After missing the playoffs by two points, the Carolina Hurricanes embark on what should be a very busy summer.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the 'Canes, with seven unrestricted free agents, might be able to do this summer in an effort to make up that tiny deficit to get back into the playoffs.
With the Hurricanes tending to be a budget team as opposed to a cap team, it will be difficult to GM Jim Rutherford to keep all of his unrestricted free agents, which will mean plenty of work to tighten up the roster.
Defenceman Joni Pitkanen and forward Jussi Jokinen figure to be the most desirable, and therefore priciest, free agents, so they might be the most difficult to retain. Should they leave, it's simply a matter of the Hurricanes making moves, even if pre-emptively, to fill those holes.
Considering that Erik Cole, Cory Stillman and Chad LaRose are also unrestricted, there is potential for massive overhaul among Carolina's top nine forwards. Some of that work will involve trades and free agent signings, but the Hurricanes also have some quality prospects that will be ready to challenge for spots.
While it would be asking a lot for any Hurricanes rookie to come in and match the impact that Jeff Skinner had last season, there should be opportunities available for young forwards Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman, who have all had a taste of NHL action while Riley Nash and Chris Terry might also factor in at some point.
If there is going to be significant turnover in personnel, that will only make the job harder for head coach Paul Maurice, but he should be able to lean on what is a solid core, led by Eric Staal, Skinner and goaltender Cam Ward.
With the right personnel and a few breaks, the Hurricanes can be a playoff team, but a lot of work needs to be done this summer just to put together a roster that has a fair shot to compete at that level.
Jim Rutherford/Paul Maurice
There are precious few proven forwards signed and under contract for next season, but the ones that are under contract are the building blocks of the team.
Eric Staal is one of the league's premier centres, having scored at least 30 goals in five of the last six seasons (the season he missed, 2009-2010, he had 29) and at least 70 points in six consecutive seasons.
Staal's ability to control a game has, in some ways, spoiled the Hurricanes as they've tended to surround him with less than ideal wingers for a top line centre. Last season, Staal spent a lot of time with Erik Cole, naturally, but Sergei Samsonov, Cory Stillman and Chad LaRose spent a fair amount of time on Staal's wings too (according to www.dobberhockey.com).
With free agency calling for all of those wingers, Staal could be looking at changes next season and it should be a prime opportunity for whomever lands a regular role on the number one line, whether it's Cole and/or Stillman returning or young players like Zac Dalpe or Zach Boychuk making the jump from the AHL.
Jeff Skinner burst onto the scene as an 18-year-old last season, after getting drafted seventh overall, and was one of eight rookies in NHL history to score 30 goals as an 18-year-old (date as of February 1 in rookie season). Since 1990, the only one other than Skinner to accomplish the feat was Sidney Crosby.
That doesn't mean that Skinner is going to be at Crosby's level, but if Skinner can score 31 goals and 63 points with an immature body, there is obviously a high ceiling for what he can achieve once he fills out and gets stronger, which will also allow him to handle more minutes.
Skinner, who spent most of his rookie year on the wing, could be an option to slide back to centre now that he's established himself in the league, but if he's going to do that, he would need to improve on his faceoffs (36.9% on 157 draws as a rookie).
His career has been marred by injuries from time to time, but Tuomo Ruutu played in all 82 games for the second time last season and, spending much of the year on a line with Skinner, finished with a career-high 57 points.
Ruutu spent more of the season in the middle, alleviating the defensive responsibility on Skinner, but Ruutu also handled face-offs like a winger, winning just 41.2%, the third-lowest mark in the league (ahead of only rookies Derek Stepan and Marcus Johansson) among those who took at least 500 face-offs.
Nevertheless, Ruutu's faceoff foibles aside, he's a hard-driving, responsible two-way player who ranked second in the league in hits and has enough skills that he can be counted on to contribute offensively.
22-year-old Brandon Sutter's scoring numbers were down in his third NHL season, but that's not the end of the world because he's a better fit as a third-line centre, focusing on playing a defensive role against the opposition's top line.
Jiri Tlusty is still just 23-years-old, but seems awfully far removed from the 2007-2008 season when he played a career-high 58 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Tlusty played in 57 games for the Hurricanes last year and, while it was in a limited role (under ten minutes per game), he performed adequately -- good enough to be expected to make the team next season, but not nearly good enough to take it for granted.
A big-bodied winger who can play on the fourth line, Troy Bodie has 11 points and 19 fights in 103 games over the last two seasons, making him useful as a 12th or 13th forward, but not much more.
As mentioned, the Hurricanes have a long list of unrestricted free agent forwards and it's not reasonable to expect all to remain with Carolina. If the 'Canes could get Erik Cole to return and perhaps bring back hustling forward Patrick Dwyer, then they can look for some value on the free agent market to supplement a lineup that will likely include at least a few prospects making the jump.
If Carolina loses too many of their unrestricted wingers, say if Cory Stillman and Chad LaRose move on too, some reasonably-priced free agent forwards that might be of interest include Alexei Ponikarovsky (who played for head coach Paul Maurice in Toronto), Ruslan Fedotenko, Antti Miettinen, Chuck Kobasew and Chris Clark, guys that can play responsible defensively yet offer varying degrees of offensive upside.
At the very least, a fourth-line centre that can win faceoffs -- Boyd Gordon, who won 58.0% of his draws for Washington last season, for example -- would address a need.
Joe Corvo can be a wildcard, sometimes giving up as many chances as he creates, but he also had a career-high 23 power play points and played 24:46 per game last season, so there are obvious benefits to having his skating ability and heavy shot in the lineup.
For some reason (perhaps the return of Corvo), Jamie McBain played a limited role as a rookie, compared to the 25 minutes a game he saw in a late-season trial in 2009-2010.
McBain has the tools; he can skate, pass and shoot, but he could stand to be more aggressive and use his size more effectively on the defensive side of the game if he's going to take on top pair responsibilities.
Acquired from Florida at the trade deadline Bryan Allen was effective enough in a limited role (15:56 per game) with the Hurricanes, but has played bigger minutes in a shutdown role earlier in his career, though not as much since blowing out his knee in October, 2008.
Tim Gleason has evolved into a steady defensive defenceman, playing more than 20 minutes per game over the last three seasons and playing all 82 games last season, but he also finished with a career-low minus-11. Some of that falls on partnering with Corvo, but 28-year-old Gleason can be better.
A spare part in San Jose, Derek Joslin played more (18:04 per game) once arriving in Carolina, and finished with five points and a plus-7 rating in 17 games, which should be enough to give the 24-year-old a leg up in competition for a job next season.
It may be wrong to make assumptions, but Joni Pitkanen figures to get a lucrative free agent offer and it may be more than the Hurricanes would be willing to pay to keep him and, given that he played a team-high 25:01 per game last season, his departure would leave a sizeable hole on the Carolina blueline.
Jay Harrison isn't quite as difficult to replace, but if the Hurricanes lose two free agent defencemen, obviously they need to address those openings.
To fill those projected vacancies, the Hurricanes could increase McBain's role and sign a couple of inexpensive veterans, with Andy Greene or Randy Jones available as puck-movers while Andreas Lilja or Kent Huskins could provide a reasonable defensive presence.
It's been a couple of seasons since Cam Ward has seen the playoffs, which helps keep him under the radar when it comes to the top puck-stoppers in the game, but he is coming off the best year of his career, playing 74 games and posting a career-high .923 save percentage.
The challenge for the Hurricanes is finding a more reliable backup, since Justin Peters struggled in the role. Signing a veteran like Peter Budaj or Jason LaBarbera, someone who can handle 20 games or so, could make the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
Considering that the Hurricanes missed the playoffs by two points and Justin Peters was 3-5-1, all it would have taken was a reversal of that record to put the Hurricanes in the postseason.
||23-34-57,+7, 61 GP
||22-43-65,+4, 60 GP
||8-25-33,+17, 39 GP
||Boston College (HE)
||3-30-33,+23, 37 GP
||12-18-30,-3, 51 GP
||14-18-32,+5, 79 GP
||34-30-64,-4, 80 GP
||11-19-30,+4, 34 GP
||4-14-18,+13, 67 GP
||2.53 GAA, .919 SV%, 39 GP
After an impressive rookie season in the AHL, Zac Dalpe seems like a good bet to join the Hurricanes next season and, likely, in a scoring role. He played 15 games with the Hurricanes last season, scoring three goals and four points, but he'll be counted on to play more than the 7:43 per game he played with Carolina in 2010-2011.
Zach Boychuk only has 16 points in 56 career NHL games since getting drafted 14th overall in 2008 but, after scoring 65 points in 60 AHL games last season, the 21-year-old could be ready to not only play in the NHL, but do it in an offensive role.
A second-round pick last summer, Justin Faulk had such a good freshman season at Minnesota-Duluth that he may prove to be a draft day steal. He joined the Hurricanes' AHL affiliate in Charlotte for the playoffs and will likely need some seasoning in the minors, but the 19-year-old has a bright future.
Another collegiate defenceman, Brian Dumoulin, played a couple of seasons at Boston College and there were some suggestions that he might be ready to turn pro, but he appears to be headed back to BC for another year. He has a nice mix of size and skill and, at 19, he has time to mature before he joins the pro ranks.
Drayson Bowman only has three points in 32 career NHL games and while he hasn't scored a great deal as a pro, he has a solid enough two-way game to compete for a spot next season.
22-year-old Riley Nash was a first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2007 and performed well in his first pro campaign. He's not likely to be a big scorer, but has the game to be a checking centre at the next level.
Sturdy winger Chris Terry improved in each of his junior seasons and has done the same through two years in the American Hockey League, going from 17 goals and 47 points as a rookie to 34 goals and 64 points in his second season.
Danny Biega just completed his sophomore year at Harvard and it was an impressive showing as he was the leading scorer for the Crimson. The third-round pick last summer is a well-conditioned athlete who could develop into an intriguing option on the blueline.
While Michal Jordan's scoring numbers were nothing to get excited about as an AHL rookie, he did lead Charlotte defencemen with a plus-13 rating. He needs more time to develop, but is still just 20-years-old, so there's no rush.
Goaltender Mike Murphy pulled ahead of Justin Pogge in the battle for playing time with Charlotte and earned his bigger role with better performance. Even so, it seems unlikely that the 22-year-old would be ready to move into the backup role behind Ward next season.
Check out a possible roster for next season, on www.capgeek.com, with a few re-signings, a few call-ups and a few free agent additions here: http://bit.ly/jXnw6V
12th - Mika Zibanejad, Mark McNeill, Joel Armia.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Hurricanes have approximately $29.0M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 9 players.
Needs: Five top nine forwards, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman backup goaltender.
What I said the Hurricanes needed last year: Three top nine forwards, one depth forward, one top four defencemen, one additional defenceman, backup goaltender.
They added: Jeff Skinner, Jiri Tlusty, Patrick O'Sullivan, Drayson Bowman, Joe Corvo, Anton Babchuk, Justin Peters.
TRADE MARKET Bryan Allen, Justin Peters.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.