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September 6, 2012 | 11:46am ET
Hurricanes inching closer to 'contender' status
 This summer's moves have significantly bolstered Carolina's offensive game, but their blueline still needs work.

NEW YORK, NY -- Winning the off-season is nothing to be proud of. There is only one victory in the NHL that a team can feel a sense of pride about, and the Los Angeles Kings have bragging rights in that area.

Immortalizing yourself as Stanley Cup Champion has to begin somewhere though, and for the Carolina Hurricanes, the summer of 2012 was a good start.

Inconsistency has existed in Carolina since the team moved from Hartford. At their highest peak they were fortunate enough to raise a Stanley Cup banner into the rafters of the RBC Center (now PNC Arena). There was also a stretch in which they drafted in the top five, three consecutive times in this past decade. But with the pieces in place, Carolina hopes to contend for a sustained period of time.

Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward recounted the team's lack of success over the past few seasons on break-up day this year.

"I've played seven years now and been in the playoffs twice," he said. "All you want to do is get back there and have the opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup."

The first championship was won on the backs of seasoned veterans like Rod Brind'Amour, Ray Whitney, Doug Weight and Mark Recchi. Infused with the youth of homegrown talent like, Eric Staal, Andrew Ladd, Eric Cole and Cam Ward the team marched it's way to the finals ultimately taking down the underdog Edmonton Oilers in seven games.

This time, Staal is one of the veterans of the club, and the team is marching forward with a strong core of young players.

The first move was the acquisition of Jordan Staal.

Jordan's brother, Eric, has been a lifer in North Carolina and proudly wears the captain's 'C.' The trade with Pittsburgh gave the team two legitimate top six centers, something that has been proven to be a necessity for elite teams. The trade made sense for both clubs because Jordan did not sign the long term deal offered to him by Pittsburgh for a myriad of reasons. The most obvious being the strong center depth in Pittsburgh, forcing Staal to be just a complimentary piece.

"Jordan Staal can become a superstar," bluntly stated Carolina GM Jim Rutherford. "You look at a 6-foot-4, 220-pound center who can skate and play like him, you can't name me two or three guys in the league who are comparable to him. Those guys are hard to find."

The first offensive piece was in place.

Step two was acquiring a complimentary scoring threat. And Alexander Semin motivated by a one-year contract may just do the trick.

For all the insults flung at Semin over the years, the only one that should really stick is inconsistent. There are a few aspects of his game which scream elite, but he often fails to put them all together for consistent stretches of time as most players do.

The end for Semin was not the prettiest in Washington, as rumors ran rampant. And as the season ended it became abundantly clear that he would have to find a new home. While there was plenty of speculation of who to blame for the separation, it was definitely more complicated than a simply not getting along with one person.

"I think the issue is with the organization, not necessarily with the coach," Semin's agent, Mark Gandler, told ESPN's Craig Custance. "Alex is not ready to be a role player. He wants to be a full-time player. It's important to him."

Seven million dollars is full-time money, so the Hurricanes are hoping they get a full time player.

The biggest area of need for Carolina however continues to be strengthening up their back end. Ward's inconsistency can only be blamed on inefficient play by the defense for so long before it became crystal clear that he is not an elite netminder.

Justin Faulk had a tremendous rookie year, with many calling him a Calder contender. He can be the anchor-piece for a Carolina blueline that needs strong seasons out of guys like Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen is they want to be taken seriously with the top contenders in the Eastern Conference.

"The biggest thing for us, to take that big step forward, is a top line player," explained Rutherford at his end of the season press conference.

Unfortunately, consistent defense and goaltending were the team's biggest deficiencies this past year. Something that Rutherford not only did not mention at the end of the season, but also did not address at all this offseason.

With all the top end talent up front, it's pretty easy to pencil in the Hurricanes as the top team in the southeast division. It's a division that has struggled to make it's name as a collection of dangerous teams over the years, and it likely will not contend with the Atlantic for difficulty. But winning a division is no small matter, and should be step one for Carolina.

The Hurricanes will also enter their first full season with Kirk Muller as head coach, which is a big reason for the lack of roster turnover on defense. Before dismantling a team it is important to see how a new coach can work with the players in the system given a full training camp and preseason.

Ward agreed by saying, "We will see how the mindset changes with Muller stating the season with training camp next year."

The acquisitions of Staal and Semin will certainly make the Hurricanes a lot more interesting to watch this season (whenever that begins). But without addressing the lack of defensive strength and talent on the backend, they are still not yet in the conversation of elite NHL teams.

Patrick Kearns is a Columnist for and the New York Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine.



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