A year ago, the Carolina Hurricanes boasted one of the more prolific forward groups in the NHL. For much of the season, the ‘Canes hovered in the top five in goals per game, before another late swoon doomed them in all kinds of ways.
Strike that, reverse it for a defense that finished second only to the Florida Panthers in goals allowed. Though they didn’t get better as the year wore on, they did get healthier. But by that point, it didn’t matter. The season was lost.
In net, injuries were also a common theme. In mid-March, with the team comfortably in first place, Cam Ward suffered a season-ending injury. Backup Dan Ellis, who had a strong start to the year himself, was left as the starter until he too went down with an injury. Justin Peters then took the reigns and played admirably, if not all that well, but ultimately the flood gates opened.
We know the ‘Canes can score. The question remains: can they prevent opponents from doing the same?
General manager Jim Rutherford saw fit to complete a massive overhaul of his blue-line based on the atrocity of last year’s squad. Gone are Jamie McBain (traded to Buffalo), Joe Corvo (signed with Ottawa), Bobby Sanguinetti (signed in KHL) and Joni Pitkanen (injury–out for the year).
A significant amount of offensive ability was lost, but their replacements shore up the team’s biggest weakness: actual defense.
Andrej Sekara, acquired via trade at the June draft, spearheads the list of additions. Criminally undervalued by some in Buffalo, Sekara might be the Canes’ biggest offseason move. He is not flashy in any specific area. He’s not physically imposing, nor does he have a cannon shot.
Instead, he excels at the one thing in short supply on the Carolina roster: the ability to exit the zone. If there’s one common frustration among Hurricane fans–aside from the lack of team toughness–it’s continually watching their team get pinned down in their own zone. At one point, McBain looked like the savior. But he just couldn’t put it all together and take the next step. Sekara has, and is only slightly older than McBain himself.
With the Pitkanen sidelined for the season, Sekara could be relied upon heavily. After averaging 21+ minutes in 2 of the last 3 seasons, he should have no problems with the workload.
Joining Sekara in Carolina is newly signed Ron Hainsey. Though he will mostly be relied upon to aid the penalty kill–top-two on the team in blocked shots during his five years in Atlanta/Winnipeg–do not count out his presence on the powerplay.
A common theme among the Carolina additions has been a dearth of scoring over the last few seasons. The expected top eight defenders combined for just 10 goals and 59 assists last year with much of the contribution coming from Justin Faulk.
But, for Hainsey at least, the offensive instinct is still there. He just wasn’t utilized much on the powerplay given the company he kept on the blue-line; Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien seemed to be out for the entire two minutes. In Carolina, such is not the case. Short of Kirk Muller wanting a forward-heavy powerplay, Hainsey should see an increase opportunity.
The final addition, Mike Komisarek, might only be a depth signing, but his grit and toughness could come in handy in the physical Metropolitan division match-ups. And don’t overlook the potential for a bounce-back year given the lack of pressure compared to his previous teams.
But much of the Canes’ season will ride on two players barely over twenty. Justin Faulk has become the de facto number one guy after the Pitkanen injury and will be counted on heavily. He’s led the team in ice-time the last two years and there’s no reason to expect otherwise going forward.
And then there’s Ryan Murphy, who only made a small cameo last year with less than stellar results. Since, Murphy has bulked up to 185lbs and looks to be stronger on his skates. He’ll be given every opportunity to make the team, and Muller may even elect to run seven defensemen at times to ease his permanent intro into the NHL. Regardless, he should see extensive time on the powerplay.
Cam Ward is still the guy in Carolina. After getting overlooked for a Team Canada invite, he could have a chip on his shoulder leading to a hot start out of the gate–something that has been lacking in recent years.
Though injury concerns will always remain with his wonky back, the majority of games Ward has missed have come through freak accidents: a collision with Faulk, a laceration from a skate blade.
Nevertheless, Anton Khudobin was brought in to lighten the load for Ward who has played at least 68 games in 4 of the last 6 years. Khudobin had an excellent campaign for the Stanley Cup runner-up Boston Bruins, backstopping the team to 9 wins in the shortened season. While he doesn’t have the experience of a guy like Ellis, he does have the talent: in 19 career starts he has a 2.03 GAA and .933 save percentage.
Should Ward need a rest, or go down with another injury, Khudobin appears capable of handling the crease duties.
2013-14 will be a fresh start for both units, and new faces are in abundance. Whether that leads to better play remains to be seen.