Fans that were pining for big on-ice changes for the Carolina Hurricanes are feeling underwhelmed thus far. Although there were several administrative changes in the front office and behind the bench, the Hurricanes did little to change the actual player personnel and will essentially be heading into next season with the same team that “earned” the 7th overall pick in this year’s draft.
First of all, hats off to first-time GM Ron Francis for not getting caught up in a free agent frenzy, which saw marginal to good players get paid like superstars. With the 10th highest payroll in the NHL, Francis’s wait-and-see approach could be beneficial in the long run. However, the fact remains that this team has finished playing hockey in early April for five consecutive seasons, and fans are getting restless watching the same product with little to no change in results. With virtually the same team on the ice this season, playoffs hopes rest solely on the shoulders of the big guns on the team.
The Hurricanes added depth with the free agent signings of Jay McClement and Brad Malone, both of which are expected to get 4th line minutes. The Canes also brought gritty defenseman Tim Gleason back into the fold after he was bought out by Toronto this offseason. These minor moves don’t make too much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, but the players signed should make Carolina a little harder to play against.
In order for Carolina to reach the post-season in 2015, several players who make up the 10th highest payroll must play up to standards, starting with the captain. Eric Staal will make $8.25 million against the cap this season. While he’s consistently the top scorer for Carolina, he’s getting paid like an elite player in the NHL. Staal had career lows in points (61) and goals (21) last season and was a -13 playing on the top line. For comparison’s sake, in the 2012-13 truncated season, Staal had 53 points in 48 games and was a +5. He obviously still has the chops to score at an elite level, but his lazy play last season led to 74 penalty minutes, the majority of which were stick infractions. In order for the Canes to be successful this year, Eric must play up to his contract and put the points up while leading the team on the ice and in the locker room.
Another player who must step up is dynamic winger Alexander Semin. Semin, who will be paid $7 million this season, also put up a career low in points with 42, although he only appeared in 65 games due to a nagging wrist injury which was surgically repaired a few weeks after the end of the season. Semin has been a 40 goal scorer in his career, but only potted 22 last season. He must return to form and be the high-level scorer he once was.
Will Cam Ward be able to bounce back? That’s the biggest question in the room right now. He’s set to make $6.3 million this season, but with goaltender Anton Khudobin (who just signed a two year extension) seriously pushing for the number one spot, the pressure is on Ward to perform like he did to earn his contract. Injuries have plagued the net-minder for several seasons, but his form hasn’t been the same since the 2008-09 playoff run to the Eastern Conference Final. He posted a 3.06 goals against average and a .898 save percentage in 30 games with Carolina last season. That HAS to be better to justify his contract.
Several other key players had terrible seasons which contributed to the low finish. Points were down for everyone on the team. Jiri Tlusty (30) and Jordan Staal (40) can produce more points than they showed. Although Jeff Skinner had a career high 31 goals last season, his point total of 54 was second highest on the team. If 54 points is second best for a full season, the team is in trouble.
If all of these players, coupled with a new coaching staff and front office, can play up to their proven potential, the Carolina Hurricanes stand a chance at some kind of post-season glory. If not, the Canes could very well find themselves in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes early in the season.