Carolina Hurricanes Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
There are many people who believe the Carolina Hurricanes were a 2002 Stanley Cup finalist fluke. And that they weren't as good as they showed in the playoffs.
While a 30-point decline in 2002-03 would lend some credence to that argument, in all fairness, the 'Canes certainly weren't as bad as last year's 61-point showing, either.
As is usually the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.
After their surprise run to the Eastern Conference title, the Hurricanes didn't go in the tank because of overconfidence. Rather they slumped because they couldn't stay out of the trainer's room. If you want to know which Carolina players were injured last season, just pull out a roster, close your eyes and point. It was that bad.
"We want to get back that good feeling that we had two years ago," head coach Paul Maurice said. "It was a long summer to realize that we failed so miserably. It's nice to get back to work and give yourself and chance at redemption. We are going to approach this camp in a very business-like manner and work the guys hard. We won't be resting a lot of guys. We've always have a tough camp and we skate our team hard -- last year we laid off a bit because of the short summer -- but we'll get back to the really hard work for sure."
The misery that Maurice speaks of didn't start out as such. In fact, things were looking good again for the 'Canes in the early part of the season. After a 12-7-4-3 start, Carolina led the Southeast Division on Dec. 3. But the 'Canes went 4-9-1-1 over the next month before dropping quickly to the bottom of the pack with an awful 1-12-0-3 stretch after being 16-16-6-3 on Jan. 7.
The injuries started during that terrible 16-game run, with Rod Brind'Amour tearing a tendon in his right hand on Jan. 20 and Erik Cole breaking his left leg on Jan. 30, effectively dooming any hopes of a recovery from that tailspin.
"Our expectations were extremely high last year and when you start losing bodies like that, it's tough," captain Ron Francis said. "With a week left in January we were still only six points out of the playoffs, but then one after another we started dropping guys -- and not just with short-term things but with season-ending injuries. I think at one point we had 13 guys out of the lineup. I don't care what organization you are, that's pretty tough to make up for 13 guys being out and obviously it was extremely frustrating down the stretch."
While losing two of their top six forwards was disasterous for their playoff hopes, the Hurricanes took the chance to look to the future. Carolina opted to get a good look at youngsters Ryan Bayda, Jeff Heerema, Tomas Kurka and Mike Zigomanis down the stretch, with those players getting what amounted to a two-month audition.
Whichever of the youngsters stick in Raleigh, they will hopefully be a part of a more cohesive locker room. Veteran Francis is a great leader, but not even he could prevent some of the riffs and trouble that crept into the locker room during a heartbreaking campaign.
"Two years ago our team was together like glue," Rutherford said. "Last year some things broke down. We feel we've made the necessary changes to have that togetherness, that character, back together with the players that we've added."
Some fresh blood and some good character-guy additions like Bob Boughner Marty Murray have Carolina believing that it can go from first-to-worst back to first again in the Eastern Conference, in what would be a remarkable three-season cycle.
"I think every team heads into the season believing they have a chance, and certainly we're no different here," Francis said. "And I think our experience two years ago shows that it's certainly possible. And look at Anaheim last year. Nobody picked them to have a chance and yet they got there. I think we're certainly capable of doing that. I think our team is ready to get back to the level where we were two years ago."
A tough training camp awaits, but a rally in Raleigh could be the end result. As the 'Canes proved two years ago, anything can happen in the wide-open East.
Ron Francis, C -- The 40-year-old Francis is entering his 23rd (and almost certainly final) season, though he says he will evaluate things again at the end of the year. A lockout by the owners next September would almost certainly lead Francis to retire, but for now the infusion of youth onto the 'Canes' roster seems to have invigorated the team's leader.
"The quicker you help bring those young guys along the better it is for everybody on the team," Francis said. "The quicker they come along, the better chance we have of winning because they are going to help you and contribute to the success. So ultimately, that's what we are all doing is trying to win and be successful. So if the young guys are another piece of the puzzle, the quicker we can get them to fit in the better off we all are."
Though his 57 points was his worst full season since 1991-92, much of that can be blamed on the absence of Brind'Amour and Cole. Despite playing on a different line from Francis and All-Star right winger Jeff O'Neill, the injuries to Brind'Amour and Cole allowed teams to focus their defensive attention on the Francis-O'Neill first-line combination. A rotating cast of characters on the left wing didn't help, either, but Bayda fit in well there toward the end of last season and will get first crack again this year.
"Ronnie is so experienced and the nice part is that he appreciates all aspects of the game," Maurice said. "He's not just an offensive guy -- he's won the Selke Award in the past -- so he can relate to every guy in the locker room, whether they are a grinder, an offensive guy or a defensive guy. Ron can reach everybody in the room and he has a complete grasp of all the things you need to be a great leader. He's the most rounded player and he's able to communicate and understand everyone in this room."
Francis (1,758) will pass Marcel Dionne (1,771) for fourth on the all-time scoring list sometime before Thanksgiving, and assuming that he does retire would then finish behind only Wayne Gretzky (2,857), Gordie Howe (1,850) and Mark Messier (1,844). Francis' 1,222 assists trail only Gretzky's untouchable total of 1,963.
Scoring -- It's tough to win games when you don't score goals, and no team had more trouble lighting the lamp last season than Carolina. The 'Canes scored a league-low 171 goals (2.09 per game), a dropoff of 46 from the 2001-02 season. Carolina has talented forwards but needs some of the young guys to accelerate their development.
"I feel that with our younger players like Cole, Josef Vasicek and Radim Vrbata, this could be the breakout year for them where they get into the 20-25 goal range," Rutherford said. "Vrbata is a very good talented young player who can score. As he gets older he'll score even more. He's already scored 18 goals in a season before, so that will give us some more offense. We expect more offense from him going into this year."
With gritty Bates Battaglia gone to Colorado at the trade deadline in exchange for Vrbata, the popular BBC line (Battaglia-Brind'Amour-Cole) has turned into the BCV line. That doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but Vrbata's offensive skills and instinct are a significant upgrade over Battaglia, who had just the one impressive 21-goal season in 2001-02, which is now looking increasingly like a blip on the radar screen. Vrbata's five goals in 10 games with Carolina at the end of the season have expectations heightened for his third NHL season.
Have the Hurricanes improved their defense?
Carolina's defense was by no means as bad as its offense, but it wasn't any great shakes, either. The Hurricanes surrendered 240 goals last season, the third most in the East behind Atlanta (284) and Pittsburgh (255). Carolina also had the worst goal disparity (69) in the NHL, besting (or in this case, worsting) Pittsburgh (66), Florida (61) and Atlanta (58).
"We had to fix our defense," Rutherford said. "We added Bob Boughner who is a real good solid physical defenseman with good character. And also Danny Markov, who plays well both defensively and offensively. So we feel like we've strengthened our defense dramatically and that our top-six defenseman are really solid. We've really improved that so there are really no holes there. They have a lot of experience."
The Hurricanes made a smart move trading away Glen Wesley at the deadline, knowing that he liked Raleigh and could end up back there as a free agent. Their gamble paid off when Wesley re-signed on July 9, and he will likely pair with bruising Sean Hill as Carolina's top pair.
"Defense was our biggest hole last year," Maurice said. "We added three proven NHL guys in certain styles. Wesley isn't a grinder, but he competes hard. Markov gives us a bit of everything and Boughner is a real tough guy who can grind. We've been able to put three experienced defensemen into our mix, so we should be able to be very difficult to play against."
Another deal involving rearguards this summer was the 'Canes' acquisition of Markov from the Coyotes for disappointing former first-round picks David Tanabe and Igor Knyazev. Carolina also didn't tender a qualifying offer to 1997 first-rounder Nick Tselios, meaning its three most recent highly drafted blueliners all failed to pan out.
Markov's presence will give the Hurricanes a solid complement to Bret Hedican on the second pair, while Aaron Ward and Boughner will man the final duo to start the season. The depth has improved to the point where former top-six defensemen Bruno St. Jacques and Niclas Wallin are likely to be out of the regular mix to start the season. St. Jacques was steady near the end of last season and Wallin was a playoff hero in 2002, but their relegation to reserve roles is a sign of progress in this case, and will give Maurice added versatility off the bench.
Eric Staal, C, 6-3, 182 pounds
The Carolina Hurricanes threw up a mean smokescreen by making people think they were interested in Marc-Andre Fleury in this year's draft. In reality, the 'Canes were posturing and hoping to get another team to trade up to take Fleury so that Carolina could be sure to get Staal with the second pick. Things fell into place, as the Penguins leapt past the Hurricanes to the top spot to tab Fleury, leaving Staal for Carolina.
Staal's game has been compared to Francis' in that both are well-rounded players who can play in any situation. Both are modest Northern Ontario guys who have excellent vision and passing skills, but Francis notes one major difference in their games.
"He's like me ... only he can skate," Francis joked. "When you come in the league everyone is always trying to put a label on you to compare you to someone. I know when I broke in the comparison that I heard was to Jean Beliveau. There are always going to be expectations when you get drafted as high as he did, but you'll see him develop his own unique style over time. Most guys find their own niche and their own way of making their career. I think there is no question that he is going to play in the NHL and be very successful."
Staal has been impressive in the Hurricanes' rookie tournament in Ottawa, Ontario, and Carolina is hopeful that he might make the team out of training camp. But Rutherford and Maurice will wait until the last week of September to decide whether Staal will break camp with the big club or go back to Peterborough for another year in juniors. Rutherford doesn't even plan to begin negotiating with Staal's agent until the team decides whether it would be worth keeping him in the NHL or letting him go back to the OHL where he would certainly dominate again. The 'Canes would be comfortable bringing Staal along slowly, but he will only make the club if they believe he can play seven to eight minutes per night, with an increasing role as the season goes on.
"We don't know quite this early whether he'll make the team, but he's a very good player and in the early going of rookie camp he certainly shows a high skill level," Rutherford said. "He'll go to the big camp and really push for a job. As an organization we like to stay away from making comparisons, because we don't want to put any more pressure on a player who was taken second overall. But there have been enough people that have made those comparisons [to Francis] and certainly some of the things he does you can see some similarities."
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.