Droschak: Revisiting Knowns and Unknowns
1. Eric Staal: Another All-Star season for the fifth-year center, who scored 40 goals for the second time in his career and carried the Canes for the first two rounds of the playoffs. Few Carolina fans will ever forget Staal’s determination and game-winning and series-clinching goal against New Jersey in Game 7. Staal didn’t miss a game for a fourth straight season and now has 43 points in 43 career playoff games.
Staal appears worth every penny GM Jim Rutherford spent to extend his contract, but few will argue the emerging superstar needs additional offensive help to blossom further.
2. Power-Play Point: A position shared by a large cast this season, and while Joe Corvo scored eight goals with the man-advantage and newly-acquired Joni Pitkanen showed some promising quarterbacking potential on the power play, the real surprise on this front was Anton Babchuk, who used his cannon shot to score nine power-play goals – trailing only Staal’s 14 and Tuomo Ruutu’s 10.
But while Babchuk’s shot is hard, he misses the net as much as he hits it, and his skittish play on defense during the postseason landed him on the bench at times as a healthy scratch. He’s also a free agent, so Rutherford has a tough call here. It’s likely Babchuk won’t settle for close to $1.2 million a season, but can the Canes risk offering him a multi-year deal or let him walk?
3. Hunger Factor: New blood, especially in the form of Jussi Jokinen and Erik Cole at the trade deadline, helped propel the Canes to a remarkable final six weeks of the regular season and into the playoffs. After missing two straight postseasons, Staal made it his personal goal to get Carolina back in the fight.
A taste of substantial playoff success in 2009 should help fuel the careers of young players like Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu. How hard you need to play at both ends of the rink – against New Jersey and Boston – and what style of hockey that will get you in trouble in late May – against Pittsburgh – should provide valuable learning tools when the season starts in October.
4. Chemistry: A newly-formed defense performed better than expected during the regular season, and Ruutu added a physical presence the Canes were looking for and needed. The ability of players such as Chad LaRose and Jokinen to shift from line to line – sometimes weekly – provided sparks and inspiration to teammates.
Did Carolina miss Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican – both on the off the ice -- during the postseason? No question. But guys like Staal, Gleason, Ruutu and Cam Ward stood up during the tough times and wanted to be counted in the locker room. With Rod Brind’Amour and Ray Whitney beginning to age out in the next few seasons, such a changing of the leadership guard is a welcome sign.
5. Coaching Changes: If Peter Laviolette was going to be bounced from behind the bench, many believed it would be former Albany head coach Tom Rowe, who replaced Jeff Daniels at the start of the season as one of Carolina’s assistants. But out of left field came a familiar name in early December when Rutherford pulled the trigger on Laviolette – Paul Maurice.
Not a popular decision among the fans at first, but Maurice’s record of 17-5-2 over the final 24 regular-season games and two series wins in the playoffs proved to anyone who had doubts that he can coach. Rutherford also added Ron Francis to the mix and Tom Barrasso took a more active role in the tutoring of Ward. The coaching chemistry was magic and was a key factor in reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
1. Injuries: The Canes lost 126 less man-games than in 2007-08, but injuries still played a major role in the success of the team, and several individuals.
Two knee surgeries set back captain Rod Brind’Amour big time, and he never seemed to recover, producing a below-average regular season and playoffs. In addition, Justin Williams (Achilles tendon and broken hand) never could get healthy again, missing a combined 36 games and was eventually dealt at the trade deadline that brought Cole back to Raleigh. How much did Carolina miss Williams’ scoring touch in the playoffs? Scott Walker also spent much of the season sidelined, missing 41 games. There were also key playoff injuries to Ruutu, Cole and Whitney that took a big chunk of offense away from the Canes in the Pittsburgh series.
2. Schedule: A difficult opening 25 games ended up costing Laviolette his job, but the Canes took advantage of a nice home slate over the final two months of the season to make the playoffs. Carolina finished 12 games over .500 at the RBC Center (very respectable), including a team-record 12-game winning streak, and was one of the better road teams in hockey, going 19-16-6.
The low point on the road came Feb. 28 when the Canes blew a late third-period lead against Atlanta and lost 5-3. Looking back, that win would have given Carolina home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The high note came on April 7 when Carolina capped off its home winning streak with a 9-0 win over the New York Islanders, outshooting the Isles 57-12 en route to a memory-filled night of team records.
3. Defensive Inexperience: Give Rutherford credit for luring Anton Babchuk back from Russia (he scored 15 goals) while Josef Melichar didn’t work out as well, but was used in a trade to acquire Jokinen.
Meanwhile, Pitkanen proved to be a powerful skater with unlimited offensive potential. The Canes needed more offensive punch from its defensive corps and they produced with 45 goals (25 more than in 2007-08) and 172 total points (39 more than the previous season). Gleason’s regular-season improvement was substantial, but he took a step back during the Pittsburgh series. The same can be said for Corvo and Dennis Seidenberg. The Canes also tried to move Frank Kaberle twice, but he cleared waivers and has one more year left on his $2.5 million contract.
4. Tough Division: Washington got a jump on Carolina, similar to the Canes' hot start during the 2006 Cup season, and were never really challenged for the top spot in the Southeast by the Hurricanes. Carolina was a very good 15-8-1 against division opponents, but that included a 6-0 record against a beleaguered Tampa Bay team.
The Canes finished 3-2-1 against Washington, but lost the first two matchups to fall into an early hole and allowed a combined 24 points to Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. Remember, Florida was ahead of Carolina in the standings with 32 games left, but the Canes finished four points ahead of the Panthers.