LBC's Kevin Kraczkowski recently traded emails with Brian LeBlanc of Canes Country regarding tonight's season-opening game in Sunrise.
Kevin - 1) The Hurricanes have a lot of added firepower this season, with talented (but allegedly lazy) superstar Alexander Semin and another of the fabulous flying Staal brothers. Do you expect immediate results - or do you think there will be a period of adjustment?
Brian LeBlanc: Like with any new season, there will be a bit of an adjustment period, but I think the team is expecting that period to be relatively short even discounting the effects of the shortened schedule. The thing about both of the newcomers is that you know what they bring, and chances are Kirk Muller and his staff were already figuring out where to best utilize their skills even before practice began. Jordan Staal is a defensive stalwart who has 70-point potential (in a full season, anyway) playing in a top-6 role, and Semin will add weapons to a Canes' arsenal that has been woefully lacking for many years in the scoring-winger department. How long the adjustment period lasts depends in large part on who surrounds the newcomers and what role the coaching staff expects each of them to fill.
2) Discuss what has to happen for the Canes to vault from last to first, and how the Panthers could stop them.
BL: Even as Vegas anoints the Canes the division favorites, they have some serious question marks, especially on defense where they lost two of their top three defensemen from a year ago in Bryan Allen and Jaroslav Spacek and replaced them with...um, Joe Corvo. They do get Joni Pitkanen back after he missed more than half of last season with injuries, but this is a defensive unit that scares precisely no one and will need to be much greater than the sum of its parts to have any hope for success. The one thing working in their favor is some serious offensive firepower, both at forward with the Staals, Semin, Skinner et al. and on defense with Justin Faulk and perhaps Ryan Murphy, but the Canes gave up the most shots in the league last year and look like they won't significantly improve on that in 2013.
3) Cam Ward is like a robot, appearing in the NHL's top five in minutes played for three out of the last four seasons, including a league leading 4318 in 2010-11. What are the chances of an eventual breakdown - or more importantly, what kind of depth do the Canes have at goaltender?
BL: Ward over the last few years has dealt with a wonky back that has knocked him out for a couple of games here and there, nothing real concerning in short doses but taken as a whole it's a bit of a concern as he gets older. It's hard to believe, but he turns 29 in a month (or he would if he weren't a leap year baby and didn't have another official birthday until 2016) and at some point you have to start wondering at what point he will start breaking down, especially given that he's been in the top 10 in shots-against every year since 2007, except for 2009-10 when he missed half the year. Bottom line: he's got a lot of mileage in his pads. This year should be a good indicator: not only is it a short season, but Ward has a history of following so-so seasons with impressive ones. Last year Ward's winning percentage was his worst of any season in which he played 60 or more games, coming off the 2010-11 season which was probably the best full season of his career to this point. The Canes have a more-than-capable backup in Dan Ellis, who beat out the hapless Brian Boucher for the job, but barring injury this is likely to remain Ward's show until further notice.
4) Going back to 2001-02, the Hurricanes have made the playoffs every third season, a pattern that was interrupted last season when they missed the postseason for the third straight time. If you end off playoffless come May, what kinds of changes do you expect to see from the 'canes FO? How much rope do they have to hang themselves with?
BL: Not making the playoffs this year will be a colossal disappointment, no doubt, but there are no obvious candidates to be swept out by the front office if that happens. Most of the Canes' key pieces - both Staals, Skinner, Ruutu, Gleason, Ward - are locked up long term, and are highly unlikely to be moved. Semin is a notable exception, as he's on a one-year flyer and if the season goes off the rails I fully expect him to be shopped to the highest bidder, but that's the exception that proves the rule. The Canes have hitched their wagon to their big-ticket players, for better or worse. Incidentally, Kirk Muller will have coached over 100 games in the NHL by the end of this season but will not have had one normal training camp, taking over for Paul Maurice 25 games into last season and then dealing with the lockout. He probably has the longest rope of anyone; it's unlike Jim Rutherford to give coaches short ropes and due to circumstances far beyond his control Muller will at the very least enter the 2013 offseason with the benefit of the doubt.
5) Let's play a game - who scores the first goal of the night? I'll throw down with Peter Mueller.
BL: I'm going to go way off the board here and go with Joni Pitkanen. Strange, yes? He did have four points (and two goals) against the Panthers last year despite playing only three games, and is nearly a point per game scorer against Florida over the last three years (3-5-8 in 10 GP).
A very special thanks to Brian for his answers going into our much anticipated first game of the 2013 season. If you want to check out the questions he had for LBC, head on over to Canes Country.