The Carolina Hurricanes launched their new look in June with the slogan “New Storm.” The Canes’ roster hasn’t changed much, but after a season in the Eastern Conference basement, they certainly hope that a new storm is brewing in Raleigh.
The Hurricanes ranked 29th in goals against per game in 2013, ahead of only the woeful Florida Panthers. If their defense doesn’t make a drastic improvement, head coach Kirk Muller‘s third season in North Carolina could be his last.
The Canes’ hopes in 2013 will be heavily dependent on the health of goaltender Cam Ward. Despite the fact that Ward posted his worst save-percentage (.908) and goals-against average (2.84) since 2007, the Canes led the Southeast Division at the time of his season-ending MCL sprain.
GM Jim Rutherford went out and snagged a quality insurance policy for Ward in former Bruins backup Anton Khudobin. The Kazakhstani netminder went 9-4-1 behind Tuukka Rask last year, stopping 92% of the shots he faced. If Ward’s play doesn’t return to his usual all-star standard, Khudobin could even make a run at the starting job in the middle of the season.
Defenseman Andrej Sekera was acquired from Buffalo in a trade to replace the departed Joe Corvo. The serviceable blue liner should slot in on Carolina’s second pairing but he is unlikely to make a major difference in the long run.
20-year old Ryan Murphy could make a much bigger mark if he cracks the lineup in training camp. The 2011 first-round pick is a dynamic playmaker from the point and he might be ready to quarterback the powerplay this season. His defensive game could use some more tuning so a stop with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers is likely. If he does managing to earn a roster spot, he’ll be a game changer.
The Hurricanes offense was topsy-turvy in 2013. Mercurial winger Alexander Semin justified his price tag and earned a five-year extension with 44 points in 44 games. Alongside him on the top line, captain Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty also enjoyed highly productive campaigns.
The rest of the lineup was a bit of a different story. 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner‘s regression continued, with the gifted youngster putting up just 24 points to go along with an abysmal minus-21 rating.
After being traded south by the Penguins, Jordan Staal failed to capitalize on an expanded role. The second-overall pick in the 2006 entry draft put up a reasonable total of 31 points in 48 games but he has the talent to do much more.
If Staal and Skinner can finally maximize their potential, the Canes could have a fearsome top-six. Both players have the talent to score 30-plus goals and near 70 points but the duo will be hard to bet on until they prove it.
Even if the current second liners don’t step up, top prospect Elias Lindholm just might. The Swedish teenager was selected fifth overall in June’s draft, and he is not far from an NHL debut.
The center honed his well-rounded game against full-grown professionals in the Swedish Hockey League, suggesting that he will have an easier adjustment to the NHL than a player coming from college or juniors. A spot on the third line, or even the second, seems well within his reach in camp.
With their move to the new Metropolitan Division, the Hurricanes have traded the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets for some of the NHL’s top franchises. The Washington Capitals have provided enough of a challenge in recent years. The addition of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and New York Islanders could overwhelm the Canes.
Carolina is in a tough spot this season. They have enough talent to form a contending core, but they aren’t yet ready to compete for a title. They should improve on their disappointing 2013 season, but a playoff run would be something of a surprise. Then again, at least one unexpected guest usually crashes the postseason party.