The Carolina Hurricanes missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, but showed some promise in their performance under new head coach Kirk Muller.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Hurricanes roster that, with a few moves this summer, should have the talent to contend for a playoff berth again next season.
To their credit, the Hurricanes go into this offseason with intentions of acquiring top-end talent.
"What we're working on now is whatever it takes to get a top player, whether it's a center or a wing," Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford told the Raleigh News & Observer. "Eric (Staal) can play the wing. He has played the wing before and played there in the (2010) Olympics (for Team Canada). He has played very well on the wing."
Rumours abound that Jordan Staal could be a trade target and the Hurricanes do have the cap room, along with an apparent willingness to spend it on the right talent, to be players in free agency, with Zach Parise certainly a dream target to pair with Eric Staal on Carolina's top line.
Of course, it's not necessarily easy to convince high-end players to sign on with a team that has reached the playoffs once in the last six seasons, so using their financial flexibility to make trades could be the more viable route for the Hurricanes to travel.
The Hurricanes have built a decent core, but if they are going to take the next step and become a perennial playoff team, they will need more top-end talent and whether that comes through trades, free agency or both, those are the kind of acquisitions that will be necessary for a team that isn't good enough to go with the status quo and hoping for internal improvement for another season.
By putting their intentions out in public now, the Hurricanes are raising expectations for what may come this summer, but if they are really prepared to spend money, there will be options available and it will be up to Rutherford to find the pieces that he deems the best fit for this team for years going forward.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Jim Rutherford/Kirk Muller
Eric Staal continued his string of seven consecutive 70-point seasons, but he had to climb out of an early-season hole to get there. After opening the season with 10 points in 24 games, Staal scored 60 in the next 58 games. Staal remains a first-rate scoring centre, who could use an upgrade on his wings for optimal results.
Jeff Skinner's second campaign brought more challenges than his rookie season, including missing some time with a concussion, but there is a lot to like about a creative and skilled forward who has scored 51 goals in 146 games through his first two seasons.
Since 1990-1991, there have been six teenagers to score better than Skinner's .35 goals per game in their first two years in the league and it's rather heady company -- Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Steven Stamkos, Taylor Hall, Jaromir Jagr and Rick Nash -- so Skinner will be a cornerstone piece for the Hurricanes' offence going forward.
30-year-old winger Chad LaRose has been a loyal foot soldier and he tied a career-high with 19 goals last season despite missing 15 games. Though LaRose is minus-36 over the last two seasons, tied for the third-worst plus-minus in the league over that time, he had the best shot differential among Hurricanes regulars last season, so he wasn't the defensive liability that the plus-minus numbers might suggest.
Despite managing 34 points last season, his lowest total since 2007-2008, Tuomo Ruutu earned a contract extension from the Hurricanes and there is value to the 29-year-old, who can play a variety of roles, at wing or centre, in an offensive or checking role. For the money he's getting, more offence would be appreciated.
Brandon Sutter has emerged as one of the game's better -- and probably underrated -- defensive forwards. He took on the toughest opposition and started his shifts in the defensive zone nearly twice as often as in the offensive zone and those are the kind of responsibilities that tend to get overlooked, but indicate a high level of responsibility.
Even if Jussi Jokinen finished with a career-low 12 goals last season, he is a solid complementary player, able to provide offence while playing a reliable two-way game. He can be better than he was last season (Jokinen scored 30 goals and 65 points in 2009-2010) and the Hurricanes would certainly benefit from a bounceback campaign.
A pleasant surprise for the Hurricanes last season, Jiri Tlusty scored 18 points in the last 27 games, playing more than 17 minutes per game down the stretch, on his way to a career-high 36 points. Perhaps he's not the ideal choice to skate on Staal's wing, but he's a 24-year-old who can provide secondary scoring.
Tim Brent scored a career-high 12 goals and 24 points in his first year with the Hurricanes, making the most of his 10:53 ice time per game, but had the worst shot differential (minus-8.9, per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, via www.behindthenet.ca) among Carolina's regulars, so his all-around game needs to be more effective. On the plus side, there aren't a lot of fourth-line centres that have the requisite skill to help on on the power play like Brent.
There's no denying the effort of winger Patrick Dwyer, who faced tough opposition night-in and night-out while starting more shifts in the defensive zone than all 'Canes but Brandon Sutter (37.4%, per www.behindthenet.ca), so there is something to be said for the nature of the work that Dwyer was involved in, but his production was incredible low.
With five goals and 12 points in 73 games despite averaging 15:33 per game. Blake Comeau of Calgary was the only other forward in the league to play at least 70 games and at least 15 minutes per game, to produce 15 points or fewer points like Dwyer.
While he dressed for 77 games, Anthony Stewart only played 8:07 per game and managed 20 points on the season. Since he's under contract for next season, Stewart may have first crack at a roster spot, but his spot is hardly guaranteed.
Andreas Nodl scored a career-high 22 points in 2010-2011, but dropped down to eight points in 60 games last season, including seven points in 48 games with the Hurricanes after he was acquired from Philadelphia. He can fill a depth role, but is also replaceable, given his overall contribution.
The Hurricanes struggled to inject young forwards into their lineup last season, so there may still be opportunities available for the likes of Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe, but the biggest offseason upgrade could come via trade, as there have already been reports that Penguins centre Jordan Staal would prefer, if he's going to be moved, to join brother Eric in Carolina.
Even if the 'Canes manage to land Jordan Staal, it wouldn't hurt to add another skilled winger to the mix. Free agents Jiri Hudler, Ray Whitney and Petr Sykora could provide complementary scoring if the Hurricanes don't venture into a trade for a more significant scorer.
A concussion and lower body injury cost Joni Pitkanen 52 games last season and the 22:18 per game that he did play was his lowest time on ice since his rookie season in 2003-2004. While 17 points in 30 games was fairly typical production for Pitkanen, his minus-15 rating left much to be desired. He does have an improving supporting cast, however, so if Pitkanen is healthy next season, there is reason to expect better.
Journeyman blueliner Jay Harrison broke through with a career season in 2011-2012, scoring nine goals and 23 points while playing more than 20 minutes per game. He's not likely to score nine goals again, but is a bargain for a blueliner with good size who ranked second among Hurricanes defencemen in hits (117) and blocked shots (153).
20-year-old Justin Faulk showed a lot of promise as a rookie, playing more than 19 minutes in 64 of 66 games. Faulk moves the puck well and will put up more points as he matures, but he will also refine his play without the puck to become a top pair defenceman.
Tim Gleason isn't flashy, but he's a stabilizing presence on the Carolina blueline and was far-and-away the team leader with a plus-12 rating last season, despite facing tough checking assignments and defensive zone starts (per www.behindthenet.ca).
Playing in a part-time role, Derek Joslin struggled last season, which ended up with him spending some time at forward (averaging 7:05 of ice time in 24 games after the All-Star break), on his way to a minus-15 rating in 44 games.
Since bursting onto the scene in the spring of 2010, Jamie McBain has seen his role cut back under 20 minutes per game, but he's a 24-year-old who moves the puck well and, while he has the size to be more involved physically, he should be able to handle 23 minutes a night if given the responsibility.
The blueline could have a new look next season if veterans Jaroslav Spacek and Bryan Allen depart as free agents. Top prospects Ryan Murphy and Brian Dumoulin could (should?) compete for spots, though it may not hurt either of them to get a little additional seasoning.
For the fourth time in the last five seasons, Cam Ward played at least 68 games and for the fourth consecutive year, his save percentage was at least .915, but he had to finish well to make up for a bad stretch in November and December (3.54 GAA, .885 SV% in 26 GP) in order to get there.
Those struggles weren't all on Ward, but as the workhorse, he needs to be a little more consistent if the Hurricanes are going to contend.
Just as problematic for the Hurricanes last year was that they turned to veteran Brian Boucher to provide more reliability in the backup role, only to get rewarded with one win in 10 games.
Justin Peters, who was bumped aside when the Hurricanes signed Boucher, played well (2.48 GAA, .931 SV%, 7 GP) when given the chance to play. Nevertheless, Peters is a free agent and Boucher is under contract for next season, so the 'Canes fortunes would certainly be improved if 35-year-old Boucher improves on last year's numbers.
||11-43-54, +14, 49 GP
||18-14-32, -1, 56 GP
||Boston College (HE)
||7-21-28, +27, 44 GP
||33-30-63, +7, 64 GP
||13-13-26, even, 42 GP
||10-40-50, -12, 60 GP
||16-43-59, -15, 74 GP
||10-25-35, +14, 34 GP
||5-17-22, +18, 43 GP
||18-15-2, 2.74 GAA, .908 SV%
The 12th overall pick in last year's draft, Ryan Murphy missed some time after suffering a concussion in Kitchener, but he regained his form as the season went along and finished with 76 points in 65 games including the playoffs. A dynamic skater who can create chances with his wheels, Murphy could challenge for a spot on next year's club.
22-year-old Zac Dalpe was supposed to get his chance with the Hurricanes last season, but got injured in camp and managed three points in 16 games with Carolina. spending most of his time in the AHL. There's still offensive upside to be developed, but next year should be significant in Dalpe's career development.
Coming off a national championship at Boston College, Brian Dumoulin has the size and skills to potentially make the jump to the Hurricanes next season, even if he's not required to handle big minutes right away. Combining Dumoulin with Murphy, Faulk and McBain, there is a promising young defence corps building for the Hurricanes.
A second-round pick last summer, Victor Rask decided to come over from Sweden to play in the Western Hockey League and he nearly put up a point per game. Another year of growth and time to improve his skating will enhance his long-term chances of being an impact player for the Hurricanes.
Drayson Bowman split last season betwen Carolina and Charlotte, scoring 13 points with a plus-2 rating in 37 games with the big club. He's proven to be a competent winger with a good work ethic but, after three pro seasons, the 23-year-old needs to get off the shuttle and stick in a regular role.
Offensive defenceman Bobby Sanguinetti enjoyed a productive year in the AHL, earning a late-season call to Carolina. A first-round pick in 2006, Sanguinetti is now 24 and has eight NHL games to his credit, so his time, if it's going to happen, is now.
After scoring 123 points in the AHL over the last two seasons, industrious forward Chris Terry could warrant a look in some capacity with the Hurricanes, though it may be telling that the 23-year-old didn't get a chance last season, when the Hurricanes were clearly auditioning young wingers.
With 65 points in 68 games the last two years at Harvard, Danny Biega is making his mark as an offensive defenceman, but the 20-year-old will require further development to determine if he's going to be able to contribute to that degree as a pro.
Mark Alt is a physical defenceman with good size who has made progress in two years with the University of Minnesota. Considering the number of young defencemen bucking for jobs in Carolina, there is no need to rush Alt.
23-year-old goaltender Mike Murphy isn't terribly big, so he may be more suited to a backup role, but there is value to a reliable backup goaltender and Murphy has been groomed for three years in the AHL, with more to come.
Checking centre Riley Nash, collegiate scorer Jeremy Welsh, 2008 first-rounder Zach Boychuk and physical defenceman Keegan Lowe help provide depth to the prospect pool.
8th - Teuvo Teravainen, Radek Faksa, Morgan Rielly, Jacob Trouba.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Hurricanes have approximately $43.9M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 18 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Hurricanes roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top line forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman.
What I said the Hurricanes needed last year: Five top nine forwards, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman backup goaltender.
They added: Tim Brent, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart, Tomas Kaberle, Justin Faulk, Brian Boucher.
TRADE MARKET Brandon Sutter, Jussi Jokinen, Jamie McBain, 8th pick, prospects.
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.