Who's Out: Keith Aucoin, C (FA-WSH); Erik Cole, LW (Trade-EDM); John Grahame, G (FA-Europe); Jeff Hamilton, C (FA-CHI AHL); Bret Hedican, D (UFA); Darcy Hordichuk, LW (Trade-NSH; FA-VAN); Trevor Letowski, F (UFA); David Tanabe, D (UFA); Glen Wesley, D (Retired)
What's Changed: Um... the jerseys they'll wear for 15 home games this year? Other than that, it's hard to see much that's likely to be different from a season ago in Carolina, and that begins with the team's luck.
The Hurricanes lost a whopping 333 man games to injury in 2007-08, and have already picked up where they left off, as winger Justin "Lebowski Rug" Williams will miss four-to-six months with a torn Achilles tendon, an injury that comes on the heels (no pun intended) of a season in which a torn ACL limited him to just 37 games.
Williams' injury is the first among a fairly deep group of forwards, but it likely won't be the last when you consider the rest of Carolina's wingers and pivots include Matt Cullen and Rod Brind'Amour (59 games played apiece in 2007-08), Ray Whitney (who has played more than 67 games in a season just twice this century), Scott Walker and Tuomo Ruutu (who have missed a combined 156 games since the lockout), and Patrick Eaves and Chad LaRose (who missed a combined 67 games due to injury last season). At least they traded the oft-injured Erik Cole for defenseman Joni Pitkanen... who has missed 48 post-lockout games due to injury.
And then there's Eric Staal, who somehow has missed only one game in his four NHL seasons, and was recently handsomely rewarded for his production and potential (and, especially in light of his surroundings, his durability no doubt made the decision a little easier for 'Canes management). Staal, who will turn 24-years-old two days before Halloween, is rounding into a dominant scoring center (though he could use some work in the faceoff circle), and will be leaned on again this coming season to provide big offensive numbers.
The strength of the Carolina offense (especially with Cole gone and Williams hurt) is down the middle, as Staal, Brind'Amour and Cullen, if healthy, give the team a trio of centers that head coach Peter Laviolette can confidently rely on for big minutes. Lanky rookie Brandon Sutter should also find himself in the mix at center.
Of note on the wings, the 'Canes have a couple of vets in the second half of their thirties (Whitney and Walker), a pair of ex-Blackhaws who welcomed a change of scenery in the middle of last season (Sergei Samsonov and Ruutu), the talented Eaves, fourth-liner LaRose and pugilists Wade Brookbank and converted defenseman Tim Conboy. But who will replace Williams' production? Ruutu? Eaves? Jeff O'Neill? No, no and no. Williams' injury leaves a gaping hole (though apparently the void is not a Mark Parrish-sized), and Carolina will struggle to replace the thirty goals they expected from him.
On the blueline, Carolina found their power-play quarterback late last season when they acquired Joe "Uh Oh" Corvo from Ottawa (21 points in 23 games for the 'Canes), but that didn't stop them from going out and getting another puck-mover in Pitkanen. Despite the flashy numbers that will come from the colorful Corvo and Pitkanen, Tim Gleason is probably the team's best defenseman overall, leading the squad in hits and minutes while chipping in 19 points and a plus-five rating (and surprising many pundits who laughed at the Jack Johnson trade). Past that trio, however, are question marks aplenty. Frantisek Kaberle isn't aging well (but at least he's doing it quickly), Dennis Seidenberg has yet to play 64 games in an NHL season, Niclas Wallin was a woeful minus-18 in just 66 games in 2007-08 (and totalled just eight points along the way), and neither Josef Melichar nor Anton Babcuk was particularly impressive during their last stints in the NHL back in 2006-07.
But the defense will likely be made to look better or worse than it actually is by the performance of the number one netminder behind it, namely Cam Ward. Since winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the Spring of 2006, Ward has the worst save percentage in the NHL of any goaltender who has played 100 games and, of course, hasn't played in a single playoff game. But Ward, still only 24-years-old, set career bests in minutes, wins, shutouts, goals against average and save percentage for a second straight year in 2007-08, so he's certainly on the right statistical trajectory. Should Ward stumble, Michael Leighton (he of the 98-save game and eye-opening AHL numbers) could steal some starts.
Who's On The Hook: Laviolette. When a General Manager waits a month after the season ends to confirm that the head coach will be returning, it's a sign. When that GM waits another few months to give a less-than-full-throated endorsement of that coach, that sign has been illuminated.
Where They'll Finish: If the 'Canes had won just two of their final four regular season games in 2007-08, they'd have made the playoffs. If they had managed to beat Florida -- at home -- in their final game, they'd have been in. They'll likely be in a similar position next April, though they'll be fighting for eighth in the Conference, not first in the Southeast Division, where a second-place finish is in the cards.
Gratuitous YouTube Embed: The 'Canes enjoyed "one of their better seasons" in 2007-08 (hey, it says so on YouTube!):