Predicted by some to finish near or at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the Carolina Hurricanes shocked the hockey world by winning the Stanley Cup.
Now, they have the eyes of all 29 other teams on them this year as they get set to defend their championship.
And from the looks of things, they are serious in their quest to repeat.
Rookie goalie sensation Cam Ward will be back, mere months after becoming the first netminder since Patrick Roy to win a Cup.
Nearly all of their top scorers will return, including Eric Staal, Justin Williams, Rod Brind’Amour and Cory Stillman, although the latter will miss up to half the season with shoulder surgery.
That doesn’t mean everyone will be back. Far from it. General manager Jim Rutherford has been busy plugging up holes with quality talent while keeping the payroll down.
Gone are goalie Martin Gerber and centers Josef Vasicek, Doug Weight, and Matt Cullen as well as right wing Mark Recchi and defenseman Aaron Ward.
Still, the Hurricanes arguably managed to break even on their replacements.
Carolina also signed several players, including goalie John Grahame, defenseman David Tanabe, forwards Trevor Letowski, Brad Isbister, Shane Willis, Stephen Peat and Jesse Boulerice.
The team also traded for rugged forward Scott Walker.
Certainly the big key will be in net, as Ward presumably will take over the No. 1 role vacated by Gerber. However, it remains to be seen how Ward will do in full-time duty in net. Isbister, Walker, Letowski and Willis will do their best to fill the offensive void left by Cullen and by Stillman’s injury, while Peat and Boulerice should fill their enforcer roles nicely.
One thing that the Hurricanes had going for them was that for the most part, the team wasn’t hit as hard by the injury bug as other clubs. Forward Erik Cole was the major exception to that rule, having broken vertebrae in his back in March, yet returning for Games 6 and 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Beyond that, however, the team managed to stay more or less healthy, which was a big key to their Cup run.
Certainly, if Carolina can stay similarly healthy, they will put themselves in excellent position next season to defend their crown.
The Hurricanes don’t have a whole lot going for them. Just most of their players back, an impassioned fan base at quite possibly the loudest arena in the league along with a little banner that says they won something last year.
That’s about as serious as some took them at the beginning of last season. If they’re not careful, the Hurricanes could again skate away with another Stanley Cup.
Key Additions: G John Grahame, D David Tanabe, RW Scott Walker, LW Brad Isbister, RW Trevor Letowski, F Shane Willis, RW Stephen Peat, RW Jesse Boulerice
Key Departures: G Martin Gerber, C Matt Cullen, D Aaron Ward, C Josef Vasicek, C Doug Weight, RW Mark Recchi
Three Breakout Players:
G Cam Ward: Just as the night is different from the day, so too was the difference between Ward’s regular season and postseason. Outside of an outstanding stretch in January, Ward was quite vulnerable most of the year, looking like the rookie he was. However, during the postseason something clicked, and Ward became a dominant goalie and a huge factor in Carolina’s success. He now has the unenviable task of following that up with his sophomore year. It will be interesting to see if his considerable talents can rise to the lofty expectations that people now have of him.
C Andrew Ladd: Although he suffered through an injury-plagued regular season, Ladd made a big impact in the Stanley Cup Finals, posting an assist in Game 1 and netting the game-winner in Game 2. He possesses the size and skill needed to be a top-line forward in the NHL, and likely just needs the experience to get there. Lucky for him, Carolina’s in no rush to pressure him into big situations, meaning he can adjust at a comfortable pace.
LW Brad Isbister: This eight-year NHL vet has never fully realized his potential in the NHL. Several minor injuries kept him out for various lengths of time with Boston in 2005-06, and as a result he had just 23 points in 58 games. Still, Isbister has excellent size and solid offensive skills. There’s no reason why he can’t have a solid 50-plus point season if he can stay healthy.