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Carolina’s Push Toward Youth is Both Promising and Perilous

The future is now in Carolina, where the old guard is out, an influx of youth is taking over and everyone is looking to put the injury-plagued woes that ruined things a season ago far, far behind them.

With the retirement of former captain Rod Brind’Amour symbolizing the changing of the guard in Raleigh, which started with Eric Staal succeeding Brind’Amour as team captain in January last season, the process of remolding the club is well underway. The 25-year-old Staal will have some veteran support in his first full year wearing the ‘C’ but Carolina’s heavy reliance on several key youngsters is a make-or-break formula for success this season. If the kids collectively respond to the challenge, the ‘Canes have enough going for them to cause trouble in the Southeast and surprise a lot of people. Some growing pains are sure to be felt, however, in such a transitional year for the franchise and immediate success probably takes a back seat to more long-term achievements.

Avoiding the injury bug has to be high on the list of priorities for a club that holds the unfortunate distinction of hitting the 300 man-games lost to injury milestone a year ago.

2009-10

After a terrible start to the season, made worse by goaltender and franchise pillar Cam Ward falling victim to a leg laceration in the early-going, the Hurricanes got their act together and played far better once the ’09 portion of the schedule had passed. Still, the IR became all too familiar a place for several key names in the Carolina lineup and the early season hole proved far too deep. With the veteran forward quartet of Staal, Erik Cole, Chad LaRose and Tuomo Ruutu missing a combined total upwards of 100 games to injury, Carolina’s non-playoff finish to the season almost seemed predetermined. Give them credit for gutting things out, though, and for taking advantage of the holes in the lineup as best they could, providing several youngsters, led by Brandon Sutter, opportunities for NHL growth they might not have had otherwise this early.

CAROLINA ON THEIR MIND

With a self-imposed cap far below that of the NHL’s allotted maximum, general manager Jim Rutherford’s hands were slightly tied, in terms of adding payroll. Aside from the return of defenseman Joe Corvo, who had been dealt to Washington at last year’s trade deadline, Carolina’s few off-season acquisitions, could have easily been overlooked.

The ‘Canes now lead the league in Staals, having added Eric’s youngest brother, Jared, in an early May deal with Phoenix. (Signed to an entry level deal shortly after the trade, Staal is likely to spend 2010-11 in AHL Charlotte.)

Rutherford was busy at the NHL Entry Draft, making three pick(s)-for-player deals that netted more young talent for his club. Defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti was acquired from the New York Rangers and figures to get a long look as a top-six d-man in Carolina after a rough time cracking the Rangers lineup. Center Riley Nash, a first-round choice of the Edmonton Oilers in 2007, was also added and later signed to an entry-level deal. And center Jonathan Matsumoto, with 81 goals and 173 points in 251 career AHL games, is a solid depth addition that has yet to make his NHL debut.

Finally, former Kings and Oilers forward Patrick O’Sullivan was inked just today to a two-way contract. O’Sullivan has failed to improve upon the 22 goals and 53 points he managed for Los Angeles in 2007-08 and could prove to be a bargain find for Carolina, who could use his help down the middle.

IT’S BEEN REAL

No Carolina departure is as relevant as the retirement of Brind’Amour, who struggled mightily in his final season with a dreadful minus-29 rating. His legacy is cemented, however, having captained the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006 – the highlight of a brilliant, 21-season NHL career.

The ‘Canes will also have to carry on without the services of forward Ray Whitney, who signed in Phoenix, as well as defensemen Tim Conboy (Buffalo) and Bryan Pothier (Switzerland).

YOUNG GUNS

In a nutshell – the key to Carolina’s season lies here. Several spots on the roster this season will be held down by players 25 and under and, quite possibly, half of their defense corps.

Sutter, with 21 goals and 40 points last season as a second-year pro, is already a staple of the Hurricanes attack. Newcomers Matsumoto and Nash join Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Oskar Osala, Jerome Samson, Jiri Tlusty and 2010 first-rounder Jeff Skinner in the mix for two or three open roster spots at forward. That sets up quite a competition in camp, which is how a team looking for a couple of up-and-comers to play prominent roles gets exactly that.

On defense, Jamie McBain has likely earned a spot already after an impressive 14-game stint last year. Brett Carson, a plus-5 in 54 games a year ago, and Sanguinetti could round out the top-six.

In goal, Justin Peters is primed to back up Ward, by most accounts.

STRENGTHS

With Ward, goaltending remains a strong suit for Carolina, who will need his ‘A’ game consistently with what looks to be a young defense. With him in the lineup for at least 20 more games than the 47 he dressed for last season, the Hurricanes should have little concern about their nets.

A top six of Staal, Cole, LaRose, Ruutu, Sutter and Jussi Jokinen has the potential for good things much depends on the ability for most of this bunch to remain healthy, obviously.

WEAKNESSES

There’s talent in this area for sure but any time one-half of your opening night defense played in a total of 73 games between the three of them last season, there’s reason for concern. If Carson, McBain and Sanguinetti all make the roster out of camp, as I expect they will, that will be reality for the Hurricanes. Grouped with veterans in Corvo, Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen, it would be a tall order for all three young blueliners to hold their own simultaneously with limited NHL experience. Of course, Anton Babchuk is back from Russia and part of this mix as well and Jay Harrison, a veteran of 400+ games at the AHL level, is another option, though Babchuk’s strong suit is his offensive prowess and Harrison is a tweener at best.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

Zach Boychuk: After holding his own during several recalls with the big club, as well as establishing himself as a go-to player at the AHL level in his first pro season, Boychuk should have the opportunity to ease into a permanent role in Carolina, if the forwards above him on the depth chart stay injury-free. Ideally, more time to develop in the minors would suit the 20-year-old, just a year-plus removed from junior hockey, but the ability to produce is there now. Sutter will draw more headlines but Boychuk has the potential to burst onto the scene in 2010-11.

Special mention here to Jamie McBain, as well, who has the tools to be a star on defense but might be slowed a bit by collective struggles of the ‘D’ as a whole.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION OUTLOOK

The youth movement is on and the Hurricanes will be awfully interesting to watch – or, the possibility remains, they could just be awful. Everyone wishes better fortune for the organization, in terms of avoiding the rash of injuries they had last season and that will remain a key. If too many of these kids are forced into permanent, more prominent roles than what they might be ready for, that could spell trouble.

That said, if all goes well for Carolina, they could boast more breakout players this season than anyone else. But the odds dictate the contrary and I see some natural struggles as the future core of the Hurricanes finds its way in the big time. They’ll have their shining moments but will struggle with consistency and finish fourth in an improved Southeast Division.

JJ
jj@kuklaskorner.com
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Filed in: NHL Teams, Atlanta Thrashers, d, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: anton+babchuk, bobby+sanguinetti, brandon+sutter, brett+carson, bryan+pothier, cam+ward, chad+larose, drayson+bowman, eric+staal, erik+cole, jared+staal, jay+harrison, jeff+skinner, jerome+samson, jim+rutherford, jiri+tlusty, joe+corvo, jonathan+matsumoto, jussi+jokinen, justin+peters, nhl+entry+draft, nhl+previews, oskar+osala, patrick+o'sullivan, ray+whitney, riley+nash, rod+brind'amour, southeast+division, tim+conboy, tim+gleason, tuomo+ruutu, zach+boychuk

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

From breaking news to in-depth stories around the league, KK Hockey is updated with fresh stories all day long and will bring you the latest news as quickly as possible.

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