Canes sit on shaky defensive foundation

Staff WriterNovember 17, 2010 

When the Carolina Hurricanes lose a game in Montreal, something is seriously wrong.

That just doesn't happen. Regular season, playoffs, whatever - the Hurricanes went more than seven years without a regulation loss at the Molson/Bell Centre. Three teams that missed the playoffs still took care of business in Montreal, where the Hurricanes had such good memories from 2002 and 2006.

And it wasn't just a loss Saturday: It was a nightmare scenario. When the coach says he can't fault his team's effort in a 7-2 loss, it points to serious structural problems that aren't easily corrected, not just before tonight's game against the Ottawa Senators but over the course of a season.

There were many culprits, but in giving up a total of 15 goals in consecutive games, the Hurricanes revealed just how wobbly their defense really is. It's probably at least one and possibly two NHL-caliber defensemen short of where it needs to be.

That was there, on paper, before the season began, but the theory was that Cam Ward's goaltending, the bevy of potential 30-goal scorers up front and Paul Maurice's ability to coax defensive structure out of chaos would camouflage the weakness on defense enough to keep the Hurricanes in the playoff race.

Hamstrung by owner Peter Karmanos' austerity mandates as he started his search for a buyer - still looking after six months - general manager Jim Rutherford had no margin for error. He used his limited budget to bring back Joe Corvo, but couldn't keep going and add another veteran or two. Instead, he brought back Anton Babchuk from Russia, gave major roles to Jay Harrison and rookie Jamie McBain and hoped for the best.

The Hurricanes are spending less on defense than 28 other NHL teams, carrying only six defensemen at a combined salary of about $12 million. (And that's at a $48 million payroll; Karmanos wanted to spend at least $4 million less than that.) While three teams are spending more than twice that much on their blue lines, only the Dallas Stars are spending less.

That enforced penny-pinching is starting to show up in the back of the Carolina net.

Going into Tuesday night's games, the Hurricanes were 28th in goals allowed, giving up 3.53 per game. Only the Atlanta Thrashers and Edmonton Oilers were worse.

There's no excuse for a team with a goaltender as good as Ward and a defensive-minded coach like Maurice to be in that dismal company.

Sure, the forwards could be doing more to help, and Ward could have played better in the Montreal blowout, but this all comes back to a defense that was suspect before the season and hasn't gotten any better.

In 2006 and 2009, the Hurricanes went into the season with questionable defensive groups and benefited from career years (Frantisek Kaberle, 2006; Babchuk and Dennis Seidenberg, 2009) or the sudden fulfillment of previously unfulfilled potential (Mike Commodore, 2006; Joni Pitkanen, 2009).

This year, with money even tighter, they gambled and lost. It's early enough that this isn't the end of the world for the Hurricanes, but it doesn't look good. Rutherford said Tuesday he's looking at adding a defenseman, but it would have to be a salary-neutral deal. Those are nearly impossible to make.

Ward may have been pulled in back-to-back games, but he's going to keep the Hurricanes in games they shouldn't be in. When Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner and Co. are scoring goals, the defensive deficiencies won't be as noticeable. (A little better puck security and some own-zone help from the forwards wouldn't hurt either.)

With no money to add a proven NHLer on defense, if one worth trading for were even available, there's no easy fix, if there's a fix at all., or 919-829-8947

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