Analyzing the Canes: Are they playoff ready?

calexander@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2014 

— Peter Karmanos Jr. turned heads a few days ago when he said the Carolina Hurricanes were a “very good hockey team.”

Karmanos is the Canes’ owner, and a little hubris is to be expected. But the Canes have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of the past five seasons. They were 13th last season in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. They had a woeful power play and were only a little better at home than on the road.

Karmanos’ belief is that a new coaching staff and new system, a healthier team and the continued development of younger players will translate into more wins next season. General manager Ron Francis is another believer, generally standing pat in free agency this past week while other Metropolitan Division rivals made significant signings.

Francis noted the Hurricanes finished 10 points out of playoff position in the East. In his mind, had goalies Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin not been out with injuries; had forwards Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal and Alexander Semin not had slow starts because of injuries; had the power play been more potent, the Canes could have been a playoff team.

“We didn’t think it was necessary to kind of blow everything up,” Francis said. “We still think we have a lot of good pieces. I know people are going to shake their heads a little bit when you say that. … When you don’t make the playoffs everybody wants to see change.”

Francis said he got a “fresh opinion” on the players from new coach Bill Peters. The management team weighed in. Karmanos, who writes the checks, had his say.

“At this point we felt we had a good enough team to compete and make the playoffs,” Francis said. “Now it’s up to us to get on the ice and start winning hockey games, and I think that’s the best way to convince anyone.”

Can the Canes do it? Here’s a team breakdown:

Forwards

Karmanos says he likes the Canes’ forwards. Francis says he likes the Canes’ forwards.

As for Peters, Francis said, “He loves our group of forwards and what he thinks we can do. He thinks there’s more there in the goal-scoring department.”

The Canes need more. Carolina was 22nd in scoring last season (2.50 goals a game), finishing 28th on the power play (14.6 percent). The Canes also failed to score many goals early or late in games, finishing 27th in first-period scoring and 28th in third-period goals (sixth in second period).

Jeff Skinner had a career-high 33 goals last season and has the potential to score 40, many agree. Semin, despite a wrist injury in preseason that bothered him all season, finished with 22 goals and Jiri Tlusty and Nathan Gerbe each had 16.

A lot could hinge on a healthy – and possibly recharged – Eric Staal. He turns 30 early in the season and must consistently produce, both five-on-five and on the power play. The Canes captain had one power-play goal and no game-winning goals last season, surely a blow to his pride.

More is expected from Jordan Staal. One can’t overlook his plus-2 rating last season despite facing the other teams’ best forwards, but the Canes’ No. 2 center needs to improve his 15-goal, 40-point production for the Canes to be playoff-cailber.

Elias Lindholm, the Canes’ No. 1 draft pick last year, began to look more comfortable and was more effective late in the season. The adjustment period – to the NHL, to a smaller rink size, to leaving Sweden – is over and he should come to camp bigger and stronger.

The Canes’ fourth line will have a more physical look with the addition of free agents Jay McClement and Brad Malone. But there should be a lot of competition for forward spots in preseason training camp.

Zach Boychuk led the American Hockey League with 36 goals last season and at 24 it might finally be his time. “He’s a guy that we feel has earned the opportunity,” Francis said.

Peters will insist on strong two-way play from the forwards, saying he wants 200-foot competitors. That’s a must for the Canes.

•  Pros: Four potential 30-plus goal scorers when healthy (E. Staal, Skinner, Semin, Tlusty); strength up middle.

•  Cons: Net presence has been lacking; not imposing physically.

Defensemen

Who knew when the Canes traded Tim Gleason on New Year’s Day that he would be back so soon and John-Michael Liles a teammate?

Gleason was sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Liles and a defensive prospect. Bought out by the Leafs, Gleason signed a one-year, $1.2 million contract Thursday with the Canes.

The Canes can only hope Gleason, 31, plays with his old snarl. A low-risk signing, Gleason would be a boost to a back end that has changed little from last season.

The Canes re-signed Ron Hainsey. Returning are Justin Faulk, Andrej Sekera, Jay Harrison, Liles … in short, basically the same crew minus Brett Bellemore.

“I think you’re always looking to improve your back end, but Faulk and Sekera can arguably play against anybody as a 1-2 pair,” Francis said. “Ron Hainsey can play 21 minutes a game. John-Michael Liles, I think he’s got more to bring. Jay is coming off probably a little bit of an off-year and hopefully he bounces back.”

Ryan Murphy, the Canes’ first-round pick in 2011, may be ready to keep a roster spot for a full season. He has the offensive tools and can help the power play, but must be tougher and better in the defensive zone.

Haydn Fleury, this year’s first-round selection, will be given the chance to make the big team but might need another year of junior hockey.

The Canes’ back end needs to help out more offensively – Sekera had a career-high 11 goals but no other D-man had more than five. But Francis called it a “pretty good group” adding, “They’re mobile, they can move the puck and that’s important in today’s game.”

•  Pros: Good blend of age and experience; capable puck-movers.

•  Cons: Not a lot of size; need for a power-play quarterback.

Goaltenders

Ward and Khudobin will draw $8.7 million in salary next season and most Canes fans know how that’s divided – Ward will get $6.7 million, Khudobin $2 million.

But if the Canes can get the production to match the salaries, if the two goalies can push each other for the No. 1 spot, a playoff spot could be a possibility.

Khudobin’s ankle injury and Ward’s recurring groin issues hit the Canes hard last season. In an 11-day span in October, the Canes lost both, and for extended periods.

“There isn’t any team in the league who had their No. 1 and No. 2 goalies out, that made the playoffs, for the length of time we had our goalies out,” Karmanos said. “We don’t need any help in goal. We have two outstanding goalies.”

Justin Peters, who stepped in and played well last year when the two were hurt, has signed a free-agent deal with Washington. The Canes have signed Drew MacIntyre, coming off a strong season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, as the No. 3 goalie.

Ward, 30, would like to have one injury-free season. Khudobin would like to be the No. 1 guy.

“Hopefully they’re back, they’re hungry, they’re ready to go and they’re healthy the whole year for us,” Francis said.

•  Pros: At their best, both can perform like elite goaltenders; competition level should be high.

•  Cons: Ward can’t seem to stay healthy for a season; MacIntyre, if needed, is new to the organization.

Playoff hopes: A lot of things probably will need to go right: a strong season from Eric Staal, another strong season from Sekera, Ward being Ward again ... it’s a long list. A lot will be asked from Bill Peters, who needs to get the right players in the right spots and have the right system in place.

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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