goaltending 2014

Have the Hurricanes improved?

There is still plenty of time for other moves to be made but since we're only a month away from training camp, I thought it would be a good time to see how this Hurricanes roster compares to last year's. The Hurricanes haven't made many big moves this off-season, but there is a lot of new blood coming in and I think we're going to see a different looking team.

Given the way the team finished last season, that is probably a good thing but a different team doesn't always mean they're improved. There are always a few teams who move some pieces around in an attempt to give themselves a new "identity" but ultimately come away with a team that's either worse or marginally improved from what they had the previous year.

Are the Hurricanes guilty of this or is their projected roster better than what they had last year? Personally, I think the team underperformed last season and should get better years out of Jordan Staal & Jeff Skinner, which should help considerably. Not having half of the defense corps on the shelf will also go a long way and so will getting a full year out of goaltender Cam Ward. That being said, every team has to deal with injuries and the Hurricanes were not prepared for this last year. This is why I've been a fan of the depth signings they've made because those can really help out in the event of an injury. Are they enough, though?

After the jump, we'll look at where the Canes stand out and if their roster is improved compared to last year.

Forwards

Last Year

This Year

The line could end up looking very different on opening night but as of right now, the top-six has remained unchanged for the most part. This is probably a good thing because the top-six wasn't the problem for the Hurricanes last year and I think Jordan Staal & Jeff Skinner are due for better seasons. Both of them are capable of contributing 20+ goals considering the ice time they get and how many chances they created last season.

If they continue to drive the play as well as they did last season, they should get rewarded for it. Having Tuomo Ruutu healthy will also help out this line a lot, as he is an upgrade over basically everyone Carolina used ont he second line last year. I'm not sure how well moving him to left wing will go, but he has played there in the past, so it shouldn't be too much of a problem. 

The third and fourth lines are a little more uncertain and I would expect them to get jumbled around quite a bit throughout the season. The main difference with the Hurricanes bottom-six this year is that they're going to be depending on a lot of unproven players and prospects to fill out the bottom of their roster. This could really go either ay because on one hand, you want players like Dalpe, Nash, Welsh and possibly Rask to get a shot but there isn't much to fall back on if they don't work out. 

That being said, Elias Lindholm should be an improvement over Nash & Jokinen as the third line center. He is young and unproven, but has elite talent so that should be a big help for the Canes. Having Patrick Dwyer play a third or fourth line role instead of the top-six should also bolster the team's bottom-six. Nash & Welsh could be an improvement over Tim Brent as the fourth line center if they can drive the play. Brent scored a total of zero goals last season, but being able to keep play in the offensive zone is something he excelled at, so Nash & Welsh need to be able to do the same thing. They're going to play fourth line minutes, so I don't think it will be that big of an issue. 

Brent is a player that underperformed last season and the same can be said for Chad LaRose, who had only two goals and four points over 35 games. LaRose is a lot better than what he showed last year, but it shouldn't be too hard to find someone who can take over his spot on the third line and give the team a little more production. My thought is that Gerbe, Bowman, Dalpe or Palushaj will do that. The first two will need to improve considerably over what they did last year to be an upgrade while the latter two are mostly unproven, so this could go either way. I would expect all four of them to get considerable time with the Hurricanes next year because Westgarth probably isn't going to play every game and one of them will take over on the fourth line when he sits.

Overall, the Hurricanes forward corps is in a similar situation and while they have the potential to do more than the squad last year, it's hard for me to say that they're truly improved. There's a little more depth here than last season, but I would expect one or two more moves to be made before the start of the season. It probably wont be anything huge, but adding another left winger for the third line could help if Bowman's scoring woes continue or Gerbe doesn't fit in. Mason Raymond wouldn't be a bad option at all. 

Defense

Last Year

This Year

Improving the defense was Jim Rutherford's top priority this off-season and he made a couple of moves to do that. Swapping Jamie McBain for Andrej Sekera immediately makes this defense better because while McBain is a potential top-four defenseman, Sekera is one right now. He isn't a game-breaker, but he does a little of everything well and can play big minutes, something this team lacked last season.

Both the Sekera trade and the Mike Komisarek signing improve the Hurricanes defensive depth, but they also lost a couple of depth guys in Joe Corvo, Marc-Andre Bergeron & Bobby Sanguinetti. Corvo was being asked to do too much as a second pairing defenseman last year but he was fine as a third-pairing defenseman. The latter statement also applies to Bergeron & Sanguinetti, but it was redundant to keep them around with Ryan Murphy waiting in the wings. Komisarek is a completely different player than Corvo & Sanguinetti but I'm not sure if he is an improvement. Corvo might be a scapegoat to Carolina fans, but Komisarek has not played well in nearly three years, which could be a problem if the Canes want him in the lineup every night. Brett Bellemore might be able to take over for him if he doesn't work out, but he doesn't have a lot of experience at the NHL and there's no guaruntee that he'll stick in the NHL.

On paper, the Hurricanes defense appears to be improved and they have a lot more depth thant hey did last year, which will help if they suffer a myriad of injuries. However, a lot of their success is going to depend on the health of Joni Pitkanen, who is coming off a brutal heel injury and may never be the same even if he plays 75% of the season. I've gone over how important Pitkanen is to this team and why the Hurricanes defense is so relient on him, but his injury concerns make him far from a sure thing and Carolina might find themselves in a similar situation if he ends up back on the IR.

Pitkanen getting hurt this year might actually sting a little more than usual because the Hurricanes lost some mobility on their blue-line with McBain, Corvo, Sanguinetti & Bergeron leaving. Faulk & Sekera are capable of moving the puck, but Pitkanen is so vital when it comes to moving the play forward & carrying the puck up ice and it will be difficult for one of them to take over that role if he does get hurt again. However, one could assume that Ryan Murphy is their contingency plan, as he is probably more dynamic with the puck than Pitkanen, but he might be only a third-pairing guy at this point in his career and relying on him to help carry the defense could turn out very poorly.

Goaltending

Last Year

This Year

Of all the moves made this summer, signing Anton Khudobin could prove to be the most important. Khudobin is far from a proven asset, but he has posted great numbers in limited NHL action and could be a suitable back-up for Cam Ward. If he can play 20-25 games, post numbers similar to Dan Ellis (.920 EV save percentage) and be better than him on the penalty kill, then the Hurricanes might be a couple wins better than they were last season.

Remember, Ellis was very adequate for a back-up and his season fell off the tracks after he got injured. Justin Peters' .893 EV save percentage had a lot more to do with Carolina's goatlending struggles than Ellis and it's hard to see Khudobin not being an improvement over that. The Hurricanes will also need a slightly better season out of Ward, as last year was a down year for him even before he got hurt. Having Khudobin give him a few more nights off could help him out.

So in the end, you can say that the Hurricanes roster is improved, as they have a couple of upgrades and more depth than they did last season. However, there are a still a few more areas that could use some help, namely the bottom-six where they have a lot of "potential" improvements but not many sure things. The Canes still have plenty of time to make a couple of moves and I'm expecting them to sign a couple players or claim someone off waivers before the season to help round out the bottom of their roster. The good news is that most of their core pieces are locked up and now it's all a matter of building around them. So far, they've done an okay job but there is always room for a couple more moves.

The Hurricanes are going to be counting on Lindholm, Ward/Khudobin, Sekera and a better season from Jordan Staal's line to stay in contention next season, though.

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