Canes’ forward-thinking draft reflects division changes

Deservedly or not, the now-defunct Southeast Division had earned a
reputation over the years as something of a lightweight in the
NHL.

Never mind that teams from the division advanced
to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996, ’98, 2002, ’04 and ’06, winning the
latter two times. Still, in more recent years, playoff berths from
division were harder to come by, especially after the division champion,
which earned an automatic No. 3 seed.

With the NHL
contracting from six to four divisions and the Carolina Hurricanes
lumped into one of the more competitive groupings, their bid to end a
four-year playoff drought next season could be even more
difficult.

The Hurricanes will participate in one of
the two eight-team divisions (the Western Conference groups have seven
teams apiece), while also taking on perennial power Pittsburgh, New
Jersey (last year’s Eastern champs), the New York Rangers (who reached
the ’12 conference finals and annually spend to the salary cap limit),
free-spending Philadelphia (the 2010 conference champion), a resurgent
Columbus team with the reigning Vezina Trophy (best goalie) winner, the
New York Islanders, who are coming off a scrappy playoff performance,
along with defending Southeast champion
Washington.

Bracing for such competition after this
year’s NHL Draft, Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford likes his
team. Before he even went into the weekend, he thought he had enough
scoring (the Hurricanes ranked in the top half of the league in
goals-for last season). On top of that, Carolina expects to have goalie
Cam Ward back healthy, who often ranks among the league’s best at full
strength.

To that mix, Rutherford added a top young
two-way center in first-round pick Elias Lindholm of Sweden, who
compares favorably with the Canes’ Jordan Staal. Lindholm could add
depth and grit to the forward lines next season.

When
trying to gauge how players will project, scouts often will compare
them to current or recent NHLers. Carolina’s director of amateur
scouting Tony MacDonald, realizing the gravity of such comparisons,
nonetheless said some aspects of Lindholm’s game would lead one to
recall one of the great Swedish players of all
time.

“We get a lot of reference to Peter Forsberg
with Elias, but that is that a little too much responsibility to attach
to a kid like that at this point in time,” MacDonald said. “He’s not
Peter Forsberg but he has a lot of tendencies that Peter Forsberg has in
his game — the tenacity, the compete, the ability to do things at
speed.

“That’s one of the things we liked about him.
When we interviewed him here, as well as at the combine, he just comes
across as a kid who loves to compete, loves to play the game. He has a
passion for the game and those are the kinds of people that succeed at
the National Hockey League level.”

At the draft,
Rutherford also added the NHL-seasoned, top-four defenseman he was
looking for in Andrej Sekera through a deal with Buffalo. Proceeding
from there when free agency begins on Friday, the Hurricanes need to add
a backup goalie, unless they want to go with Andrew Peters, and perhaps
a few third- and fourth-line forwards.

Maybe
another offensive-type of defenseman would help, as well, as it seems
unlikely that Joe Corvo or Marc-Andre Bergeron will
return.

Rutherford said he had lunch last week with
captain Eric Staal, who suffered a grisly, though not terribly serious,
knee injury at the IIHF World Championships after the NHL season
concluded.

“He was doing great,” Rutherford said.
“He’s at least on schedule or ahead of schedule. By training camp, he
should be fine.”

As a result, little drama remains in
the Canes’ offseason. That will be saved for when the games start in
October and they attempt to end a too-long playoff
drought.