Commentary

DeCock: Hurricanes make significant progress, but aren't done yet

ldecock@newsobserver.comAugust 14, 2012 

STAAL-SP-072512-TEL

Jordan Staal talks with reporters during a press conference Friday, July 27, 2012, at the PNC Arena. Staal joins his brother Eric in the Carolina Hurricanes lineup after Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford negotiated a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com

Someone in Las Vegas likes what the Carolina Hurricanes have done this summer. In June, the online sportsbook bovada.lv had the Hurricanes as 50-1 underdogs to win the Stanley Cup, ahead of only six teams. By Thursday, they were down to 22-1, behind only 11 teams.

The free-agent window has been open for more than a month now, and few teams have done as much as the Hurricanes to change their look. Clearly, the outside world is paying attention. The draft-day trade for Jordan Staal and the signings of Alexander Semin and Joe Corvo certainly will make the Hurricanes a more offensively potent team and have the potential to make them really powerful, and they’ll no doubt add some fourth-line muscle before the summer is over as well.

Still, there’s work to be done yet.

What’s gone relatively unnoticed is the lack of concrete change on defense, an area where the Hurricanes have struggled since the core of the 2002 and 2006 teams moved on. Corvo is underrated defensively, but of the Hurricanes’ two free-agent departures, he’s more of a replacement for Jaroslav Spacek than he is Bryan Allen.

It’s the latter who really needs replacing. In his one season and change with the Hurricanes, Allen brought bulk and a physical edge that has too often been missing from Carolina’s defense. It’s missing again, leaving the Carolina blue line heavy on finesse and light on heaviness.

Kirk Muller is counting on a big year from Joni Pitkanen, hoping to work the same magic unlocking the big Finn’s potential that he did getting Eric Staal’s bottomed-out season back on track. But even if he’s at his best, Pitkanen isn’t going to scare anyone coming across the blue line. Neither is Justin Faulk or Jamie McBain or Ryan Murphy or Corvo.

As things stand now, that burden will fall entirely on Tim Gleason and Jay Harrison, as it did before Allen’s arrival. And even with Allen, the Hurricanes’ defense still called out for improvement. It still does.

That’s not to overlook the improvement on offense, which is significant, if uncertain in its final impact. If Jordan Staal can flourish with the ice time he never got behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, he’s going to be a huge star. Even if he doesn’t, he has averaged 20 goals and 41 points in his NHL career, despite missing significant time with injuries.

Semin is a different story. The Hurricanes have portrayed his signing as low-risk, high-reward because of the one-year deal and his average of 31 goals and plus-23 over the last four seasons, but the risk is higher than the Hurricanes would like anyone to believe.

Muller has worked hard to build the esprit de corps that withered under Paul Maurice. One player can tear that apart, and while Semin isn’t to blame for the Washington Capitals’ postseason failures -- the revolving door of mediocre goalies is No. 1 on that list -- he didn’t exactly lift his team to glory, either.

There’s no getting around this, though: If the light comes on for Semin, the sky’s the limit. (If he clicks with either Staal, the Hurricanes might be able to put Stormy on defense and get away with it … at least in the regular season.)

The Hurricanes say they’ve done their homework on Semin, but anything they heard was going to sound good once they were out of the running for Rick Nash and Shane Doan. One year is still too long if it holds back the Hurricanes at all. Missing the playoffs five out of six years after winning the Stanley Cup is already disastrous. Missing again would be catastrophic.

For a pleasant and positive change, not to mention locking down Jeff Skinner for the long term, the Hurricanes’ off-season moves have offered more answers than questions. Still, given the state of the defense and the inherent risk-reward of the Semin signing, it isn’t time to stop asking yet.

DeCock: luke.decock@newsobserver.com, (919) 829-8947, Twitter: @LukeDeCock

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