Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Carolina Hurricanes: An In-Depth Look

The Carolina Hurricanes are often the target of Canadian hockey fans' derision. We see a club playing in the deep South (“NASCAR Country”) in a place known more for tobacco and NCAA basketball than for hockey.

We see NHL teams moving from Quebec City and Winnipeg and the NHL putting teams in a place like Raleigh, North Carolina…and it’s not easy for us to take. When we see pathetic crowds and empty seats in these ‘non-traditional’ markets like Raleigh and Miami/Sunrise, and we see teams that don’t do very well in the standings…well, they make easy targets.

The Hurricanes – Are they a failure at the gate?

Average Fans Per Game
2003-04: 12,171 (29th)
2002-03: 15,682 (19th)
2001-02: 15,508 (24th)
2000-01: 13,355 (29th)

It’s no surprise that the Canes rank near the bottom of the league in NHL attendance year after year. Still, if they could maintain ~15,500 on a nightly basis, they could prove themselves a sustainable market in the long term.

How about in the Standings?

2003-04: 28-34-14-6 76PTS (missed playoffs)
2002-03: 22-43-11-6 61PTS (missed playoffs)
2001-02: 35-26-16-5 91PTS (Lost to Detroit in Stanley Cup Finals)
2000-01: 38-32-9-3 88PTS (Lost in Round 1)
1999-00: 37-35-10-0 84PTS (missed playoffs)
1998-99: 34-30-18-0 86PTS (Lost in Round 1)
1997-98: 33-41-8-0 74PTS (missed playoffs)

Until the last couple of seasons, the Hurricanes were constantly mediocre and either just missed the playoffs or just made the playoffs. Apart from a Cinderella run to the Finals in 2002 (Pythag Standings show them to be a .500 team), the Hurricanes have been treading in quicksand over their history.

Over the course of writing on this weblog, I’ve had the privilege to meet and talk with a few Hurricanes fans. They have their dumb and hokey fans like any other team, but they also have a fair share of smart and dedicated hard-core fans. You’d have to be Ron Jeremy-hardcore to stick with this club.

One of these fans, Camille (aka The Acid Queen) helped me analyze this year’s Carolina Hurricanes and their chances at any success in the Southeast.

Let’s take a look at the Carolina Hurricanes in more depth.

Snobby Canadian hockey fans (even myself) refer to Raleigh as “NASCAR Country”. Why would hockey succeed in a place that is known to us for watching people drive around an oval and turn left for 3 hours?

Well, according to Camille and Raleigh News and Observer writer Luke DeCock (nice name), this simply isn’t the case.

"There hasn't been a race here in 50 years. There isn't a track here. Charlotte is the world stock-car capital, but that's almost four hours and significant social drive away."

Canadian fans probably lost all rights to run NASCAR smack on Raleigh when Rogers Sportnet, the rights holder to some of the Leafs games, (yeah, that’s right) asked the NHL to reschedule a ‘Canes-Leafs’ game to accommodate the broadcast of a NASCAR race on Rogers Sportsnet.

What? You don’t believe me? Then I’d suggest you read this announcement and weep.

As Kurt Angle would say, "It's true, it's DAMN true"

With that out of the way, I’d like to delve further into the Canes chances this year and look at the moves they have made.

Coaching – For their entire existence in Raleigh (and Greensborough), Paul Maurice and his hair was their Head Coach up until the last NHL season when he was relieved in favour of ex-Isles coach Peter Laviolette.

The Hurricanes showed, and have always shown, too much loyalty to a member of their organization that produces consistently bad or under-average results. GM Jim Rutherford has managed to hold his job since Richard Nixon was president, for reasons unknown to the rest of us.

Anyway, Paul Maurice is out and Lavi is in. What changes can we expect between the two men?

1. Communication – According to Camille: “Paul Maurice never communicated with his players--EVER. Just ask Sandis Ozolinsh, who once said in the N&O "I don't know what Coach wants when he just looks at me funny" (he was traded three weeks later). He once bragged that he never talked to his goalies, and then wondered why the goalies were complaining that they had no idea what the hell to expect from the coach.“
Expect Laviolette to be the complete opposite of Maurice and give each player a defined role and job on the team. Peter always held his Islanders accountable if they didn’t show up on a particular night, but made sure the players knew exactly what was expected.

2. Trusting the Rookies – If you were a rookie under Paul Maurice, chances were that you were plunked on the 4th line unless the coach was actually forced into giving them ice time. While veterans were getting all the ice time (and being run into the ground), it would take a stellar performance from a rookie to get himself some ice time. If the Canes ever want to build something, they need a coach who will give their young players (such as Eric Staal) some real ice time.

3. “It ain’t broke…so let’s fix it!” – Camille notes Paul Maurice’s annoying tendency to frequent change lines even when such changed were not needed: "Any time a line would start to show signs of serious production, the players would get shuffled around to other lines "to even out the scoring"--and then Maurice would wonder why those players that had been scoring before suddenly stopped scoring. "

4. Excuses…Excuses… - In front of an open mic after a 4-1 loss against St. Louis in 2000-01, Shane "Whatchu talkin bout" Willis wrote his ticket out of town with the comment, “Coach told us to blame the small crowd.” – Maurice had a unique way of finding some unrelated reason why the Canes lost games. It was never a lack of talent, coaching or work ethic…it was either the alignment of the moons around Jupiter, small crowds, or poor officiating that did the Canes in night after night.

5. Offense! – Paul Maurice wondered why any team would need to score more than 3 goals to win a hockey game. Laviolette would rather pressure the puck and play an aggressive offensive forecheck compared to Maurice’s laid-back style.

With an improvement in the coaching rankings comes a similar improvement to the roster. Here is a look at the Hurricanes as of right now.

Golbez, HE GONE!

Without knowing Cam Ward’s exact salary, I can speculate that the Hurricanes will open up the season with a payroll of about $28mil USD. The salaries are spread nice and smooth like peanut butter on rye and only Rod Brind’Amour and Bret Hedican are really overpaid for their production levels. Even then, none of these two contracts are really an albatross hanging on the Canes.

Goaltending – The biggest question mark on the team as the Canes will trust their #1 duties to former backup Martin Gerber and the backup duties to 21-year old Cam Ward.

Gerber was an exceptional backup for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks the past two seasons and has a pretty good resume built up over the past few seasons.

2001-02: Gerber was with Farjestads BK in Sweden and put up a 92.2 SV% and 1.96GAA in 44 games in the Elite League
2002-03: Gerber spent his first season in the NHL and played 22 games as the backup to Giguere, compiling a 92.9 SV% and 1.95GAA
2003-04: Gerber performed exceptionally well again as the backup for Giguere, compiling a 91.80 SV% and 2.26GAA in 32 games.

Gerber will be 31 when the season starts and has proven himself at every level. I think he’ll have the tools and ability to give the Canes at least average-level goaltending for the season, if not more. This will be his first real chance to play a significant chunk of a North American schedule.

Cam Ward was the Canes 1st round pick in the 2002 Entry Draft and he looks like a real gem. Ward spent his first year in the AHL last year with the Lowell Lock Monsters and put up a 1.99GAA and 93.7 Save Percentage in 50 games. Ward has been steadily improving and it looks like the Canes will be handing him the backup reigns after just 1 NHL season. It might make sense for the Canes to get an experienced NHL backup and let Ward play another year in the AHL, but Ward would have a hard time improving upon his AHL performance of 2004-05.

The Hurricanes lacked some serious offense from the D in 2003-04 as Sean Hill, who is now gone, lead the club with 39 points and Bret Hedican was 2nd amongst DMen with a whopping 24 points.

Rutherford remedied that problem by bringing in puck-moving defensemen such as Oleg Tverdovsky and Frantisek Kaberle into the mix. While Tverdovsky is no longer than 55point offensive power that he was in his Coyotes days, he will give the Canes the heady PP QB-type that they have lacked since Paul Coffey and Sandis Ozolinsh played in Raleigh.

According to Camille, Bret “Soccer Dad” Hedican is a HUGE question mark for the Canes coming into the season: “He had back surgery in the offseason and has a pending medical claim with/against the team (from before the lockout), so I don't know if he's coming back.”

If Hedican doesn’t come back, this will give Mike Commodore and Bruno St. Jacques (I love that name) more opportunities.


Although Jeff O’Neill was sent ‘home’ by the Canes, his departure could easily be addition by subtraction. Given his lazy off-ice work habits and defensive deficiencies, the Canes were better off cutting that rotten bait and starting anew with some fresh blood, such as off-season steals Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney.

New captain Rod Brind’Amour leads a decent forward corps that has a bit of everything (size, grit, defense, and offense) and the Canes have good depth on the wings.

Given the weakness at center, Josef Vasicek, fresh off of a monster season with Slavia Prague, may be shifted back to the middle to give the Canes more offense. If Pavel “Krispy Kreme” Brendl or Radim Vrbata can provide the offense that is expected out of their talented hands, then the Canes could have 3 really solid and balanced forward lines followed by a decent 4th line.

Overall, the Canes have made some good improvements under the radar of the mainstream media. While others have derided the Canes for making ‘small’ or ‘few’ improvements, I see some great value signings (an 80-point forward for 1.75mil!) and a sudden ability by GM Jim Rutherford to identify and fix holes on the roster.

While I didn’t pick the Canes to make the playoffs, I do expect they will be a tough team to beat on most nights. With coach Peter Laviolette, this team COULD make the playoffs if everything goes right for them. I expect an improvement on the 28-34-14-6 record from 03-04, providing the goaltending duo of Gerber-Ward doesn’t totally crumble like a 17-month old gingerbread house.

As somebody from that dreaded "NASCAR Country" AND who has lived there for 21 years, I can safely tell you that "Carolina", at least the North half, is considered least, I consider it that anyway. I certainly don't consider it "Deep South" (Are we anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico? No, and thank god after what recently happened.) like a few twats. If anyone deserves the "Deep South", jokes, it's Atlanta and the Sunshine State teams. Not that I agree with that notion, because I think people who make fun of hockey south of the Mason-Dixon Line need to be kicked anyway. Lest we forget who last won the Cup AND who almost won the Cup in 2003 and 2002, AND who won the Cup in 1999.

"The South" is rising, my friend, regardless of if the hockey world likes it or not.

BTW, you want "NASCAR Country" in the Mid-Atlantic, try Southwestern Virginia on for size. Just about everybody and their brother and cousin here likes that "sport". Everybody, but my family and I, of course.
In fairness to Jimmy Rutherford:

He was still playing when Nixon was President. ;)
Any team that can put Justin Williams on its third line shouldn't fare all that badly. Those predicting the 'Canes to finish near the bottom need to rethink things (provided Gerber plays the way he should).
You're right that we won't fare that badly, but Justin Williams will not be on the third line. I don't know if those were meant to be projected lines, but it won't be like that.

Granted, camp hasn't even opened yet, but unless something drastic happens, our lines should look more like
1 Stillman/Brindy/Cole
2 Vasicek/Staal/Williams
3 Whitney/Adams/Vrbata
4 Boulerice/Cullen/Ziggy

I'm just speculating, of course, but I am really certain that Justin Williams won't be on the third line.

Unless he has a spectacular camp, I don't think Krispy even makes the team. He's got a two-way contract that would pay him only $35k if he ends up in Lowell.
I wish you would have written more to the point that we've brought in some guys for the specific point of bolstering our power play. Kaberle, Tverdovsky, Whitney are excellent on the power play. Also, we'll have a training camp and a whole season to start looking at the PP differently. Coach Maurice had a "perfect shot" kind of apporoach to running the PP. You would see us cycling the puck a lot, but not taking a lot of shots. Lavi's approach will be much more aggressive. He took over mid-season in 2003-04, so this will be our first camp on his watch. I think we'll improve greatly in pp effectiveness, and we have nowhere to go but up in goal scoring.
Anyway, thanks for not totally trashing us.
I threatened to come bust Jes' kneecaps if he trashed us--and in fairness, I did have Krispy pegged for Lowell (barring a miraculous camp where he blew the doors off everyone).
You people are awfully picky for a team that has 7 seasons ticket holders ;)

I don't expect Krispy to make the team right off of the bat, either, and that's why he's listed as a 5th liner. The Canes, and all other teams, will carry 7 dmen and 13-14 forwards to start the season.
I am a huge NASCAR fan and HOCKEY fan so shut it already. If you ever actually watched or tried to learn about he sport you would probably realize there is nothing else out there with the same speed, vicseral feeling and downright fun atmosphere. Go to Talladega in the Fall and witness 250,000 people including executioves, biz owners, professional singers, athletes and your token red-necks having a ball. I get the best of both worlds...with Hockey and NASCAR I get year round sports!! As for my CANES, we will make the playoffs so long as we don;t get hurt ebery other week. As for TORONTO, you can hvae O'neil the little panzie.
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