DeCock

Who plays with Staal unanswered

Staff WriterSeptember 28, 2011 

— The stated offseason priorities for Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford were a fourth-line center and a backup goalie.

Tim Brent and Brian Boucher, respectively, look capable of answering those questions, but it's fair to ask whether the right questions are even being asked.

Missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years since winning the Stanley Cup cried out for bigger upgrades. The Hurricanes needed help on offense, where Erik Cole left and wasn't replaced, leaving Eric Staal with even less talent on his wings than usual. The Hurricanes needed help on defense, where Cam Ward was all too often left holding the back for breakdowns in front of him.

Going into tonight's fourth preseason game, at the Winnipeg Jets, there's reason for optimism on the blue line. While Rutherford doesn't seem as eager to trumpet the defensive changes, swapping Joe Corvo for Tomas Kaberle is by any standard an upgrade, no matter how much Kaberle has left in the tank at 33.

If new assistant coach Dave Lewis, a veteran coach, can get the most out of Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen, that'll help as well. Gleason, moving from the left side to the right, figures to have his most physical season yet, setting the tone early with a training-camp scuffle with Justin Soryal.

"It's a little more comfortable this year," Gleason said. "They pretty much said, 'Go play your game and whatever happens happens.' They gave me a green light to be more aggressive - my style of play," Gleason said.

It's a different story at forward. While Cole could be frustratingly inconsistent at times, even when healthy, he was good for 20 goals a year as well as less quantifiable bull rushes down Staal's right wing to open space.

Staal won't play tonight, but at the moment, Alex Ponikarovsky and Zac Dalpe look to be the most likely candidates for the spots alongside him, which leaves the Jeff Skinner-Tuomo Ruutu-Jussi Jokinen line intact. (Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice indicated Tuesday that Ponikarovsky is locked into one spot. Using Jokinen with Staal, and LaRose with Skinner and Ruutu, is another option on the other side.)

Ponikarovsky's scoring history isn't markedly different from Cole's, and Maurice thinks he was a good fit with another big center - Mats Sundin - but he's coming off an injury-plagued, five-goal season. As for Dalpe, he appears ready to contribute, but on the first line?

That's a lot to ask of a player who, while older and faster than Skinner, is nevertheless a rookie.

Dalpe and Ponikarovsky are good players who can make this team better, but at this point it's hard to see them as the unequivocal answer to the annual and increasingly vexing question of who plays with Staal - an elite NHL center who has only rarely had comparable players around him.

"It is what it is," Staal said. "We have some new faces here, some new guys going for those positions. We'll be ready to go either way."

The Hurricanes labored to find a left-wing fit even with Cole on Staal's right, and now even that constant is gone. Maurice, meanwhile, said he's as concerned about nailing down Brandon Sutter's linemates as he is Staal's, which may not imply that the two centers are equally talented but certainly undersells Staal's ability and value to the team.

Staal would be the last person to say it, but he deserves better than this.

Carolina's defense has the potential to be substantially improved, but who plays with Staal is the question the Hurricanes still haven't answered. They never even really asked it.

ldecock@newsobserver.com 919-829-8947

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