By Thomas Manshack, Staff Writer | Follow him on Twitter
Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships — so goes the sports proverb. This summer, the Carolina Hurricanes must have put a hell of a priority on selling tickets.
In what was by far his most high-profile shopping spree in 18 years at the helm of the franchise, General Manager Jim Rutherford committed over $100 million in new contracts toward bolstering the Hurricanes’ offensive punch. Buoyed by new revenue streams and newly minted as a minority owner, Rutherford found himself in the unusual position of being a major player on the free agent market.
He quietly signed hard-shooting blueliner Joe Corvo, snagged the enigmatic Alex Semin, and locked up both Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner in long-term deals. He was also publicly involved in offers for Rick Nash, Zach Parise and Shane Doan.
But while Rutherford was re-inventing the Hurricanes as an offensive juggernaut, they sprung a leak at the other end of the ice.
In exchange for Staal, Rutherford sent away defensive prodigies Brandon Sutter and Brian Dumoulin. Sutter had spent years quietly absorbing the team’s toughest ice time and most punishing defensive matchups. Dumoulin was the Hurricanes’ best prospect in the role of defensive blueliner. In less dramatic fashion, Rutherford also let hulking crease-clearer Bryan Allen jump ship in free agency, and filled his top-6 slot with Joe Corvo.Deeper on the depth chart, the Hurricanes’ options for a 7th defenseman are Ryan Murphy and Marc-Andre Gragnani — both diminutive puck-movers with limited NHL experience.
The singular addition to the Hurricanes’ defensive profile comes in the form of Jordan Staal. One of the league’s elite defensive forwards, he left Pittsburgh precisely to expand his horizons beyond the Sutter-like role he played for the Pens. While he will contribute on the penalty kill and will almost certainly match up against opponents’ top players, he is too much of a thoroughbred to be used as a defensive specialist.
Confirming the proverb, season ticket sales have reached an all-time high in the wake of the offensive revamp. But a team that was desperately thin on defense entering the summer is now relying on Tim Gleason, never the nimblest of skaters, to play the role of top shutdown defenseman. They will hope that Jay Harrison, one-time AHL journeyman, can clear the likes of Milan Lucic and Scott Hartnell from the slot. After that, it’s up to super-sophomore Justin Faulk to provide whatever defensive spunk might be found on the Canes’ end of the ice. It certainly won’t come from the likes of Corvo, Joni Pitkanen or Jamie McBain.
None of this can be reassuring for goaltender Cam Ward, whose workload has been among the toughest in the NHL for the past several years. Ward has faced a ludicrous 11% more shots over the past two seasons than the league’s next-busiest netminder, and that number could increase — if that’s even possible. What’s worse, veteran backup Brian Boucher will be sidelined till Christmas, leaving Ward without respite in the season’s early months. An overworked Ward is nothing new, but it could prove disastrous if it leads to injury or loss of focus.
Taken together, this offseason has certainly made the Hurricanes a more interesting team — perhaps even good enough to win the wide-open Southeast Division. But when it comes time to match up against the true contenders, especially during the tight-checking and loosely-officiated playoffs, this team isn’t nearly tough enough to beat in their own zone. And as always, defense wins championships.