Sunday, 15 July 2007

Stanley Cup Jinx

It's tough to judge where the Carolina Hurricanes went wrong last season. They had just come off their first Stanley Cup victory over the Edmonton Oilers in 2005-06, but they missed the playoffs. They were the first team to do that since the New Jersey Devils in 1996. They boasted the best defensive forward in Rod Brind'Amour, yet they struggled at keeping the puck out of the net. What went wrong in the Hurricanes' title defence?

The Hurricanes posted a record of 40-34-3-5 last season, and ended up third in the Southeast Division. Their 88 points was four points shy of making the playoffs last season. They had a respectable 241 goals-for, but struggled with 253 goals-against. All in all, they challenged for a playoff spot all season long, but came up short in the end.

In terms of goaltending, Cam Ward wasn't as good as he was in the 2005-06 playoffs, but he provided decent goaltending in posting a 30-21-6 record with a 2.93 GAA, a .897 save precentage, and two shutouts. Where they struggled down was with their backup goaltending in John Grahame. Grahame posted a 10-13-2 record with a 2.85 GAA and a .897 save percentage. While he statistically was better than Ward, it appeared that the team in front of him didn't respond to Grahame's goaltending. The Hurricanes can't ask much more from Grahame, but do need Ward to perform a little better as the top goalie in Carolina if they expect to make the playoffs. Michael Leighton, whom they acquired at the draft from Montreal, is expected to start the season in Albany in the AHL.

Defensively, the Hurricanes didn't get much production out of their top six, and this is a problem in the new NHL. Mike Commodore was the top scoring defenseman last season, posting seven goals and 22 assists for 29 points in 82 games. Tim Gleason, Andrew Hutchinson, Glen Wesley, Bret Hedican, Niclas Wallin, and Frantisek Kaberle should be their top seven defenseman, but should more time from Dennis Seidenberg with injuries playing a part on the Hurricanes' blueline. Disgruntled defenseman Anton Babchuk is bring used as trade bait, and will most likely not be in a Hurricanes' uniform this season. Wallin, who is earning far more than what he's worth, is also bring used as trade bait at this point.

Offensively, the Hurricanes got excellent production from forwards Ray Whitney, Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Staal, Justin Williams, Erik Cole, and Scott Walker who all scored over 21 goals and 30 assists, but there was a significant drop-off after Walker's production. Chad Larose, Cory Stillman, Andrew Ladd, Craig Adams, and Josef Vasicek scored less than 27 points each. The only guy who had an excuse was Stillman as he spent most of the season watching from the press box with an injury. If you can't get any production from your third and fourth lines, you won't get very far.

Josef Vasicek was a strange acquisition made by GM Jim Rutherford. He was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes 91st overall in 1998 Entry Draft. He played parts of five seasons with the Hurricanes before being traded to the Nashville Predators for Scott Walker on July 18, 2006. He was reacquired on February 9, 2007 for Eric Belanger.

It was this last trade that was questionable. Several teams were interested in a depth guy like Belanger at the trade deadline. Belanger was known for winning faceoffs, and he provided some scoring punch for the third line as he had recorded eight goals and 12 assists in 56 games for the Hurricanes. Vasicek, at the time of the trade, had four goals and nine assists in 38 games for the Predators. Rutherford liked his size, but it appears that Vasicek will not be in the Hurricanes' plans any time soon.

"We'd like to try to make a change at center, either by trade or through free agency," Rutherford said, in regards to his third-line centreman position. "Obviously, with a trade you'd have to give something up, so free agency may be the way to go."

The Hurricanes did make a change, signing Jeff Hamilton to a two-year, $1.6 million contract, essentially ending Vasicek's stay in Carolina. Hamilton is definitely a better economical fit for the Hurricanes, but Rutherford isn't against upgrading still.

"Jeff Hamilton will go there if we don't, which will give us more offense," Rutherford said, referring to the third-line centre position. "But at the same time, his role is he can play all forward positions, jumping up and playing the point on the power play. I'd still like to add one more forward, a third-line center."

My only question to Rutherford is: why trade away an excellent third-line centreman for a guy you had no intention of re-signing?

In any case, Hamilton will be the starting third-line centreman at this point, and he should help with the shootout where the Hurricanes were brutal last season. The Hurricanes went 0-for-5 in shootouts last season, and Hamilton's AHL experience will certainly help there. Andrew Ladd will be called upon for more offence this season, and Trevor Letowski will have to prove he's more than a role player to hold a spot all season. The re-signing of Ryan Bayda gets high marks from this writer as Bayda is the kind of hustle guy that every GM loves, and every fan loves to watch. He needs more experience, but he makes up for any inexperience with effort and drive. Wade Brookbank was signed as a free agent this off-season to provide some toughness, and Brookbank can play both the wing or defence, giving Peter Laviolette a little more versatility with his line-up.

Can the Hurricanes make the playoffs? My answer is yes. Getting Cory Stillman back for a whole season will help immensely in terms of offensive production. Stillman is lethal on the powerplay as well, and that only bodes well for the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes do need John Grahame to give consistent back-up goaltending when called upon. If he could have turned a few of those losses into wins last season, the Hurricanes would have been playing in the playoffs. Grahame, in his defence, needs to have his team show up when he allows less than three goals per game. If the Hurricanes can't score three or more goals when Grahame is in between the pipes, they will have a hard time winning. Grahame did his job last year - now, the other 20 guys need to do theirs.

The playoffs are definitely within Carolina's reach. Injuries are a part of the game, and the farm team in Albany will have to be up to the task if this team is to make the playoffs. However, if things work out right for the Hurricanes this season, there's no reason why the Hurricanes can't make the playoffs, or even challenge for the division title.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

The Dark Ranger said...

They clearly do not have the fan support to support some of the deals the larger organizations have been able to secure, and use that salary cap for some big players.

Oh, like my Rangers.

Like Buffalo this season, they overestimated the value of the franchise over the value of the individual player. Last season, in losing Aaron Ward and Matt Cullen was criminal -- Carolina favorites locally, but management didn't pay attention until they decided they were moving north.

You would think the smaller teams would compete and work harder than the established metropolitan hockey giants.


The Dark Ranger