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As Southeast rivals make big changes, the Hurricanes are left twisting in the wind

Aug 16, 2010, 12:15 PM EDT

everythingisonstaalandward.jpgOne of the easiest questions for most hockey people – aside from the least objective Washington Capitals fans, perhaps – was “which division is the weakest in the NHL?” Any puckhead worth his or her salt would swiftly choose the Southeast Division as the league’s worst.

The fact of the matter is that the SE might still be the weakest in the NHL, but the once-middling lightweights are building up resources to knock off Ted Leonsis’s heavyweight gorilla in DC.

The Atlanta Thrashers are bulking up with former Chicago Blackhawks including Dustin Byfulgien, the Tampa Bay Lightning are experiencing a shrewd makeover thanks to new GM Steve Yzerman and the Florida Panthers are trading a little success today for potential payoffs tomorrow with multiple draft picks and younger players. Despite those moves, you’d have to be quite the Kool-Aid drinker to handicap anyone as the division winner over Ovechkin & Co. and GM George McPhee can probably point to the natural internal improvements that come with having a young team to explain his lack of splashy moves.

For years, the Capitals would run away with the division while one other team was lucky to even make the playoffs (if there even was a second team; one year the Atlantic sent four teams, the Northeast sent three and only the Capitals represented the Southeast). If there was one team that gave the Caps at least a token effort, it was former Stanley Cup winner Carolina. With a talented goalie in Cam Ward and a great young forward named Eric Staal, the team would experience some of the most dramatic peaks and valleys of any in the NHL.

But what now? The team lost Ray Whitney (via free agency) and the rapidly declining Rod Brind’amour (retirement) while doing very little to improve their team outside of signing the strange “in one year and out the other” defenseman Anton Babchuk and another retread in Joe Corvo. Even in a top heavy league like the NHL, it cannot make Hurricanes fans too comfortable to realize that Staal, Ward and defenseman Joni Pitkanen account for one third of the team’s meager $44 million salary structure.

You can’t completely blame GM Jim Rutherford since owner Peter Karmanos wants to make the team cheaper and therefore easier to buy, but who can the Hurricanes even hope to step up this season? Aside from Brandon Sutter, I don’t know many go-to guys once you get past Staal and Ward. Considering that injuries and inconsistent play doomed a more credible Canes roster last season, it would require quite the coaching job by Paul Maurice for this team to make an impact, even in a decidedly soft Eastern Conference.

While all four of their divisional cousins can point to an improving short-term and an even better long-term future, the Hurricanes must see nothing but clouds and uncertainty on the horizon.

  1. Ruuuutu - Aug 16, 2010 at 12:52 PM

    It’s not always about “making a splash” in the free agent pool. If the ‘Canes can stay healthy, I look for them to be competitive with the Caps this year. Rutherford has the uncanny ability of making himself look like a genius with “minor” moves, touting Riley Nash as his latest steal. Look for Nash, along with Sutter (whom the article names), Zach Boychuk, Jiri Tlusty, and possibly even 2010 draftee Jeff Skinner (all of whom were first-round draft picks) to be big new contributors to the team this year. Also, on the blue line, Jamie McBain, who put up impressive numbers in 14 games at the end of last season, is set for his first full season in the NHL. This will also be Eric Staal’s first full season as team captain. If he plays like he has something to prove and emerges as the elite leader he has the potential to be, the ‘Canes will really have a shot at ascending to the top of the “Southleast” division.

  2. Bradford - Aug 16, 2010 at 1:10 PM

    They have some pretty good defense prospects. Jamie McBain put up 3 goals, 7 assists, and 10 points in 14 games last year, and looked like he’d be a solid puck-mover for them in the future. The ‘Canes also acquired Bobby Sanguinetti from the Rangers who projects as a decent-to-good offensive defenseman. There are also a few young guys in the system (Drayson Bowman, Zac Dalpe, Oskar Osala) who look like they could be strong competitors for roster spots at the beginning of the season.
    They’re actually pretty well-stocked in terms of prospects. The issue is just that all of those prospects are two or three years out.

  3. Bradford - Aug 16, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    I really doubt that the Canes have the chance to win the Southeast division this year without some serious and horrendous injuries to the Caps’ top players (the Canes lack the same depth of talent up front, and the Canes don’t the sort of world-beating defense that can shut opposing teams down in order to compensate for the lack of scoring) but I’m pretty sure they’ll compete for a playoff spot. Somehow they always seem to.

  4. Josh - Aug 16, 2010 at 6:49 PM

    I hate to presume, but James: do you actually know who the players on the Hurricanes roster are? Basically, you’re saying they have a franchise goalie (something NO other SE Division team can say, by the way…maybe Vokoun in Florida, but he isn’t near Ward’s level), an all-world center in Staal, a top D-man in Pitkanen, and they’re losing ground to the other squads? Where? How?
    I’m a little disturbed by how much the hype about 3 new GMs in the Division has translated directly into writers saying that those teams are “much improved” while the teams that didn’t have to do massive rebuilds (i.e., Washington and Carolina) are somehow LOSERS because they didn’t completely suck last season to the point that ownership cleaned house! Other than Tamps, where Yzerman actually signed some good players, what has Atlanta or Florida done? The Pants let Horton walk, which I think is a big mistake, and they didn’t improve the defense a bit. Atlanta signed 4 Blackhawks – big deal. If Ladd was suited to the SE Division, Carolina wouldn’t have traded the big lummox. Byfuglien is a supporting player, not a star. When he played with Kane, Toews, Sharp, etc., he was very good (not great); in Atlanta he’s playing with…? Crickets. My guess: both guys are gone at midseason when the Thrash is way out of the playoff hunt. And back to the drawing board….
    But back to Carolina: sure, they shouldn’t by all rights challenge Washington, but they are the only SE team that on paper at least could. The Caps’ defense ain’t so great, either, and the goalie situation is bleak if Varlamov doesn’t take the next step.
    The Canes’ roster is also, far from being thin as James suggests, stocked with talent. The lines, I’m speculating, look to be something like: Jokinen-Staal-Cole (should produce 2 20-goal scorers and a 30-40 goal man in Staal); Samsonov-Sutter-LaRose (Sutter should score 20 goals; Samsonov has a shot at it, and LaRose needs to get a better start than he had last season to sniff 20, but he has the speed, talent, and playmaking ability); Tlusty-Dwyer-Ruutu (Ruutu could easily be on the top line; just as easily, Jokinen could center this line…either way, this should be a good, energy line combo); Boychuk-?maybe Riley Nash?-Kostopoulos (a fairly dangerous fourth line with real scoring potential from ‘Chuk and whoever centers). All in all, these are not barebones lines, and this all goes to the point that, James and other writers pay attention! the Hurricanes didn’t FORCE Rod Brind’Amour into retirement and let Ray Whitney WALK because they are stupid. They have too many good players (I didn’t even get to the AHL, where Jared Staal is waiting, for Cripes’ sake!) and have no room for those guys anymore. I would have thought this was obvious! Like not having to fire your GM, that is a sign of a GOOD team, not a STAGNATING one!
    As for the defense, I won’t go through each pairing, but let me say that Tim Gleason showed in the playoffs in ’09 and in the Olympics that he is a shut-down, top-pair d-man and I thought he’d have made a fine captain if not for Staal. He, Pitkanen, Corvo, and Brett Carson should all log 17-24 minutes a game this year (Carson proved he could do it last year and actually has the size to be a beast out there), and McBain and guys like Brian Rodney or even Casey Borer are hungry for a shot from the AHL. Babchuk may have been a fluke – all we know for sure is his shot is for real.
    Bottom line: I think it’s a mistake to sell the Hurricanes short this year in favor of praising SE teams whose only real improvement was jettisoning bad management. Until Atlanta, Florida, or Tampa proves on the ice that the changes are for real, let’s hold off on burying perennial contenders like Carolina and Washington, OK? There’s standing still and then there’s not needing to make a move…this is the latter in Carolina’s case.

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