Hurricanes: Five Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
The Canes were one of those teams for whom the lockout blunted considerable offseason excitement for the coming season. With GM Jim Rutherford authoring a draft day blockbuster trade with Pittsburgh to bring in Jordan Staal to play with his older brother and captain Eric Staal and then signing free agent scorer Alexander Semin to a one-year, $7-million deal, Rutherford bolstered an offense that should complement an emerging young blue line and one of the top new coaches in the game in Kirk Muller. After advancing to the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, the Canes have missed the playoffs in three straight seasons. No excuses for that trend to continue this season.
1. Man Behind The Bench
We'll get to Jordan Staal in a moment, but the real story for the rising optimism surrounding the Canes' fortunes centers around new head coach Kirk Muller. Carolina earned points in 37 of 57 games under Muller and, when you take into account they lost five of Muller's first six games, that number is pretty impressive. Muller's attention to detail and his ability to teach his system to a young Carolina team paid early dividends with the team's power play efficiency going from 12.2 percent before his arrival to 19.6 percent the rest of the season. We recall talking to Muller late last season when the Canes had actually crawled back to the edge of the Eastern Conference playoff picture (they got within five points in late March), and he talked about learning the personnel and then giving them a chance to prove what kinds of responsibilities he could give them. He identified three main areas when he took over: cutting goals against by half a goal a game, reducing the number of shots allowed and seeing improvement in special-teams play on both sides of the puck. "From Christmas on, we were pretty much hitting our objectives in all those categories," Muller told ESPN.com.
2. Sibling Rivalry
Hard to believe that captain Eric Staal might actually be taking a second billing to his younger brother Jordan, but it's true. Eric was a catalyst to the Canes' resurgence in the second half of the season with 50 points in the last 43 games of the season after a miserable start that saw him compile one of the worst plus-minus ratings in the league. Expect Muller to toy with the idea of moving Eric to the wing so he can play with Jordan, who is also a center. But it's hard to imagine the Canes won't at some point simply enjoy the benefits of having two big, talented pivots anchoring their top two forward units. Lots of pressure on Jordan Staal as he signed a 10-year, $60-million contract extension shortly after being acquired by the Canes, but he's one of the best two-way centers in the game and a former Frank J. Selke nominee. Somewhat overshadowed by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, Jordan will be expected to boost his offensive numbers. He had 25 goals a year ago but has yet to equal the 29 he scored in his rookie season when he was nominated for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Still, hard to imagine this deal isn't anything but a roaring success for the Staal family and the Canes given the energy the brothers can expect to bring to the table. "That right there is immeasurable," and will feed into the dressing room atmosphere, Muller predicted.
3. Erasing The Blue-Line Blues
You wouldn't think a team with an emerging young defense and former playoff MVP Cam Ward in net would struggle defensively, but that was the case a year ago when Carolina ranked 25th in the league in goals allowed per game. That said, watch for the Hurricanes to be much better on the defensive side of the puck. There are solid performers like former U.S. Olympian Tim Gleason and minute-muncher Joni Pitkanen, but the real gem is Justin Faulk. The 37th overall pick in 2010 is blossoming into a cornerstone defender and was a member of the NHL's all-rookie team last season. He played well during the lockout for the Canes' AHL affiliate in Charlotte and was among the league-leaders among defensemen in point production. Muller is also hoping for stronger play from their centers, like big Jeremy Welsh who is expected to chip in defensively.
4. Second Chance
The addition of Jordan Staal is clearly the most significant move made by the Hurricanes both in terms of the immediate future and long-term. But the most interesting move might have been signing Alexander Semin to a one-year deal worth $7 million. Have to like GM Jim Rutherford's thinking on this. With Jeff Skinner, the Staal brothers, Jussi Jokinen, Jiri Tlusty and Chad LaRose vying for top six ice and power-play time (Tuomo Ruutu is out long-term after hip surgery), the Hurricanes have lots of offensive options, like shifting Jokinen to a third line to give the team even more balance. But if Semin can rediscover his 40-goal form, it lifts Carolina from a middle-of-the-road offensive squad last season into a different bracket. It will be important given the firepower that teams like Tampa Bay and Washington will bring to the Southeast party. If Semin, who had just 21 goals a year ago for the Capitals, can't deliver, then the Hurricanes aren't exposed long-term with the one-year deal. One of the areas of Semin's decline was on the power play, where he had just two man-advantage goals for the Caps, down from 17 PP markers in 2006-07. Semin will get loads of man-advantage time in Carolina and Muller expects him to thrive in a more up-tempo system. "He's going to realize how much we want him here," Muller said.
5. Long Layoff
The question for every team in this race to the playoffs will be how long it takes for squads to find their sea legs. The Canes didn't have many guys doing a lot of serious hockey during the lockout with Zach Boychuk having success in the AHL along with Falk, while Jokinen and Semin were the only regulars playing overseas. Jeff Skinner, the former NHL rookie of the year in 2010-11, chose not to play in the AHL in spite of the fact other top youngsters on entry-level deals did. Getting off to a good start will put to rest any lingering questions about that strategy. Prediction: Not sure the Canes will be able to get as much done as they want to defensively, but no reason not to sneak into the playoffs from the third hole in the Southeast.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering first full NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
Infirmary: Tuomo Ruutu
We were all expecting him to get hurt at some point, but Ruutu has made it easy on us and will be out until at least April with a hip injury. This opens the door a little wider for Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe, who were both competing for a roster spot and have had solid stats in the AHL this season. -- Sean Allen
New Addition: Alexander Semin
We've only seen a shadow of what Semin can do during the "dark years" with the Capitals, as the team focused on defense the past two seasons. Prior to that, Semin scored better than a point per game for two seasons and showed he has one of the best -- if not the best -- wrist shot in the NHL. If anything is going to get Semin back on his game, it will be a strong offense organized by a coach like Kirk Muller and linemates the quality of Eric Staal or Jordan Staal (or maybe both). Semin would match up quite well with Eric Staal on paper and the pairing would bring Semin back toward the elite range of fantasy options. Beware of the chance that Semin will be the victim if the team tries to spread out offense, though. His production would still be fantasy-worthy on the second line, but perhaps not elite.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Hurricanes:
• April 24: Re-signed C Jiri Tlusty.
• May 21: Re-signed D Jamie McBain.
• June 22: Acquired C Jordan Staal from Pittsburgh.
• July 1: Signed D Joe Corvo.
• July 1: Re-signed LW Brett Sutter and G Justin Peters.
• July 11: Signed D Marc-Andre Gragnani.
• July 20: Re-signed RW Jerome Samson.
• July 23: Re-signed LW Drayson Bowman.
• July 24: Re-signed D Jay Harrison and LW Zach Boychuk.
• July 26: Signed LW Alexander Semin.
• Aug. 8: Re-signed C Jeff Skinner.
• Sept. 5: Re-signed RW Patrick Dwyer.
• C Brandon Sutter (traded to Pittsburgh)
• D Bryan Allen (unrestricted free agent, signed by Anaheim)
• D Derek Joslin (unrestricted free agent, signed by Vancouver)
• D Jaroslav Spacek (retired)