The Carolina Hurricanes went through a tough season in 2009-2010 and the result of going through a number of injuries was that a lot of young players got a chance to make their bones in the NHL.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the future of the 'Canes and what roles those young players may play as soon as next season.
"Not all of these kids are going to be on our team," head coach Paul Maurice told the Raleigh News Observer at the end of the season. "But now you're looking at a few of these guys and saying, 'Boy, how many years can we get out of these guys?' Some of these young guys are going to be good players for 10, 15 years in our league and on our team.
"So there's a lot more of a forward-looking, positive outlook, even after this season. The direction is set. We're going to get a lot younger, but that does not mean we have to go through that five-year rebuild curve that a lot of teams do when they decide that they're going to get younger."
In recent years, it's been shown that NHL teams can turn around their fortunes quickly if the right young players can step in and play impact roles.
Carolina can expect to be better off next season merely by having better health for star players like Eric Staal and Cam Ward, while continued improvement from Brandon Sutter, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2009-2010, seems reasonable to expect.
But, next year's Hurricanes squad should look decidedly different, with young defencemen Jamie McBain and Brett Carson establishing their NHL credentials last year and forwards Zach Boychuk and Drayson Bowman setting the stage to earn roster spots as well.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see a few more prospects make the jump at some point next year as well and whichever young players land on the Hurricanes roster aren't expected to merely slide in at the bottom of the depth chart. There is room near the top for young, skilled players to make a difference.
Whether they are up to the task remains to be seen, and it means that any optimism about next year's team has to be tempered by the recognition that relying on young, unproven players creates uncertainty.
Uncertainty or not, the youth movement in Carolina should make for a more exciting team; it just depends on how many of those young players are ready and able to make a difference.
Jim Rutherford/Paul Maurice
Free Agent Forwards
||'09-'10 Cap Hit
Eric Staal started the season slowly, then got hurt, pretty much derailing the Hurricanes season, but then he returned to the lineup with a vengeance, scoring 61 points in his final 53 games.
Staal has the combination of size and skill to be a prototypical number one centre and when he's on, like was after returning from injury, he's a handful for opposing defencemen.
Coming off a career season, Jussi Jokinen may have a hard time duplicating 30 goals and 65 points, particularly considering that he scored on a career-high 18.8% of his shots. Even if Jokinen doesn't match his career season, he is solidly in a top-six role.
A shoulder injury cut short Tuomo Ruutu's season, but he was continuing at a similar pace to his career-best season in 2008-2009. Ruutu provides a physical presence on the forecheck and is enough of a finisher around the goal to fit among the top six forwards.
21-year-old Brandon Sutter's development was one of the pluses to take away from the season, as Sutter quickly showed that he can be more than a checking centre. Oh, he can check, but Sutter surprised with 40 points in his second season and now seems like a fine complement behind Staal on the depth chart.
After the best year of his career in 2008-2009, scoring 19 goals, Chad LaRose couldn't do anything for the first three quarters of the year, then he finished the season with 19 points in the last 21 games. That kind of scoring pace won't last for a full season, but LaRose should be able to contribute effectively as part of the third-line.
Erik Cole was counted on to fulfill a scoring role, but only managed 16 points in 40 games, missing half the year with a broken leg.
He could bounce back in the final year of his deal, but the 'Canes ought to have an insurance option at the ready if the 31-year-old isn't capable of establishing a game worthy of a top-six spot in the lineup.
Not asked to do too much, Tom Kostopoulos is a fine role player; playing in all 82 games, he hits, fights and doesn't hurt the team in a checking role.
Patrick Dwyer brought a lot of hustle to the table and is a veritable peacenik, taking three minor penalties in 58 games. The 26-year-old could be an economical fourth-line option, but he's also capable of being replaced.
In an up-and-down career, Sergei Samsonov his a low point with 29 points and a minus-15 rating. He's paid enough to fit in on one of the top two lines, but with fewer than 40 points in three of the last four seasons, it's difficult to enter a season counting on second-line production from Samsonov.
It's been a long and illustrious career for Rod Brind'Amour but, despite remaining an effective face-off man, the 39-year-old has clearly lost a step and is minus-52 over the past two seasons. Could retirement be in the plans?
Carolina doesn't have a ton of cap room, so they could find it tough to keep veteran Ray Whitney, which could mean some bargain-hunting, looking for value.
Alexei Ponikarovsky, Lee Stempniak and Tomas Holmstrom might be intriguing additions, that could be capable of putting in 20 goals, while Jeff Halpern, Scott Nichol or Glen Metropolit could fit the role of veteran checking centre if Brind'Amour's time is indeed up.
The real bonus for the Hurricanes is that they could address some of their needs through promotion from within, as one or two of Zac Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Chris Terry and Drayson Bowman could secure full-time employment.
Jamie McBain had a strong first pro season, putting up 40 points and a plus-11 rating in 68 AHL games, then he jumped into the Hurricanes' lineup for 25-26 minutes a game, chipping in ten points and a plus-6 rating in 14 games.
It might seem a lot to ask for a player with 14 NHL games on his resume, but McBain should be expected to handle that workload over a full schedule next season.
For all of his shortcomings, Joni Pitkanen is a workhorse, playing more than 27 minutes a game and he tied a career high with 46 points. Pitkanen could be better served with less of a workload and McBain's presence might help make that easier to accomodate.
Tim Gleason plays a no-frills game and that's a good thing. He hits, blocks shots, can move the puck okay and handle more than 20 minutes a game; a solid top four guy.
When injuries hit the Carolina blueline, Brett Carson got his chance and made the most of it, providing solid defensive play. He's not particularly nasty, but uses his size well and showed enough in 53 games to establish his spot on next year's squad.
24-year-old Alexandre Picard is with his fourth team. He's talented enough and passes the puck well, but Picard has yet to prove he can play steady enough in his own end to earn regular duty on the blueline. Depending on the acquisitions that the Hurricanes make, Picard could hold the sixth or seventh spot on the depth chart.
Considering the possibility that the Hurricanes will have several young forwards on the roster, and McBain is a rookie that will be expected to log first-pair responsibilities, it wouldn't hurt to bring a veteran defender into the mix.
While the return of Anton Babchuk from Russia would certainly be a welcome addition, and add an improved power play dimension, but a defensive vet like Brett Clark, Francis Bouillon or Nick Boynton might be among those who could take a spot on the depth chart and add some stability to the unit.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'09-'10 Cap Hit
If Eric Staal's injury put the Hurricanes on the ropes, Cam Ward's time on the sidelines only compounded Carolina's problems. Ward started 45 games, which is about 20 fewer than would have been anticipated, based on prior seasons' workload, yet he played well when healthy, tying his career-best with a .916 save percentage.
Ward will spend the offseason trying to build up his core strength so that he's more likely to handle the 60-plus starts that will be expected of him.
Veteran Manny Legace was a serviceable fill-in last season, but 23-year-old Justin Peters also got a chance to prove he was NHL-ready. After four seasons in the minors, Peters should be able to move into the backup role behind Ward and give the 'Canes a chance to win on nights when the starter needs a break.
||15-21-36,+1, 52 GP
||Ohio State (CCHA)
||21-24-45,+15, 39 GP
||26-18-2, 2.54 GAA, .917 SVPCT, 45 GP
||17-15-32,-19, 56 GP
||17-30-47,+12, 80 GP
||10-9, 2.81 GAA, .917 SVPCT, 20 GP
||13-19-32,+1, 41 GP
||37-41-78,+8, 74 GP
||Notre Dame (CCHA)
||4-18-22,-7, 38 GP
||16-20-36, +18, 80 GP
Though Zach Boychuk got into 31 games with the Hurricanes last season (scoring nine points), his ice time was monitored closely and he didn't get to show his offensive flair in the fewer than 11 minutes per game he played.
Since there are a few forward jobs open, Boychuk will be expected to win a job and perhaps, given some time on the power play, contribute 20 goals next season.
Zac Dalpe made a seamless transition to the pros, following his sophomore season at Ohio State, putting up 13 points and a plus-5 rating in 17 games (combined between regular season and playoffs). The 20-year-old may be ready for a spot in Carolina sooner rather than later.
Justin Peters took some time to grow into the pro game, but a strong AHL season combined with strong performances in his brief time in the NHL, makes him the leading candidate to be Ward's backup.
Drayson Bowman will have a shot at the 'Canes lineup next season after getting his feet wet in nine games this year. The 21-year-old slumped down the stretch, going minus-15 in his last 25 AHL games, before picking up his play in the postseason.
Chris Terry started slowly in his first pro season, but his offensive game came around and he scored 25 points in the last 31 games to wind up second in scoring for Albany. He'll be among those contending for a roster spot next season, but could go back to the AHL to refine his scoring touch.
If Peters does graduate to the NHL, the opportunity will open for Mike Murphy to start in the AHL. Murphy only played 20 games as a rookie, but acquitted himself well, posting a .917 save percentage.
Though there are several forwards pushing for jobs in Carolina, defenceman Michal Jordan figures to get some time on the farm to get used to the pro grind. Jordan is an effective puck-moving blueliner, but not particularly aggressive and could stand to get stronger before competing for a roster spot.
He was signed as an undrafted free agent, but 22-year-old Jerome Samson scored 78 points for Albany last year, 31 more than any other River Rat, so he can't be ignored. Samson played seven games with Carolina last season, but 8:27 of ice time per game was hardly enough time to showcase his skills.
Heady defenceman Kyle Lawson made the jump to the AHL after four collegiate seasons at Notre Dame and the 23-year-old will get a chance to play a prominent AHL role next season.
24-year-old Nick Dodge hasn't scored enough to be considered an elite prospect, but he plays a solid two-way game and could slide into a fourth-line centre role with the Hurricanes, particularly if Rod Brind'Amour doesn't return.
Big blueliner Brian Dumoulin (Boston College) and sizeable winger Mattias Lindstrom (Sweden) are a couple of long-range prospects that may require a few years before they are ready to join the Hurricanes.
7th - Brett Connolly, Nino Niederreiter, Derek Forbort.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Hurricanes have approximately $41.8M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 14 players.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, one depth forward, one top four defencemen, one additional defenceman, backup goaltender.
What I said the Hurricanes needed last year: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman.
Who did they add? Stephane Yelle, Aaron Ward.
TRADE MARKET Erik Cole, Sergei Samsonov, Alexandre Picard.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.