Steve Stamkos should expect to see a lot of defenseman Justin Faulk tonight. - USA TODAY Sports
This is a big showdown in Raleigh tonight between the two teams vying for the top spot in the Southeast Division. The Lightning took the first match back in January. Tonight the Bolts return eager to re-claim the 3rd seed in the East. We checked in with Canes Country's Brian LeBlanc this morning to ask about Head Coach Kirk Muller's performance in this his second year on the job, whether Semin will become a part of the club's long term plans, and why 20-year-old defenseman Justin Faulk is a game changer.
Many thanks to Brian for taking time to answer our questions about this Carolina Hurricanes squad as the team begins a densely packed stretch of nine games over the next fifteen days.
1. How would you grade Kirk Muller through 70 games with the organization? What are his greatest strengths? Where does he need to improve? Anything surprise you about his coaching style?
If I had to assign a grade, it would probably be a B+ but there's a big caveat that goes along with that grade: he's in his second season coaching the Hurricanes and has yet to have more than a couple of days at a time to implement whatever system he wants the team to play. He hasn't had a training camp yet, and will be at over 100 games coached before he does get a full training camp.
I think that what I've been most impressed by is probably clouded by previous coaches who would never think to make lineup decisions based on anything other than seniority, but Muller preaches accountability and follows through: if you don't play well, you either get your ice time cut or you take a seat in the press box. I know that something that mundane probably doesn't make news many other places, but here it's something we haven't seen in a long, long time.
2. It's no secret in Raleigh that Alexander Semin has won over the coaches, players, media and fans since he joined the Carolina team a month ago. Do you think GM Jim Rutherford has enough money and cap space to keep him past this year? What other moves might it force Rutherford to consider? (e.g. Anything as stunning as the Brandon Sutter/Jordan Staal deal?)
I honestly have no idea how the Semin story is going to play out.
Obviously he's been a great fit with the Hurricanes, but with every point he scores his price goes up for next year. I don't think $8.5 million per year on the open market is a pipe dream at all, and while he might give a little bit of a discount to the Canes (maybe?) it's still going to need to be a long-term, big money commitment that I'm not sure if the Canes will be able or willing to make. And even if they do pony up for Semin's services, you'd be looking at the Canes next with five players making at least $5 million per season - and that total doesn't include Jeff Skinner, who hits the $6 million mark in 2014, or Justin Faulk, who is in line for a big raise when his entry-level deal ends after next season.
One would think that the cost of re-signing Semin is going to necessarily have to be either Tuomo Ruutu or Tim Gleason, simply because adding Semin to an already top-heavy salary structure would make things more difficult than they already are.
3. Would you describe for Tampa Bay readers who might not see Justin Faulk play often what he does that makes him so remarkable. What should they be looking for when he's on the ice?
Is it too short of an answer to just answer "everything?" Faulk is unreal, and deserves every accolade he gets - which are more numerous with each passing day. His defensive-zone presence is as solid as any defenseman on the Canes' roster, he plays some of the most difficult minutes of anyone (including being one of the Canes' primary penalty killers, a role that few had him pegged for) and he's always looking to make a play, somehow, in whatever situation he finds himself in.
It's obvious that Muller trusts him, what with Faulk having played at least 25 minutes eight separate times in 14 games this season. When Faulk's on the ice, especially when he's paired with Jay Harrison, watch the Canes become more willing to push the tempo offensively rather than collapsing back and focusing on just dumping the puck down the ice. Faulk allows the Canes to play the style they're built for: a team that gets plenty of chances in transition and allows for some real offensive creativity.