The Hurricanes' forward-thinking draft plan was a direct response to the radical division changes.
By JOHN MANASSOFS Carolinas
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.