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September 30, 2013 | 7:40pm ET
2013-14 Season Preview: Carolina
By David Strehle, TheFourthPeriod.com

The Carolina Hurricanes were optimistic about their chances heading into last season, and things were looking pretty decent as the NHL calendar headed into its third month. They held a 12-8-1 record and were winners in three of their last four outings.

But the team lost franchise goaltender Cam Ward to an MCL sprain on March 3 in a victory over the Florida Panthers, and things quickly fell apart. With Dan Ellis and Justin Peters sharing the net duties, Carolina's playoff hopes collapsed shortly thereafter.

The Hurricanes posted a 6-17-3 record over their final 26 games -- which included an abysmal 2-15-2 stretch -- on the way to a disappointing 42-point, non-playoff finish.

The club's GAA sky-rocketed from 2.81 after the first 21 games to more than 3.7 goals per game during the final 26, so it's obvious improvement in keeping the puck out of their net is an absolute must in the upcoming season.

You need look no further than the Canes' own back yard to determine another of their biggest downfalls in the lockout-abbreviated year. Carolina's 14 losses was the most of any team on home ice and their 9-14-1 record at PNC Arena was good enough for just 19 points, an NHL-low total. The Hurricanes were one of only four clubs that managed to close out the schedule with a losing record in their own building.

There were some positives last year. Captain Eric Staal (18-35-53 in 48 games) averaged better than a point per game for the first time since 2005-06, winger Alex Semin took his one-year deal and ran with it by posting 13-31-44 in 44 games, and Jiri Tlusty notched career highs in both goals (team-leading 23) and points (38) in the shortened season.

Kirk Mullerís club will need several things to go right in order to compete for a postseason berth in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division -- continued production from the trio and bounce-back years from Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal; a healthy Ward; an overall improvement in the Canesí play in their own end.

FORWARDS

Carolinaís offensive attack ranked 13th last season and should get an additional boost with a healthy Tuomo Ruutu, who missed all but 17 games following hip surgery. Jim Rutherford also added Nathan Gerbe, Kevin Westgarth, and Aaron Palushaj. Other possibilities to garner roster spots are fifth-overall pick Elias Lindholm, and 17-year NHL vet and training camp invitee Radek Dvorak. The 36-year-old has been skating on a line with youngsters Lindholm and Skinner in camp.

Three to watch:

Seminís excellent year resulted in a five-year, $35 million contract extension. But with all of the question marks from his days in Washington surrounding the 29-year-oldís desire to play, will he bring the same compete-level with guaranteed security as he did when he was playing to continue his NHL career last season?

Jordan Staal posted 10 goals and 31 points in his first season in Carolina -- or 15 goals and 19 points less than he contributed the previous year in just 14 fewer games with Pittsburgh -- numbers Rutherford would likely want to see improve with the 10-year, $60 million extension that kicks in this year.

The Hurricanes will need more than what they got out of Skinner in 2012/13. The 2011 Calder Trophy winner is crucial to the success of the teamís second line, and provided only 13 goals and 24 points in 42 contests last year. He also ended up a -21, just one plus better than Florida defenders Brian Campbell and Erik Gudbranson for the leagueís worst total.

DEFENSEMEN

As the regular season fast approaches, the club's blue line appears to be the club's Achilles heel. Even before losing workhorse Joni Pitkanen for the season with a broken heel bone, the corp was already suspect. Incumbents Tim Gleason, Justin Faulk, and Jay Harrison got help when Rutherford added three large defenders in Andrej Sekera (6', 205 pounds), Mike Komisarek (6' 4", 235), and Ron Hainsey (6' 3", 210). While 20-year-old Ryan Murphy may have an inside track on landing a spot, the GM may still be actively seeking more NHL-ready help.

Two to watch:

Komisarek played all of four NHL contests with the Maple Leafs in 2012/13, and became a casualty of the amnesty buyout clause in July. At 6' 4" and 235 pounds, the former seventh-overall selection of the Montreal Canadiens in 2001 brings a big-bodied, physical presence to Raleigh. How will he perform, and will the 31-year-old be able to handle the rigors of an 82-game regular season?

Hainsey spent the past five seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers / Winnipeg Jets franchise, but the UFA found no takers when his contract expired after the 2013 campaign. Some believe he was black-balled by NHL owners because of his NHLPA work during the lockout, but Pitkanen's injury made it impossible for the Hurricanes to take a pass. Though his offensive production has curtailed in recent years, the 32-year-old brings a solid veteran defensive presence to blue line in need.

GOALTENDING

As Cam Ward goes, so go the Carolina Hurricanes. Ward's loss was devastating to the Carolina's campaign, and the disparity in GAA numbers with him and without him in the lineup were almost mind-boggling. The club has leaned heavily on their starter since he grabbed hold of the reigns during the 2005/06 postseason, and it's easy to see why. Still, Ward cannot do it all by himself. His GAA was as high as it's been since 2006/07, and his save percentage was the lowest it had been since 2007/08. Rutherford has to hope his patchwork defense will be good enough to lend ample support for Ward. If not, it could be another long year in Raleigh.

The club did make a solid UFA signing in July when they inked former-Boston Bruins' goalkeeper Anton Khudobin to a one-year deal. The 27-year-old posted a 9-4-1 record with a stellar 2.32 GAA and .920 save percentage while giving Tuukka Rask a break in 14 games last season. Khudobin provides Carolina with a bit more security than the backup tandem last season should Ward suffer another long-term injury. The native of Kazakhstan was excellent in his Canes debut by stopping 41 Montreal Canadiens shots in a 3-1 win, Carolina's first of the preseason.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Canes' special teams were among the worst in hockey last season, with both units finishing in the NHL's bottom four. The power play ended up 27th-overall (14.6%), while the penalty kill finished 28th (77.6%).

The man advantage unit should be in good shape up front with Eric Staal, Semin, and Skinner, but the subtraction of power play specialists Joe Corvo and Marc-Andre Bergeron from the point could further weaken the group. This is an area where Murphy could easily step in and play a key role, possibly quarterbacking the Hurricanes' power play. More than half of the 53 goals the offensively-gifted blue liner tallied during his junior career with the Kitchener Rangers came via the man advantage.

The penalty-killing unit should see improvement right off the bat if Ward can remain healthy. Additionally, Komisarek and the other large-bodied additions to the Carolina back line stand to see significant PK ice time.

PREDICTION

Carolina still managed a third place finish in the Southeast Division. That grouping was historically the weakest in the Eastern Conference for much of its 14 seasons of existence, and the Hurricanes sported excellent records against divisional foes other than the Washington Capitals (5-10-2 last three years). If Carolina was mired in a slump, they could usually rely on breaking free against the Atlanta Thrashers / Winnipeg Jets (32-20-6 last nine), Tampa Bay Lightning (25-21-6 last eight), and Florida Panthers (31-17-4 last eight).

The Hurricanes will not have any such luxury this season in the newly-created and ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.

In addition to the Capitals, Carolina now must also face the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, and Columbus Blue Jackets on a regular basis. Unfortunately for the Canes, they have a losing mark against each of those teams except the Islanders over the last five years.

Unlike the good old days in the Southeast Division, Carolina will find the divisional playoff format problematic in their new surroundings. With the top four spots qualifying for the postseason, it would seem a stretch for the Hurricanes to finish in the top half. Washington, Pittsburgh, and the Rangers should be top clubs, Philly revamped after failing to qualify for the playoffs, and the improving Islanders are riding high coming off a postseason berth. Columbus is one of the most improved franchises in all of sports and barely missed the playoffs last year. New Jersey looks to be the only other Metro club that should really struggle this season.

Unless Ward has a Vezina-type campaign and the club's overall defense improves greatly, expect a long year in Raleigh, one that likely sees them finish in the divisionís bottom three.

David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.


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