By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
Basketball may still be king on Tobacco Road, but sports fans in North Carolina may have discovered something other than ACC hoops to get excited about. Namely, a Stanley Cup contender.
With the Charlotte Hornets now calling the Big Easy home, the Carolina Panthers are the only other professional sports team in a college-crazed state. Last season’s run to the Stanley Cup finals captured the hearts of fans in North Carolina who normally spent their offseasons scouring the Internet for recruiting information on the Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Wolfpack and Demon Deacons.
“The ACC is so big here, and it always will be,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “I just think that we found our own niche. We believed in the market all along. We thought it would take four or five years to build it. And the timing of our playoff run last year was so good. That’s healthy for any franchise, but it’s really taken this franchise to another level.”
In North Carolina, "icing" previously meant a cold day in Mayberry. "Offsides" previously was Mia Hamm sneaking behind the last defender on the soccer pitch. "Goaltending" was an illegal play by Duke that resulted in two points for its ACC rivals. But now hockey has gained ground on the college sports and Raleigh is arguably home to the NHL’s loudest fans.
The Hurricanes are in great shape to make another deep run into the playoffs, having lost only Martin Gelinas from their regular rotation. With three solid offensive lines, a gritty checking line, seven capable defensemen and two potential starting goaltenders, Carolina’s strength is that it has few weaknesses. The 'Canes appear to be the class of a young Southeast Division again, and if they get home-ice advantage in the postseason, the raucous crowd at the Entertainment & Sports Arena could help propel the team back into the finals.
Jeff O’Neill, RW -- Trapping hockey isn’t Jeff O’Neill’s thing. After playing for head coach Paul Maurice for seven seasons, he’s bought into Maurice's defense-first system. But O’Neill is the one player on the 'Canes who looks like he’d rather be playing a 15-13 game of pond hockey than worrying about forcing the puck along the boards and waiting for a turnover and counterattack.
“Jeff O’Neill was really the guy that came up big at different times during last season and in the playoffs,” Rutherford said. “He’s a guy that is going to have to score big goals for us. Ronnie [Francis] is still our leader and still one of the go-to guys, but I think Jeff plays a very important role.”
O’Neill had a seven-game goalless drought in January, followed by four- and five-game spells without a marker in the first two rounds of the playoffs. He isn’t the type of player to score goals in bunches (only two multigoal games last season), but O’Neill is consistent in his ability to score every few games despite facing tight checking.
The 'Canes’ gritty top-line right winger has benefited from playing with one of the game’s all-time great playmakers for the past four seasons. Ron Francis has centered O’Neill since returning to the organization from Pittsburgh for the 1998-99 season.
“They really work well together,” Rutherford said. “Francis is such a great playmaker and O’Neill has a good shot. They know where the other guy is.”
Team toughness -- The Hurricanes had just one player with more than 100 penalty minutes last season -- Darren Langdon with 104 in 57 games. Erik Cole proved during the playoffs that he is ready to take a big jump into the elite group of power forwards in the NHL, but even he needs to get his nose dirty more often. After totaling just 35 PIM in 80 regular-season games, Cole had 30 PIM in 23 postseason games. While staying out of the box is honorable and a skill unto itself, the role of a bruising power forward often requires sitting in the sin bin for a few minutes after standing up for your teammates. Cole needs to embrace the physical play even more in his second season.
Carolina’s lack of toughness was particularly exploited in the finals by a physical Detroit defensive unit, led by 6-foot-5 Jiri Fischer, 6-foot-2 Conn Smythe winner Nicklas Lidstrom and 6-foot-1 warrior Chris Chelios. And the Wings’ Grind Line of Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper and Darren McCarty did its job defensively to showcase the Hurricanes’ weakness.
The Hurricanes had five 20-goal scorers during the regular season, but ranked just 11th in regular-season goals scored among playoff teams with 217. In the final two rounds of the postseason, Carolina scored just 17 goals in 11 games. In fact, of the 'Canes’ 47 playoff goals, 17 of them came in the final three games of the Habs series, including 5-1 and 8-2 routs in Games 5 and 6.
Sami Kapanen struggled badly down the stretch (just eight goals in the last 41 games) and in the postseason (one goal, eight assists in 23 games). The 'Canes are toying with the idea of dropping Kapanen to the third line with either Josef Vasicek and Jaroslav Svoboda or Vasicek and rookie Jeff Heerema. Rutherford said such a move would give Carolina’s top three likes more balanced scoring punch and would free Kapanen from such constant heavy checking on the top line with Francis and O’Neill.
Heerema will be counted on for a substantial offensive contribution from the start. Despite having no NHL experience, Heerema could make the same impact Cole made as a rookie last year. Heerema scored 33 goals and had 37 assists for AHL Lowell last season. If he is paired with Vasicek and Svoboda, the 'Canes’ entire third line would be just 22 years old on opening night. Carolina also could skate Heerema with Rod Brind’Amour and Bates Battaglia, breaking up the BBC line by sending Cole to the top line if Kapanen moves to the third line.
So there is tinkering aplenty to be done in training camp for the Hurricanes, all in the name of finding some extra goals.
Though Carolina doesn’t boast the deepest minor league system, it does have a handful of high-quality prospects. And Knyazev among them stands out as the most sure-fire future NHL player.
With Heerema making the jump to the 'Canes this season, Knyazev, along with young Czech defenseman Tomas Malec, are the brightest stars on the horizon. Both are likely a year away from making the team, but once in Carolina, they will help form a skilled young defensive corps for the future, along with David Tanabe (22) and Nick Tselios (23).
Knyazev is a skilled, all-around defenseman, who is an above-average skater and good at carrying the puck out of his own zone. He projects as a top-four defenseman and could advance quickly by learning from skilled veterans Bret Hedican and Sean Hill.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.