There’s always no shortage of players who can put the puck in the net in Carolina. But as the old adage goes, “defense wins championships.” The Canes’ offense was one of the best in the league, ranked 5th with just over 3 goals per game, led by the ever-improving Eric Staal. However, the Canes’ defense was one of the league’s worst at 25th, and to no surprise a horrendous sub-80% efficient PK as well. Given their great offense it’s no doubt that the Canes would contend for a playoff spot, but without a premier shut-down defenseman, they aren’t going anywhere fast.
Veteran captain Rod Brind’Amour again leads the squad, but on the ice it’s all about Staal. The oldest brother of hockey’s new family regressed after a 100-point season to a mere 70 points, but bounced back with 82 points despite a supporting cast that suffered from a rash of injuries. The biggest surprise last year, however, was Sergei Samsonov, who seemed to have rejuvenated his declining career after posting an impressive 32 points in 38 games. Samsonov hasn’t produced points at that rate since the 2001-02 season, when Joe Thornton was still a Bruin. It is not a coincidence that Samsonov’s production is directly linked to how good his centreman is. The Canes are hoping that Samsonov can continue to do so to make up for the loss of Erik Cole, who was dealt to Edmonton during the offseason. Matt Cullen is also a key cog of Carolina’s offense, and as a third line centre he has the ability to score in bunches, and with him the Canes have one of the best 1-2-3 punches down the middle in the East. The biggest stumbling block for Carolina’s forwards is staying healthy, after ironman Brind’Amour went down with injury and underrated winger Justin Williams was limited to 37 games.
On defense is where it gets very interesting. When the Canes made the finals, Mike Commodore emerged as the team’s go-to shut-down guy, and he did his job to perfection, culminating in a Cup win. Since then, however, Commodore has come back down to Earth and is no longer a Cane. Looking at the Canes’ defensive corps on paper, there is a striking lack of size and grit. The team’s new top two defensemen, Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo, are not considered to be great in their own zone. Jim Rutherford believes that the addition of Pitkanen will help defensively, but it’s wishful thinking. Pitkanen, despite his great size, registered only 32 hits and 59 blocked shots in 63 games. Corvo is a PP QB and not expected to shut anyone down, and neither is Niclas Wallin (who has been subject to some trade rumours) or Frantisek Kaberle, whose game is starting to really regress. It’ll be a miracle for the Canes if they manage to place in the middle of the pack defensively in the league. Their defense remains their biggest weakness and Rutherford has not addressed this problem for quite some time.
In net, Cam Ward has to find the high level of consistency he achieved when he was named the Conn Smythe winner. A lot of hockey pundits had noted that perhaps Brind’Amour deserves the trophy, and their case keeps getting stronger. Ward has been good enough to keep the Canes afloat, but that simply won’t be good enough, especially with a stronger division this year. The Southeast has a plethora of players who can tickle the twine, and the key to winning that division is goaltending. Right now, the Canes have arguably the most talented goalie in their division and Ward needs to play with a bigger sense of urgency if they want to win.
This is also the year that Peter Laviolette finds himself on the hot seat yet again. Laviolette was rumoured to be fired late into the season last year when the Canes were in the playoff hunt, but Rutherford elected to let Laviolette stick around for one more season. Should the Canes miss the playoffs again this year, or sputter off to a slow start, it would not be surprising to see Laviolette get shown the door. That may pave the way, perhaps, for John Tortorella, who has expressed a desire to coach and may very well return to hopefully haunt his former employers.
The Canes have a self-imposed cap of around $45m, and as of now they sit $4m over that mark, but management may choose to let it slide instead of dumping some salary. Needless to say they have tons of cap room to play around with, and the Canes are no strangers to adding deadline pieces. Rutherford isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, but you have to wonder when he’s going to notice that his defense needs some serious bulking up.
There won’t be any surprises from the Canes this year. Their team remains largely the same, and the same weaknesses that plagued them last year haven’t been fixed. You have to wonder if the Canes would be in the same position had they not dealt away Jack Johnson, and to this day that deal continues to be a little perplexing. A high octane offense to go along with a mediocre defense just won’t do. Past cup winners have proved that you need to ice a balanced team and be good in all aspects of the game. The Canes aren’t that team.
Ray Whitney – Eric Staal – Justin Williams
Sergei Samsonov – Rod Brind’Amour – Scott Walker
Chad Larose – Mark Cullen – Patrick Eaves
Ryan Bayda – Tuomo Ruutu – Wade Brookbank
Joni Pitkanen – Tim Gleason
Frantisek Kaberle – Joe Corvo
Niclas Wallin – Josef Melichar
Cam Ward – Michael Leighton
scratches: Tim Conboy, Dennis Seidenberg, Patrick Dwyer
Coach: Peter Laviolette
GM: Jim Rutherford
Predicted finish: 2nd Southeast, 9th East