Cole’s Departure Should Pave Way for a Sleeper

Updated: July 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm by Alexander Monaghan

Erik Cole departed from the Carolina Hurricanes for the second time in four seasons, choosing to sign with the Montreal Canadiens on July 1st. His departure comes mainly due to money as GM Jim Rutherford failed to bring him back at a reasonable price. However, we could care less about the politics and would prefer to take a look at the possible replacements on the wing of Eric Staal.

While Cole played mostly with Staal, he also joined the second line with Tuomo Ruutu and Jeff Skinner. In short, he played a top-six role and eclipsed 50 points which five of six players registered; all six if you prorate Cory Stillman ‘s five goals and 16 points in only 21 games (62).

Head coach Paul Maurice plays a relatively balanced system which gives skilled players enough room to produce while not killing them on the other side of the ice; he does overwork Cam Ward but that remains another story. We feel that there is room for at least one more 50-point producer in the top six if not two with the assumed departure of Stillman.

I recently chatted with some members of the Canes’ blogosphere (notably Carolyn Christians of Canes Country, Patty at Lets Go and the always helpful Doug Abrams) regarding who would replace Cole, and even Stillman for that matter. My inquiry went from a short piece into an all encompassing audit of the offensive system. Nevertheless, I’ve been itching to catch up on my Canes’ writing after disbanded last season.

Before I continue jabbering, let’s take a look at the candidates.

Zac Dalpe

If you like a high-ceiling prospect as your candidate, then Dalpe as well as Zach Boychuk should be the horse you back. Ranked 35th among NHL prospects, via Hockey’s Future, the Canes’ second round pick in 2008 enjoyed 15 games at the NHL level, registering three goals and four points. Although he made the team out of camp, he only lasted seven games before eventually going back to Charlotte. His second stint came after strong play with the Checkers as he finished the season with 23 goals and 57 points in 61 AHL games and followed that up with six goals and 13 points in 16 playoff games. Due to his pedigree — Dalpe won CCHA Player of the Year back in 2010 — we think Dalpe has one of the best chances of breaking out at this level. But he has competition, such as the man the team took before him back in ’08…

Zach Boychuk

Boychuk enjoyed a few more games than Dalpe last season, earning 23 games last year and 31 the year before. Last season he played primarily with Cole and Staal prior to their renaissance with Stillman. He produced 22 goals and 65 points with the Charlotte Checkers and should be penciled in for a roster spot this upcoming season. While he saw a good deal of top line minutes it should be noted he also was resigned to checking line duty alongside Ryan Carter, Brandon Sutter, Patrick Dwyer and Troy Bodie; as was Dalpe. Both of these players impressed, as has…

Drayson Bowman

Although probably not enough to warrant a spot on a scoring line. At the tail end of the year he teamed with Sutter and Chad LaRose to form a true checking line. Over his 31 NHL games, the Michigan native only put up two goals and an assist, with both goals coming in ’09 – ’10. Nevertheless, he should be able to force a permanent spot in the lineup unless he has been replaced by one of the two newcomers, like…

Alexei Ponikarovsky

Ponikarovsky escaped the doghouse of head coach Terry Murray in order to earn a spot in Raleigh. He played for Maurice on the Toronto Maple Leafs during the bench boss’s only two seasons in Canada so there remains a connection. Prior to a forgettable season in Los Angeles, Ponikarovsky enjoyed two decent seasons posting 50 and 61 points respectively. If he can prove to bounce back at age 31 and mesh with some of the current forwards, there should be no problem regaining that status. However, he won’t be handed the role that easily. He will need to earn it, as will fellow neophyte Cane…

Anthony Stewart

The former Florida Panthers first-round pick moves to yet another team in the Southeast Division. Last season he established himself as a legitimate NHLer with the former Atlanta Thrashers by scoring 14 goals and 39 points. His brother Chris may be the star in the family but Stewart proving himself at the NHL level helps in almost every facet; he may even become a poor-man’s version of his brother. If not, his physical presence should at least make it hard for the opposition to play against him. He remains as wildcard, just like 2011 draftee…

Victor Rask

Somehow Rask fell in the draft, freefalling into the second round and into the possession of the Canes. At one point during last season it looked like Rask would fit in somewhere around the top-10. Alas, the draft continues to be a turbulent ride and despite his lofty fall he has every opportunity to make the team according to Rutherford, via Hockey’s Future.

He’ll go to rookie camp. He’ll come to our big camp. If he can make the team, he’ll make the team. If he can’t, we’ll have to make a decision at that point in time whether it’s better that he goes back and plays [major] junior or he goes to (Carolina’s AHL affiliate) Charlotte. But we do have the flexibility of possibly putting him Charlotte because he’s not a contracted player in Europe.

He projects as a two-way forward who can handle the puck quite well. Regardless of his long-shot status his high-end potential would put him in a top-6 role opposed to toiling on the fourth line alongside Dwyer and Tim Brent. He remains a longshot for a scoring role as does…

Jiri Tlusty

Back in 2006, Tlusty projected as a Jaromir Jagr type player. Nowadays, in his forgotten fourth line role, he likely has one more shot at breaking out. The Czech native showed promise in all three of his seasons under Maurice but only once looked like an offensive force — back in ’08 – ’09 while playing on the Toronto Marlies. He played that season with AHL-veterans Tim Stapleton and former Cane Bates Bataglia which may have padded his stats. Perhaps he was just destined for a bottom line assignment, much like his teammate…

Chad LaRose

The same LaRose that teased us with a career high of 19 goals two years ago. Don’t get me wrong, LaRose is an excellent player in his role — killing penalties, shutting down the opposition and scoring some dirty and not so dirty goals. A scoring winger he is not. In fact, the roundtable of bloggers I questioned threatened to throw something at me if I mentioned him here in this spot. LaRose should be glued to Sutter next season creating a very firm role. Unlike his teammate…

Tuomo Ruutu

Ruutu is guaranteed to play in the top six but the question is where? Christians believes he fits in on the right side of Staal which would be a huge boon to his fantasy value.  Fresh off a career high in assists (38) and points (57), Ruutu filled in admirably as the team’s second line center — a role he rarely played at the NHL level. It would be shocking not to imagine Maurice shuffling the lines enough to slot him next to Staal and Skinner.

Concluding my brief synopsis of the Canes’ forward depth, my best bets would be on Ruutu, Dalpe and Boychuk to increase in fantasy value. Stewart very well could break out this season and Ponikarovsky also could regain that scoring touch but we prefer to go with the young and proven strengths in the system as they represent more certainty. The team’s depth chart is currently reflected in the lines, which puts Dalpe over Boychuk. Nevertheless, these things change rapidly in hockey and the added level of competition should push these players to greater heights in camp. Bob Wage of Canes Country added a very nice piece on projected goals for next season. It should also fill your supplemental offseason news on the Hurricanes.

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Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart, Brandon Sutter, Cam Ward, Carolina Hurricanes, Chad LaRose, Cory Stillman, Drayson Bowman, Erik Cole, Jeff Skinner, Jim Rutherford, Montreal Canadiens, Patrick Dwyer, Paul Maurice, Ryan Carter, Tim Brent, Troy Bodie, Tuomo Ruutu, Victor Rask, Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk