of the News & Observer was taken off the Hurricanes beat (somewhat) and replaced with Chip Alexander, who immediately endeared himself to fans by revealing he knows more about college basketball than hockey. Among the Canes blogs we read: Canes Country, CasonBlog, Carolina on Ice, Red and Black Hockey and The Acid Queen.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Trying. To. Stay. Healthy. The manpower games lost last season by Carolina were significant and devastating. The Hurricanes played through them valiantly, but losing Brind'Amour or Williams or Whitney or even a newcomer like Pitkanen for significant time will dig this team a hole. Luckily, they're in the Southeast, so the hole will never be that deep.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B-
Prom Theme: "Paint it Black" by the Rolling Stones. The Hurricanes are joining the detestable black jersey trend with a new alternate sweater. And only a decade after the decline of Gangsta Rap no less! No doubt, the idea is to make the Carolina Hurricanes look like the Oakland Raiders-on-skates, intimidating opponents with their dark and menacing uniforms. Yup, and Avril Lavigne was a skater punk, too.
Expected Graduation: The Hurricanes will be the second team out of the Southeast Division to make the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Eastern Conference, battling the Washington Capitals for the division title. They're a solid team with some chemistry questions, but if healthy they can make the postseason cut.