The Carolina Hurricanes were a playoff team for the first half of the 2013 season but, due in part to subpar goaltending, they collapsed in the second half of the season and missed the postseason for the sixth time in seven seasons since their 2006 Stanley Cup victory.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Hurricanes could do this summer to get back into the playoff hunt.
After acquiring Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin last summer, the Hurricanes had understanably higher expectations going into 2013, but those additions, if one includes Semin's contract extension, have also eaten into Carolina's salary cap room.
But, the Hurricanes have invested in talent. As miserable as their finish was, the Hurricanes had good puck possession numbers as a team, so there is reason to be hopeful that they could simply be better with a healthy Cam Ward in goal.
Ward's last game was Carolina's 21st game of the season and the 'Canes won three of four before the wheels fell off, leaving them to win just four times in the remaining 23 games. If Ward is healthy, maybe that's enough to get the Hurricanes back in the playoffs.
It might be asking a lot for Jiri Tlusty to duplicate his season, but the same goes for Jeff Skinner, so it's fair to believe that the Hurricanes roster is worthy of playoff contention.
General Manager Jim Rutherford, while acknowledging that the Hurricanes could make defensive changes, there is still reason to be positive about Carolina's future. "Unfortunately the season ended the way it did," he told the Raleigh News and Observer. "But sometimes in this league, teams take a step back and take a few steps forward. One thing I'm confident in saying is we're in position with the core group of guys we have and the draft pick we're going to get, fifth overall."
If the Hurricanes want immediate help, to capitalize on prime years for the Staal brothers, that fifth overall pick would certainly be an enticing trade chip if that's something the Hurricanes would entertain in an effort to upgrade their blueline, but that's only a move to make if Rutherford believes that the Hurricanes need to accelerate the process if they are going to take the next step.
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, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Jim Rutherford/Kirk Muller
Free Agent Forwards
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
Hurricanes Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Eric Staal is one of the most consistent scorers in the league. Since 2005-2006, his 257 goals ranks fifth in the league (behind Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley and Jarome Iginla) and 596 points ranks tenth.
Staal had a successful 2013 campaign with Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin on his wings but, thanks to a knee-on-knee hit at the World Championships, the 28-year-old is going to go into this offseason with an MCL injury that will require three months of recovery time. That's enough time to have Staal ready to go for next season, but the Hurricanes can ill-afford to lose him for any significant period of time.
When the Hurricanes signed Alexander Semin to a one-year contract, that was a low-risk play to acquire a highly-skilled player. Semin made believers out of the Carolina brass, putting up a point per game, while playing a career-high 20:57 per game. Since 2008-2009, Semin is plus-106, which ranks fifth in the league over that span, while his 136 goals ranks ninth and 315 points ranks 15th. Despite those credentials, Carolina's decision to invest in a long-term contract extension for Semin was met with skepticism.
Playing his typical tough minutes, Jordan Staal was better than his minus-18 rating suggests. He was victimized by bad goaltending (.878 on-ice SV%), but the younger Staal's presence is a valuable addition to the Hurricanes, giving them a two-way centre capable of taking on the most difficult matchups.
Versatile veteran forward Tuomo Ruutu missed two-thirds of the season, returning to the Hurricanes' lineup as they were already on their way out of contention, but a healthy Ruutu is a valuable commodity, able to play both ends of the rink and play centre or wing.
25-year-old winger Jiri Tlusty scored a career-high 23 goals in 2013, fitting in nicely on the wing with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin. That line had a lot of good fortune, that may not be repeatable, but Tlusty's finish to 2011-2012 coupled with his breakout campaign should establish him as a top six forward for years to come.
Though he already has three NHL seasons under his belt, 21-year-old Jeff Skinner is at a bit of a crossroads since his production has tailed off since his rookie year, with a miserable finish (4 G, 2 A, minus-22 in his last 23 GP) sending him into the offseason at a low point. Skinner is still young, very gifted offensively and had strong possession numbers. That being the case, it's worth sticking with him to see if he get back on track next season.
Late bloomer Patrick Dwyer has solidified his place as an NHLer, logging more than 15 minutes per game over the past two seasons, but injuries thrust him into a scoring role, with Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner, which isn't necessarily playing to his strengths. He finished with eight goals and 16 points in 46 games, the best scoring rates of his career, but Dwyer seems a better fit for a checking role, with the ability to fill in higher up the depth chart when needed.
Drayson Bowman has put up respectable possession numbers while playing 106 games over four seasons, but 11 goals and 21 points in that time leaves him in a battle for a regular NHL job. Bowman did tie a career high with 37 games played in 2013, but without better production, he's replaceable.
Enforcer Kevin Westgarth played a career-high 5:43 per game last season and is there to tangle with the league's heavyweights when it's necesssary. It's a limited role, but one that protects Westgarth as a hockey player while he provides the muscle.
Checking centre Riley Nash showed, in his rookie season, that he's ready for regular NHL duty. He needs to get better on face-offs (44.3%) to really fill the role, but Nash displayed a decent possession game and his offensive production was improving (37 points in 51 games) in the AHL before he secured a full-time spot in Carolina.
Since the Hurricanes have already invested in top-end talent up front, additions to the roster should come through internal promotion as well as some value veterans to play third and fourth-line roles. Some to consider include Ryan Jones, Craig Adams, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hendricks; essentially, blue collar forwards that aren't easy to play against.
Hurricanes Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
Rising star defenceman Justin Faulk plays in all situations, logged 24 minutes per game last season and was a plus player on a team that gave up 32 more goals than they scored; none of which is standard fare for a kid who just turned 21. Faulk is the future and the present on the Carolina blueline.
Injuries have limited Joni Pitkanen to 52 games over the past two seasons and his 2013 season was ended prematurely by a fractured heel. When healthy, he's still a capable puck-mover on the back end who can run the power play.
Jay Harrison didn't stick as a full-time NHLer until he was 28-years-old, but as settled in nicely with the Hurricanes, playing 20:18 per game over the past two seasons. Harrison has good size and plays a simple game, but has shown the ability to chip in offensively on occasion. As a fourth or fifth defenceman, with a reasonable contract, he provides good value.
When the Hurricanes want to match up a defenceman against the opposition's best line, Tim Gleason gets the call. He's reliable and hard-nosed; also a tad pricey for a defenceman who has never scored more than 21 points in a season, but the Hurricanes have more puck-moving options than they do players with Gleason's skill set.
When Jamie McBain broke into the league, in the spring of 2010, he played 25 minutes a night and put up 10 points in his first 14 NHL games. His production and ice time are way down; a career-low eight points (0.20 per game) while playing a career-low 18:25 per game last season. He's not the most aggressive or physical defender, but McBain's skating and puck skills could have appeal for another team if he's not going to get any better in Carolina.
The Hurricanes do have a top defence prospect that could be ready to make the jump in Ryan Murphy, but they will likely need to fill in some gaps along the blueline. If they want to make a bold move, they could look to trade forwards, prospects or picks to land a physical defenceman. Good physical defencemen don't come cheaply, but if they're willing to pay the price, could the Hurricanes get Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa or Minnesota's Clayton Stoner or they could look to the free agent market for Andrew Ference, Mark Fistric, Ben Lovejoy or Douglas Murray, all of whom could add a more physical dimension to the Hurricanes' defence.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
Goaltending was the primary problem for the Hurricanes in 2013. Cam Ward got hurt, which really sent matters spiralling downwards, but it wasn't like Ward was on top of his game before that either, his .908 save percentage his lowest since 2007-2008. However, Ward has been a workhorse and has a .917 save percentage since 2008-2009, which ranks ninth in the league among goaltenders that played at least 200 games.
The Hurricanes still have Justin Peters under contract, but it's conceivable that they would consider a veteran backup, just in case Ward is out long-term again. Peters owns an .896 save percentage in 47 career games, and that's not enough to inspire confidence should Ward get hurt again.
||10-38-48, +14, 54 GP
||14-27-41, +14, 37 GP
||21-21-42, +16, 54 GP
||14-12-26, -9, 69 GP
|Phil Di Giuseppe
||9-19-28, -10, 40 GP
||28-26-54, +7, 68 GP
||15-16-31, +38, 64 GP
||25-35-60, +1, 70 GP
||2-9-11, -10, 2 GP
||6-10-16, +6, 54 GP
A brilliant skater and puckhandler, Ryan Murphy got into four games with the Hurricanes in 2013 as an emergency replacement. He needs to get stronger and make better decisions defensively, but Murphy is tempting, not least of all because of his ability on the power play. However, it could take some time, and perhaps some AHL seasoning, before Murphy is ready to be a difference maker at the next level.
Drafted in the second round in 2011, Victor Rask is a centre with good size and skill. He got into 10 games early in the season with Charlotte of the AHL, recording five points, and will most likely start there next season.
Zac Dalpe has seen spot duty in 41 games with the Hurricanes over the last three seasons and while he's managed just 10 points in minimal ice time, the possiblity that the 23-year-old could help out in a scoring role keeps him high on the Carolina prospect list.
A big two-way centre, Jeremy Welsh is older than most prospects, having just turned 25, so his window to make the Hurricanes won't be open for long. At the same time, he's had a taste of the NHL, playing six games over the last couple seasons, and could be ready to challenge for a spot next season.
A second-round pick last summer, Phil Di Giuseppe is a talented winger with good size, but is coming off a mediocre sophomore campaign. Going back to Michigan, where he can play a prominent role and develop consistency as an offensive leader, should set Di Giuseppe up for long-term success in Carolina.
One of the hockey-playing McGinns from Fergus, Ontario, (brothers Jamie and Tye have already reached the NHL) Brock McGinn, was another second-rounder last summer and he's a battler. Not as big as his brothers, but McGinn's a blue-collar winger who has a few years to round out his game before worrying about challenging for an NHL job.
With four AHL seasons in the bank, Chris Terry finally saw his first NHL action last season. He may be the epitome of a 'tweener -- too good for the AHL and not quite up for a regular NHL job -- but Terry has been productive enough (183 points over the last three seasons) in the AHL to warrant a longer look.
A steady and tough defensive defenceman, Keegan Lowe is plus-88 over the last three seasons with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League. He'll get some time to develop in the AHL and could ideally turn into a shutdown defensive performer.
Taken in the third round of the 2010 draft, Danny Biega wrapped up his four-year career at Harvard with a disappointing season, at least in terms of production. He accumulated 65 points in 68 games as a sophomore and junior before managing just 11 points in 32 games as a senior. Biega got into four games with Charlotte in the AHL at the end of the season and into the playoffs.
22-year-old Michal Jordan has been a steady defence prospect and earned a five-game trial with the Hurricanes in 2013. Since he already has three years of pro development, he's likely to be more ready for work in the NHL than some of Carolina's other defence prospects.
5th - Aleksander Barkov, Elias Lindholm, Valeri Nichushkin.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Hurricanes have approximately $56.2M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 16 players.
Check out my possible Hurricanes lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, depth defencemen.
What I said the Hurricanes needed last year: One top line forward, one top nine forward, one top four defenceman.
They added: Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin, Tim Brent, Kevin Westgarth, Joe Corvo, Dan Ellis.
Jeff Skinner, Joni Pitkanen, Jamie McBain.
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.