(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
On March 15, the Carolina Hurricanes were one point ahead of the Winnipeg Jets for first place in the Southeast Division. The Canes then grabbed just 11 points out of a possible 44 over their final 22 games as they finished third in the division and 13th in the Eastern Conference. It was a tale of two halves.
The final two months of Carolina's season saw the team's promising start derailed by injuries. From Cam Ward (sprained MCL) to Jeff Skinner (concussion) to Justin Faulk (sprained MCL), what was looking like their first playoff appearance since 2009 quickly turned into an appearance in the NHL Draft Lottery. Injury talk has creeped into the 2013-14 season buildup with defenseman Joni Pitkanen still off skates after a heel injury and captain Eric Staal returning from a knee injury suffered at the World Championships in May.
While close to being 100-percent team healthy, can the Canes stave off the injury bug and build off of last season's first half in their new Eastern Conference surroundings?
After spending on Jordan Staal and Alex Semin (who would sign a 5-year extension in March), general manager Jim Rutherford kept this a quiet summer, filling in some depth. Andrej Sekera, acquired in a draft day trade, and Mike Komisarek were added to a defense that allowed 3.31 goals per game last season.
Like Sekera, Nathan Gerbe (1-year deal) spent his entire career with the Buffalo Sabres, but after struggling the past few seasons, a change of scenery might do him some good.
When Cam Ward went down in March, head coach Kirk Muller turned to Dan Ellis and Justin Peters. Neither provided stellar results and with Ellis now gone to Dallas, Rutherford brought in Anton Khudobin to bring a more reliable presence to spell Ward.
Also joining Ellis on the way out were Jamie McBain (Sabres), Joe Corvo (Senators), Marc-Andre Bergeron (ZSC/Switzerland), and Bobby Sanguinetti (Atlant/KHL). One future that's still up in the air is winger Chad LaRose. He's currently an unrestricted free agent and disappeared after the end of the regular season. He spoke to Luke DeCock of the News Observer in August and he'll be moving on after eight seasons with the organization.
Forward: The Canes' offense was lead by the trio of Eric Staal (53 points), Jiri Tlusty (23 goals) and Alex Semin (44 points). Head coach Kirk Muller will keep that top line together and hope last season's injury bug stays away from them and the production keeps coming.
After the top line, that's where things get dicey. Jordan Staal was adjusting to his new team last season and chipped in 10 goals and 31 points. He'll again be a key cog in Carolina's penalty kill. Jeff Skinner (24 points) suffered another concussion, an injury that's affected him now two seasons in a row.
Skinner needs to be healthy for the Canes to get any secondary scoring. Tuomo Ruutu, who missed 31 games last season with a hip injury, will return to the lineup, which will help. Elias Lindholm, the No. 5 overall selection in June's draft, is expected to be given a chance to make an impact.
Defense: Only the Florida Panthers (3.51 per game) had more goals allowed than the Hurricanes (3.31) last season. When your No. 1 goalie goes down and your defense is already suspect, that's not a good mix. As training camp approaches, the blue line has already taken a hit with the news that Joni Pitkanen will likely miss the start of the season with a heel injury. He hasn't even started skating, so it could be a while.
Andrej Sekera and Mike Komisarek were added to the mix to help Jay Harrison (110 blocked shots), Justin Faulk (5 goals) and Tim Gleason (19:34 TOI). They aren't additions that will change the face of the defense, but they'll provide depth and allow 2011 first rounder Ryan Murphy and Brett Bellemore, who impressed in eight games last season, to ease into the regular lineup.
Goalies: A knee injury and leg laceration have sidelined Cam Ward over the past four seasons. When Carolina turned to their backup, they received less than satisfactory results, which is why Anton Khudobin was signed. But it's Ward's show, and with a defense that will only be slightly improved from "terrible", he'll need to be a rock in net for the Canes.
The Hurricanes have been built on stability. They've only changed coaches three times since 1997 and Jim Rutherford is the only general manager they've known in Carolina. Rash decisions are not in the GM's makeup, which is why head coach Kirk Muller is being given every opportunity to develop as a bench boss. Last season can be washed away due to the 269 man games lost to injury, but there won't be any excuses for this year.
More teams need official theme songs.
Still just 21-years old, defenseman Justin Faulk is slowing blossoming into a stud for the Canes. He led the team in time on-ice last season (24:00) and is responsible at both ends of the rink. His play earned him an invite to the U.S. Olympic orientation camp in August.
Their new jerseys are pretty good.
The last time the Hurricanes made the playoffs was 2009 when they went to the Eastern Conference Final. There's pressure to win, but that will be even tougher now that Carolina, Columbus and Washington are joining the Metropolitan Division and the NHL's playoff format has changed.
Questions about the defense might last all season long. Who will provide the scoring after the top three will also be an issue. The playoff-less streak looks like it will continue for another season, but promising showings from the likes of Lindholm and Murphy would give hope for the future.