Monday, September 26, 2011

Carolina Hurricanes: Are they solely relying on internal growth for this season?

The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the least talked about teams in the entire NHL, and have been that way ever since they transferred over from Hartford. What is interesting is that they have kept such a low profile despite being in the Cup Finals twice in the last nine seasons. Only the Red Wings, Ducks and Penguins can boast such a gaudy track record. Part of the reason for the lack of excitement surrounding the team is due to the lack of big name free agents that have been signed over the years. Historically they always have brought in solid veterans a la Brind Amour and Whitney, but always fail to show interest in the big name players. It seems that this summer's game plan was to sign all the former ex-Leafs available on the market, as they signed Thomas Kaberle, Alex Ponikarovsky and Tim Brent.

What Happened Last Year: The Carolina Hurricanes finished the season tenth in the Eastern Conference after making a push for the Playoffs towards the end of the season before finally fading in the last few games. While the Canes did not make the Playoffs, they did have a number of bright spots on their roster. The play of Jeff Skinner was absolutely remarkable, being the only player in the NHL born in 1992, not much was expected from the young Skinner, but not only he did win the Calder Trophy, he was also the youngest player in the history of hockey to appear in an NHL All-Star Game, since the the league started making two teams of All-Star players, instead of formatting the contest as the Stanley Cup winners versus the rest of the league. Together with the growth of Jamie McBain and Brandon Sutter, Canes fans have some young players to be excited for in the future.

Summer Cap and Off-Season needs: The Hurricanes had an extremely peculiar off-season, in which I do not see how they managed to solve any of their off-season troubles. The largest weakness on what was an extremely mediocre team overall, was their lack of depth on the blue-line. The Canes are going to be placing a lot of hope in some of their young prospects on defence to provide them with some depth. Prospect Ryan Murphy, who the Canes were lucky to nab with the 12th pick, has a very good chance of making the team this season at the tender age of 18.

GM Jim Rutherford took part in one of the most perplexing transactions of the summer. He signed former Bruin Thomas Kaberle to a three year deal with an average salary of $4.25 million per season. My assessment of the signing is that he paid market/ marginally above market for his services, which is fair considering he was drawing a free agent to Carolina. However what is perplexing is that he subsequently traded his best goal scoring defenceman, Joe Corvo, to the same Bruins for a late round draft pick. Joe Corvo and Thomas Kaberle are both offensive minded defenceman and the same age. However there are two key differences between Corvo and Kaberle, and both of them are what make this "swap" so perplexing. 1) Corvo is the better goal scorer. He outscored Kaberle 11-4. With Rutherford re-signing Joni Pitkanen, one of the best playmaking defenceman in hockey, it would have certainly made a lot of sense for Rutherford to keep a goal scoring defenceman instead of trading him away. 2) With the Hurricanes barely above tha cap floor it is quite obvious that they are in a financial crisis. With that in mind, it is perplexing to trade away Corvo, their top scoring defenceman who has a salary of $2 million and a cap hit of $2.25 million, only to sign Kaberle at double the amount of money. Also, it is not like Corvo was the highest paid defenceman on the Canes roster. Pitkanen (rightfully so) Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason all have higher salaries for the upcoming season and the latter two should have been the ones to be moved. If Rutherford was not able to move either of them he would have been well advised to keep Corvo and invest that $2 million in another offensive player. I would really love an explanation from Jim Rutherfod, as this sequence of events continues to baffle me a month later.

On offence I really like what Rutherford did with his limited financial resources. He rightfully did not match the $18 million deal that the Canadiens gave Erik Cole, as he is one of the most injury prone players in sports. He replaced him with Alex Ponikarovsky, who despite having an awful season last year is still only a season removed from back-to-back 50 point campaigns. At $1.5 million on a one year contract, there is basically no downside to this signing. Rutherford also added former Leaf favorite Tim Brent, and will be pleased with the work ethic and penalty killing ability of his off-season signing.

The one move that I really liked which nearly makes up (not quite actually) for the Corvo debacle is the Anthony Stewart signing. The Jets chose not to tender him a contract, thus making him an unrestricted free agent, and Rutherford nabbed him for two years at $900,000 per season. With 39 points last season and showing some flashes of star talent, pairing him up with youngsters Sutton and Skinner has the potential to create a fantastic trio for many years to come. Also, with proven talent in the family it is always worth taking the risk!

What the Future Holds: I am not sure exactly the plan that Jim Rutherford is looking to put into place, but the team structure is not very strong by any stretch of the imagination. For a team that is sitting near the floor of the cap with team salary slightly above $49 million, it is almost crippling that $15 million is invested in superstar Eric Staal and slightly above average goalie Cam Ward. Both of these contracts are above average wage for players of their skill set (with Ward being way above average) and a team with an alleged internal budget these contracts are extremely restraining. I am going to go out on a limb that if the Canes will ever climb out of mediocrity, it will either be because they start spending to the cap, or that Eric Staal will be moved, as Ward's contract is simply too prohibitive. Despite the young talent on the roster, I simply do not see a significant improvement in the near future. Yet, I feel a bit nervous to count out the Canes as they always manage to overachieve.

My Prediction: I want to say that they will be close to competing for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but with teams like Toronto, Buffalo and New York improving both internally and via acquisitions, I simply don't think they have much of a chance. I think they will end up 11th in the Conference.

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