For the purposes of this post, a successful season will be defined as simply making the playoffs. Not an ambitious goal to be sure, but achievable and realistic. It’s also one the Carolina Hurricanes have failed to reach in each of the last four seasons. And that’s while playing in what has often been dubbed the “Southleast” division. Life doesn’t get any easier in the new Metropolitan division, but the path to the postseason remains the same.
Since 2009-10 the Hurricanes have only once ranked in the top half of the league in games lost to injury, but given their consistent lack of depth, they have been unable to compensate for lost players. Cam Ward has missed significant stretches twice, and both times his backups have failed to adequately replace him. Over the years, Tuomo Ruutu, Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Jeff Skinner have all missed time, and in the early going of 2013-14, have again already had injury concerns.
The Hurricanes may be a bit deeper this year, but they still need their stars on the ice–it changes the lineup considerably. A healthy Ruutu in the top six pushes a guy like Patrick Dwyer deeper down the depth chart, strengthening the team as a whole.
Secondary scoring was in short supply in 2012-13, leaving the team scrambling whenever the top line was having an off night. Skinner has to have better awareness on the ice; they cannot afford to lose him to another concussion.
Justin Faulk Taking the Next Step
For the last two seasons, Faulk has gotten the most minutes per game of any Carolina player. But this year, he won’t have Joni Pitkanen to shoulder some of the load. And oddly enough, with Gleason’s injury, Faulk becomes the second-longest tenured player on the Carolina blue-line behind only Jay Harrison.
At just 21-years-old, this is to become Faulk’s defense and he’ll be expected to play like it. He has a realistic shot at representing Team USA in Sochi’s Winter Olympics with a good first half, and the success of the ‘Canes will coincide with that.
“You see at the end of players’ careers, they never won anything,” Faulk told the News & Observer. “I’m not saying it discredits their career, but the better a team does, the better off every individual is on the team. First and foremost, make the playoffs, I think. That’s where I want to be.”
Cam Ward Getting Back to a High Level
The last couple years have displayed a concerning trend in Ward’s numbers. His GAA has sunk from 2.56 to 2.84 and his save percentage from .923% to .908%. He’s fallen off so much that he wasn’t even invited to Team Canada’s Olympic Orientation Camp. Instead, players like Mike Smith, Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford were taken.
Three years ago, Ward was an all-star while Holtby and Smith weren’t even starters.
Things change, and so has Ward. Before getting hurt in 2013, he was ineffective at best and a liability at worst. In 6 of his first 12 games, he gave up 4 goals. Even with the team’s top line sprinting from start to finish, it wasn’t enough; games aren’t won like that anymore.
Ward has to relocate his game, and the early results are promising. In his final two preseason games, Ward stopped 43 of 44 shots. That’s the player he has to be for the ‘Canes to be successful. Though the defense has been re-tooled, it’s still largely an unknown. It’s no coincidence that Ward’s best year as a starter was the only year his team made the playoffs.
Special Teams That Aren’t Terrible
Great special teams can mask an otherwise average team. Lately, the Hurricanes have had neither a dangerous powerplay nor a suffocating penalty kill, despite a bevy of moves intended to improve both.
Since reaching the playoffs last, the powerplay has ranked 22, 24, 20, 27. The penalty kill hasn’t been any better at 19, 20, 22, and 28. You have to go all the way back to 2007-08 to find a unit that has been ranked even above average: an eighth ranked powerplay.
Muller has preached defensive responsibility since day 1, giving extra ice-time to those he trusts, and Rutherford has brought in defenders like Ron Hainsey who are effective shot blockers. It stands to reason that the penalty kill should improve this year.
On the other hand, the loss of Pitkanen could really hamstring the powerplay. Faulk and Ryan Murphy are the only true offensive defensemen, leaving players like Harrison to get time on the man advantage. He may have scored 9 goals two years ago, but how much of that was luck? Those 9 goals represent 56% of his career total.
The ‘Canes won their only Stanley Cup on the strength of a deadly powerplay. But to start, one not in the bottom-third would be a huge start.