A strong playoff run has elevated expecations for the Carolina Hurricanes once again. That's not a bad position to be in, to be sure, but the 'Canes are going to have to be on the ball this summer to remain a contender.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the 'Canes could do to build on their appearance in the Eastern Conference Final in 2008-2009.
Perhaps the most important realization to come out of the Hurricanes' playoff run was that goaltender Cam Ward and star centre Eric Staal are worthy building blocks for the franchise.
As it is with any team, once the building blocks are established, it becomes a matter of finding the right pieces with which to surround them and the 'Canes, healthier than they had been in recent seasons, once again have a formidable roster.
At the same time, it's not a roster without challenges for GM Jim Rutherford, who has to deal with the prospect of losing unrestricted free agents like Erik Cole, Chad LaRose and Dennis Seidenberg, while trying to hang onto restricted free agents Anton Babchuk, Tuomo Ruutu and Jussi Jokinen.
"Trying to fit them all in will be difficult, and I do not know that we can fit in everybody," Rutherford told the Raleigh News & Observer. "It's a juggling act."
Since the Hurricanes aren't a team that spends to the cap, it becomes all the more challenging for Rutherford to keep the pieces in place, perhaps leaving room for one significant free agent signing or perhaps more if the Hurricanes are willing to cut the cord and buy out a contract or two.
So Rutherford's job won't be easy but, as Tom Hanks opined in A League of Their Own, "If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."
Jim Rutherford/Paul Maurice
Top Prospects: Zach Boychuk (28-29-57, plus-16 in 43 GP; Lethbridge-WHL), Drayson Bowman (47-36-83, plus-34 in 62 GP; Spokane-WHL), Chris Terry (39-55-94, plus-25 in 53 GP; Plymouth-OHL)
The Hurricanes have hitched the franchise wagon to Eric Staal and he's showing increased maturity in that role. Though he was effectively shut down in the Eastern Conference Final, Staal rose to the occasion in the playoffs, scoring nine goals in the first 11 postseason games.
Just as importantly, Staal put up the first plus season of his career, with a plus-15 rating in a season that saw him hit the 40-goal plateau for the second time in his career. Staal's late surge showed just how dangerous he can be with the right linemates.
Though he didn't manage a goal in the last two rounds of the playoffs, 37-year-old Ray Whitney led the Hurricanes with 77 points in the regular season -- the second-highest total of his career. Whitney is also lethal on the power play, scoring 30 or more power play points in each of his four seasons in Carolina.
Matt Cullen is one of the best third line centres in the league, with the speed to be an effective checker and enough of an offensive game to be a two-way threat when scoring is needed. Cullen also notched a career-best plus-11 rating last season.
Shifty Sergei Samsonov may be like a box of chocolates ("You never know what you're gonna get."), but he's still dangerous when he decides to crank it up and was generally quite effective after being a virtual no-show for the first month-and-a-half of the season.
Years of battling have taken their toll on Scott Walker, a gritty veteran who has scored more than 20 goals three times in his career. Of course, he also gained notoriety in the playoffs for punching Boston's Aaron Ward in the face, escaping any league discipline and eventually scoring the series-winning goal in Double-OT of Game Seven (to say nothing of doing all this while his wife is battling cancer). Based strictly on his declining production, Walker would be a candidate for a buyout.
Similarly, Rod Brind'Amour is not the player he once was, struggling through most of the season before picking it up in March and April; then he was a non-factor in the postseason. His excellent face-off record (he led the league by winning 61% of his draws last season) would make Brind'Amour a candidate for a checking position, but it's hard to gracefully slide into that role coming off a career-worst minus-23.
While his 20 goals in 58 games seems light years away (it was 2005-2006), Patrick Eaves probably has the skills to warrant more than fourth-line action for most teams. He skates well and gets involved, so Eaves has to be able to produce more than the 14 points he managed in 74 games last season.
Brandon Sutter's first taste of NHL action included a concussion and one goal in 50 games, but he's a blue-collar checker who will improve as he gets physically stronger. He could at least play a regular role next season.
A crash-and-bang winger with skill, Tuomo Ruutu scored a career-high 26 goals and 54 points and was a terrific complement to Eric Staal on the number one line and the Hurricanes can't afford to go without his physical presence up front.
In fact, the 'Canes kicked it up a notch when they added Erik Cole, another banger, to the forward mix late in the season so, for all their skilled forwards, the 'Canes can't afford to get softer up front.
After doing precious little for the Hurricanes in the regular season, after he was kicked to the curb by Tampa Bay, Jussi Jokinen was a surprise playoff hero, scoring seven goals, including three game-winners and the crucial tying goal in Game Seven against New Jersey. Jokinen's price tag is a little high and would have been easy to walk away from before the playoffs but, now, he could be in for a regular role next season.
The Hurricanes have several prospects coming from junior, though they might all be better served with some time on the farm to get acclimated to the pro game rather than getting rushed into the NHL. If the youngsters don't make the jump and Erik Cole and Chad LaRose leave via free agency, that would mean seeking some help on the free agent market.
Tomas Kopecky or Mike Grier would add some size, while Mike Knuble, Todd Bertuzzi or Nik Antropov add both size and scoring ability.
Top Prospects: Jamie McBain (7-30-37, minus-10 in 40 GP; Wisconsin-WCHA), Brett Carson (6-29-35, minus-20 in 69 GP; Albany-AHL), Kyle Lawson (4-19-23, plus-14 in 40 GP; Notre Dame-CCHA)
Joni Pitkanen may be terminally inconsistent, but he eventually brings more to the table than he's taking away and his first year in Carolina was his strongest campaign since his breakout season in 2005-2006. While stardom may not be in the cards for Pitkanen, he can log significant minutes and handles the puck well enough to work on a top pairing.
Like Pitkanen, Joe Corvo can be an extremely streaky performer. When he's on, he's a game-breaker; a strong skater who handles the puck and has a booming shot from the point. Other times, however, Corvo loses confidence and starts turning the puck over.
Again, Corvo brings more to the 'Canes than he takes away, but it's a challenge for Carolina when their two workhorses on the blueline run hot and cold.
Tim Gleason is a physical stay-at-home defenceman who adds some stability and toughness to the unit. He's never scored more than three goals in an NHL season, so his offensive contributions are limited, but Gleason fits well in his role.
Now 35, Frantisek Kaberle has fallen out of favour, which would figure to make him a candidate for a buyout, since there's little point in paying more than $2-million if he's only going to play depth minutes for 30 games.
The Hurricanes know what they're getting out of veteran Niclas Wallin, who has scored eight or ten points for six straight seasons and he lays his body on the line consistently, which is part of the reason that he's played more than 67 games in a season just once in his career.
Scrappy Tim Conboy played ridiculously little (28 games at 5:21 of ice time per game), yet the 'Canes fared better when he was in the lineup, so he's worth having around as a high-effort team team player.
A fantastic late-season surge by Anton Babchuk (which included 13 points in the last 11 games) elevated his status from depth defenceman to significant contributor before he faded away in the postseason. The 25-year-old has terrific size -- though he doesn't use it -- a big blast from the point and good offensive instincts that are worth nurturing.
If the Hurricanes lose hard-hitting veteran Dennis Seidenberg to free agency, that would create an opening on the blueline for another free agent, preferably someone on the safe and reliable side like Mike Komisarek, Mattias Ohlund or Nick Boynton would work as might slightly more economical options like Hal Gill, Greg Zanon or Andrew Alberts.
Top Prospect: Mike Murphy (40-9-4, 2.08 GAA, .941 SVPCT, 5 SO in 54 GP; Belleville-OHL)
Coming off the best season of his career, during which he set career-bests in wins, goals against average, save percentage and shutouts, Cam Ward has established himself as one of the top young goaltenders in the game and a bona fide candidate for the Canadian Olympic Team in 2010.
With a reliable young starter in Ward, the backup role isn't of utmost importance, but Michael Leighton is serviceable for the dozen or so starts that are required of him. A tad more consistency from Leighton would be nice, but it's admittedly not easy when playing so sporadically.
Also encouraging for the Hurricanes' future in net is that top goaltending prospect Mike Murphy is coming off his second straight OHL Goaltender of the Year award, the only goalie to be so honoured in the 22 years that the award has been presented.
27th - Stefan Elliott, Zach Budish, Drew Shore, Ryan O'Reilly.
The Hurricanes have approximately $40.5-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman.
What I said the Hurricanes needed last year: One top four defenceman, one depth defenceman
Who did they add? Brandon Sutter, Anton Babchuk.
Matt Cullen, Joe Corvo, Niclas Wallin.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca