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Droschak: Top 10 Storylines for 2009-10

Wednesday, 09.30.2009 / 8:00 PM ET / News
By David Droschak
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Droschak: Top 10 Storylines for 2009-10
It seems like yesterday that the Canes were making yet another remarkable playoff run and hockey was at a fever pitch across the Triangle. And if you want to talk about time flying, it’s hard to fathom this will be the 12th season for the franchise in North Carolina. I’ve covered each and every one of those seasons and it remains one of my favorite assignments as a journalist.

We can take for granted an organization that more often than not does more with less and provides this area with professional athletes who are willing to mingle in the community and become part of its fabric.

So, Caniacs, get ready for another season of Ric Flair’s WOO’s, Dancin’ Granny’s shimmies and shakes, tailgating and a ton of entertaining NHL action.

As is tradition, here are my top 10 storylines to watch for in 2009-10.  

1. Happy Stars: Jim Rutherford has now signed his two centerpieces – Eric Staal and Cam Ward – to expensive, long-term deals. Each has proven their worth over the last three seasons as players who are not only talented but have an inner drive to be the best. In other words, expect neither to slack off because of the big money. Staal has turned into one of the NHL’s most dependable players, while Ward has thrown himself into the Team Canada mix with yet another stellar playoff run. Since his rookie season, Staal has averaged a point a game (in the regular season and playoffs) and is approaching 400 consecutive games played. Enough said. Meanwhile, Ward has logged close to 4,000 minutes each of the last two seasons. Expect coach Paul Maurice to run his No. 1 goalie hard again. Ward would have it no other way.

2. Paul Maurice
: The coach’s ability to delegate within his staff and straight forward nature with the players won over each group en route to the Eastern Conference Finals. A more confident coach than he was the first time around with the Canes, Maurice has the respect of the players out of the gate. In hockey, that’s more than half the battle. Maurice has stressed competition, hard work and defensive responsibility as benchmarks for good play. He also will tinker with line and defensive combinations more than in his early days as a coach, which keeps players digging for ice time. 

3. Offense: The Canes didn’t get more offensive with the additions of journeyman penalty killer Stephane Yelle, enforcer Tom Kostopoulos and defensemen Aaron Ward, Andrew Alberts and Jay Harrison. Those five players combined for just 64 points in 306 games last season. Just on defense, Carolina parted ways with Anton Babchuk and Dennis Seidenberg, who combined for 65 points in 142 games. And top defenseman Joni Pitkanen missed the entire preseason following knee surgery and may be somewhat behind with his hands and puck skills. 

4. Blue Line
: Rutherford didn’t like his club being pushed around in the playoffs against New Jersey and Boston and spent the offseason trying to beef up the defense. He now believes his defensive corps is the best he’s assembled. The group does have a nice mix of offense (Pitkanen and Joe Corvo), veterans (Aaron Ward and Nic Wallin), all-around players (Tim Gleason and Andrew Alberts) and tough guys (Tim Conboy and Jay Harrison). This gives Maurice plenty of pairing options.

5. Bouncebacks
: If the Canes are to overtake Washington and win the Southeast Division title, Rod Brind’Amour and Erik Cole must have 60-point seasons or better. The two combined for just nine playoff points last year in 36 games. Brind’Amour, beginning his 21st season, was nursing a knee injury last season and appears ready to roll. The captain will likely be given an opportunity to center the team’s second line as the season starts. More ice time for Brind’Amour translates into face-off wins and puck possession. After returning to the team from Edmonton, Cole clicked with former linemate Staal, but didn’t produce offensively in the postseason. Cole’s goal production has decreased from 30, 29, 22 to 18 last season. Happy to be back in the Triangle, look for Cole to score at least 25 this season.

6. The Wizard: At 37, Ray Whitney continues to amaze. Few knew that the Wizard played with a finger injury the second half of last season because his production remained consistent. With 276 points in 292 career games with the Canes, Whitney remains one of Rutherford’s top free-agent finds of the last five seasons. Keeping Whitney with Staal on the power play should produce another solid season for Ray in a contract year.

7. Shootouts:
Whether you like the format or not, here is one stat to remember that could come into play in a close Eastern Conference playoff run: Maurice has six aces to choose from in shootouts. Brind’Amour, Matt Cullen, Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov and Whitney are a combined 52 of 114 (46 percent) for their careers. Staal is just 2-for-11.

8. Playoffs:
With the franchise’s previous deep playoff experience this decade (2006 Cup winners, ’02 Cup finalist, ’09 Eastern Conference Finals), it’s an anomaly that the Canes are looking to get back to the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2001 and 2002. Massive injuries have played a role in some of the seasons that the team flopped. With more depth than ever, that shouldn’t be an issue this season. 

9. Discipline:
Carolina averaged less than 10 penalty minutes a game last season to place first in the NHL. Granted, the team didn’t fight much, but players like Corvo (18 minutes), Cullen (20 minutes), Samsonov (28 minutes) and Whitney (32 minutes) played at a high skill level without foolish hooking, holding or tripping calls. Similar numbers will give the Canes a major advantage on special teams.

10. Divisional Supremacy:
The Canes have been stellar within the Southeast Division over the years, including a 15-8-1 mark a season ago. Since the division was created prior to the 1998-99 season, Carolina is 47 games over .500 against team from the SE. A similar mark to last year in the division should get the Canes close to 95 points and in the playoffs again. A .500 record against Washington, Florida, Tampa Bay and Atlanta could spell trouble.

SCHEDULE

HOME
AWAY
PROMOTIONAL

STANDINGS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
  TEAM GP W L OT GF GA PTS
1 p - NYR 82 53 22 7 252 192 113
2 y - MTL 82 50 22 10 221 189 110
3 x - TBL 82 50 24 8 262 211 108
4 x - WSH 82 45 26 11 242 203 101
5 x - NYI 82 47 28 7 252 230 101
6 x - DET 82 43 25 14 235 221 100
7 x - OTT 82 43 26 13 238 215 99
8 x - PIT 82 43 27 12 221 210 98
9 BOS 82 41 27 14 213 211 96
10 FLA 82 38 29 15 206 223 91
11 CBJ 82 42 35 5 236 250 89
12 PHI 82 33 31 18 215 234 84
13 NJD 82 32 36 14 181 216 78
14 CAR 82 30 41 11 188 226 71
15 TOR 82 30 44 8 211 262 68
16 BUF 82 23 51 8 161 274 54

STATS

2014-2015 REGULAR SEASON
SKATERS: GP G A +/- Pts
E. Staal 77 23 31 -13 54
J. Faulk 82 15 34 -19 49
E. Lindholm 81 17 22 -23 39
V. Rask 80 11 22 -14 33
J. Skinner 77 18 13 -24 31
N. Gerbe 78 10 18 -14 28
R. Nash 68 8 17 -10 25
J. Staal 46 6 18 -6 24
J. Liles 57 2 20 -9 22
J. McClement 82 7 14 -7 21
 
GOALIES: W L OT Sv% GAA
C. Ward 22 24 5 .910 2.40
A. Khudobin 8 17 6 .900 2.72