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Three Questions with Canes Country

Copper and Blue caught up with Craig Johnson from Canes Country to ask him about the Carolina Hurricanes.

The bitter taste of defeat still sits in my mouth.
The bitter taste of defeat still sits in my mouth.
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

One of the more interesting teams this season has been the Carolina Hurricanes. Despite their poor start in the standings, there is more to look at when it comes to this team.

Copper and Blue: As of today, the Carolina Hurricanes rank 3rd in the NHL in CF% despite sitting 25th in the standings. From the outside looking in, the Hurricanes are a tough team to read this year.  How has their season been and where do you see it going from here.

Canes Country: This is an incredibly tough question for the resident optimist here at CanesCountry. Given that reality forces its way to the forefront based on Carolina’s play, you have to take the bad with the good. Most knowledgeable fans would admit that everything would have had to go perfectly and the bounces would all have had to go our way for us to even be a bubble team. Squeaking into the playoffs was and continues to be the proverbial pipe dream. With that said there are both glimmers of an exciting future and inexplicable disappointments. We feel, for the most part, that the coaching staff is or can be very good, but there still remain questions and growing pains: (Bill) Peters’ propensity to constantly mix and match his lines, (Rod) Brind ‘Amour’s power play remains near the bottom of the league, (Steve) Smith’s penalty kill, which was so good last year seems mired in mediocrity or even worse. With that said, when the boys play well, the system is quite effective, very exciting, and fun to watch.

However, the results just are not there.  There are bright spots - Victor Rask continues to grow and is fast becoming a very, very good hockey player. Noah Hanifin shows signs he had such a high draft position despite the occasional gaffe typical of an 18 year old. Brett Pesce is a wonderful 21 year old surprise who plays calm and thoughtful hockey. He’s also got a bit of an offensive upside that some might have hoped for but few counted on.  Kris Versteeg seems to be more than adequately filling his role as a "distributor" no matter which line he finds himself on.  And John-Michael Liles is quietly continuing his very solid play (which surfaced at about the 60 game mark of last season).

There are also way too many low lights.  Elias Lindholm, now on pace for a 16 point season, has seemingly disappeared. There doesn’t seem to be any explanation for the funk, nor is a solution apparent. Jordan Staal has lost any semblance of offensive output. On the scoring challenged Hurricanes his 6 points are good for 5th on the team in scoring but he’s a far cry from the 50 point scorer most of us fans expected or at least hoped for.  Jeff Skinner is a very interesting story.  He’s playing some of his best defensive hockey and even is passing more than in year’s past.  But he is truly snake-bit, missing just high, just wide, or whiffing on open nets. Any hoped for secondary scoring from Nash, Terry, Nestrasil, or Gerbe (who is now hurt) hasn’t materialized.  Even Eric Staal seems to be struggling with his accuracy.

As far as the rest of the season is concerned this is where it gets tough.  The optimist in me sees just enough good things to think that there’s a potential turn around, a potential run in this team.  But the realist (and probably most of the commenters on our site) in me sees us continuing to struggle all year, playing just well enough to pull down a high mid-round draft position (7-9).  There are just too many games where we look out of sync and ragged. There are too many games where we don’t demonstrate enough heart to overcome our level of talent.  In the end, the frustration that has been the hallmark of our season so far, seems to be honestly earned and sure to continue paying its ugly dividends.

C&B: Life-time Hurricane Eric Staal is set to become a free agent this offseason. Do you see the team resigning him and, if so, what will his price tag be?

CC: This is the question that ties us Hurricanes’ fans up in knots.  Even with the seeming decline in his play, he’s still a 1st liner on many, if not most teams. He’s still one of the two best players on the team (fast-rising Justin Faulk is giving him a run for that mantle).  He has the potential to score in bunches, but more importantly he remains the focal point of most opposing teams defensive efforts.  That helps all of the potential youngsters on this team by taking some of the pressure off.  Personally, I’d like to see the team re-sign him to a "reasonable" contract because I think he’s got another 4 or 5 years of Top 6 play in him and top line centers are very difficult to come by.

The counter argument is that it is time to move on, not to mention that he’ll be one of the most sought after assets at the trade deadline.  Some expect a kings ransom for him.  Other’s think we’ll get substantially less.  But with his salary and his no movement clause there are some challenges.  If Eric is moved the Canes would likely consider retaining some of his salary, maybe even up to half.  Or they would equally consider a salary dump coming back.  Yet, those two scenarios mean better quality assets are returned to the Hurricanes.  If Eric Staal gets traded, I think he will return a 1st rounder and a very good young player or prospect…perhaps even another B- asset too.  If salary is retained or a cap dump comes back then there might be a pick or better prospect instead of the lower level prospect.

If Eric Staal is re-upped most would like to see it for not much more than $6 million per year and probably for not much more than 4 or 5 years.  Again, depending on how this year plays out, I’d probably consider going as high as Spezza money, but I’d be in the distinct minority of Carolina fans.  Ron Francis likely sides with the majority of the fans.

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C&B: One of the surprises this season from Carolina has been the play of the fifth year defender, Justin Faulk, who appears to be in the midst of a breakout year.  What has made this year special for him?

CC: The premise of your question would probably spawn an argument from most Hurricanes fans who are more than just casual watchers of this team.  We saw Justin come into his own two years ago as he started sniffing at his top pairing potential.  He began asserting himself, began limiting his mental errors (which he is still occasionally prone to), and showing a glimmer of his offensive talents. Last season’s 15 goal, 49 point performance was his true breakout year.  His defensive skills showed up nightly with him playing against the best opposing lines and players.  His offense was something that we had hoped for, had heard about, but were really excited to see come so quickly and with such scope.

The summer before last season, Faulk attended a shooting camp (I believe it is the same one Zach Parise attends or has some affiliation with).  He came into last season with an improved release, a better wrister, and his cannon of a slap shot became deadly accurate.  All of that is proving to continue to get better as is evidenced by his league leading 8 power play goals.  Much of his improvement can probably be attributed to his increased confidence as well as his growing leadership now that he wears the "A" for the team.  Even when he makes a mistake, he seems to make up for it with a stellar follow up play, a score, or some other intangible event.  Quite frankly, he might be neck and neck with Eric Staal as the best player on the team, but there’s not doubt, 21 games into the season, he’s this club’s most valuable player.

Thanks for the opportunity to shed some light on the Canes.  We don’t get much love around the league and might have a bit of a complex about it.  Regardless, even if it is hard being a Caniac, I don’t know many who’d trade in that moniker.