Season Preview: Can ‘Canes make return to playoffs?

Gone are the days when the Hurricanes could beat up on some of the NHL’s weakest teams in Southeast Division — Atlanta/Winnipeg has one playoff appearance in the last 13 seasons and Florida has made it once in the last 12 — as they will now have to prove their mettle in the newly re-aligned “Metropolitan” Division.
Along with former Southeast foe Washington, the division includes powerhouses in the payroll department, if not on the ice, such as Philadelphia, the Rangers and Pittsburgh. The Islanders were a young, gritty playoff team a season ago and Columbus, a newcomer from the Western Conference, has a talented and energized group that narrowly missed a playoff spot in ’13.
Two of the ‘Canes’ key players, goalie Cam Ward and captain Eric Staal, are coming off fairly serious knee injuries. Ward’s caused him to miss the final half of last season and helped to explain many of the team’s deficiencies, including why it missed the postseason for a fourth straight season. Those other deficiencies include ranking 29th in goals-against and 28th on the penalty kill. The ‘Canes need Ward to regain the form that made him one of the league’s top goalies in his rookie year of ’05-’06 and also as recently as 2010-11 when his 37 wins were only one of the league lead.
Improved special teams are going to have to be a part of success as coach Kirk Muller enters his third season (his second full one) with the seat underneath him starting to get slightly warmer. While the ‘Canes finished in the top half of the league in goals-for (tied for 13th), they did it with the league’s 27th-ranked power play. Surely a few more power-play goals would have benefited them greatly.
The other injury, to Staal, came during the IIHF World Championships and while looking very scary, fortunately allowed Staal to recuperate in time for the opening of this season. While Staal averaged better than a point-per-game last season for the first time since his magical 100-point season of ’05-’06, he was not great defensively. He finished plus-5, which stands out in comparison to that of his linemates: Alexander Semin (plus-14) and Jiri Tlusty (plus-15).
The major question is how the revamped defense will hold together. The ‘Canes added two players over 30 and expect key contributions from two players who are 21 or younger. That comes with top defenseman Joni Pitkanen (heel) out for the year – sadly, an injury that finally inspired the league to adopt hybrid icing.
Here is an in-depth look at the roster with which the ‘Canes enter the 2013-14 season:
Returning Players

G Cam Ward, D Justin Faulk, D Tim Gleason, D Jay Harrison, D Ryan Murphy, LW Drayson Bowman, RW Patrick Dwyer, C Riley Nash, RW Alexander Semin, C Jeff Skinner, C Eric Staal, C Jordan Staal, LW Brett Sutter, C Jiri Tlusty, RW Kevin Westgarth, RW Tuomo Ruutu
Led by one of the NHL’s top scoring lines from 2012-13 – Tlusty, Eric Staal and Semin — the Hurricanes return a core of top-six forwards (including Jordan Staal, Skinner and Ruutu, who begins the season on injured reserve) that would be the envy of many teams in the league. Nonetheless, the ‘Canes will need a better season from Jordan Staal, who posted –- by far –- the worst plus/minus rating of his seven-year career (minus-18).
The bottom-six returning forwards provide some scoring depth (Dwyer) and toughness (Nash).
While Faulk is one of the game’s top young defensemen, the ‘Canes received a major blow when they learned prior to training camp that Pitkanen would miss the entire season. Inauspiciously, Gleason, another top defender, will miss the start of the season with a concussion.
The 20-year-old Murphy, a rookie who played in four games last season, will be given a chance to live up to his first-round potential.
New Faces

RW Radek Dvorak, C Nathan Gerbe, D Ron Hainsey, G Anton Khudobin, D Mike Komisarek, C Elias Lindholm, D Andrej Sekera
After finishing 29th in the NHL in goals-against (3.31 per game), the Hurricanes essentially will have at least three and perhaps as many as four new defensemen on a nightly basis. The veteran Hainsey, 32, was signed after the organization learned that Pitkanen would miss the season.
Sekera, added via trade at the draft, was the major offseason acquisition. Not the flashy type, he is the kind of player the ‘Canes need to reduce their goals-against. His best season came in 2010-11 when he was plus-11 for Buffalo with 34 points. Komisarek, at 31, is a bit of a reclamation project after a number of subpar years in Toronto. However, he enjoyed his best seasons with Montreal when Muller was an assistant there. If he’s at his best, he will provide a solid, physical presence and a major boost.
The acquisition of Khudobin appears designed to push Ward, as Khudobin has shown he is capable of doing more than starting just 10 or 12 games per season. His sparkling .933 career save percentage in the NHL indicates that.
Gerbe could provide an extra spark of offense and Lindholm is this year’s top draft pick and a two-way player for whom the organization has high hopes.
The signing on Wednesday of the journeyman Dvorak, who will be 37 this season, remains a bit of a head-scratcher.
Out The Door

D Joe Corvo, D Jamie McBain, D Bobby Sanguinetti, RW Chad LaRose, D Marc-Andre Bergeron, C Tim Brent
To an extent, a few of the ’12-’13 ‘Canes reads like a “Who’s Who” of players gone to Europe. Sanguinetti and Brent each are playing in Russia’s KHL and Bergeron is playing in Zurich. Corvo, who spent three separate stints in Carolina, is back in Ottawa for a second. Ellis has moved on to Dallas, his fourth organization in three seasons.
LaRose, a long-time Hurricane and member of the ’06 Cup champion team, perhaps surprisingly, remains unsigned.

Fifth in the Metropolitan, eighth in Eastern Conference
Owing to the league’s new playoff format, the fifth-place team in one division can earn a playoff spot if it earns more points than the fourth-place finisher in the conference’s other division.

The Metropolitan looks as if it will be a powerhouse with Pittsburgh, Washington, the Rangers, Islanders and Columbus all in contention. The ‘Canes will have to find a way to beat one of those, which will not be easy, along with besting a number of teams from the Atlantic. Carolina will have the scoring to do it but the Ward-Khudobin tandem and that defense will have to excel.