NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
March 3, 2013 served as a line of demarcation for the Carolina Hurricanes.
Before that day, they were a first-place team in the Southeast Division, already eyeing a Stanley Cup Playoff spot for the first time since 2009.
But during the second period of a game against the Florida Panthers, defenseman Justin Faulk fell and collided with Cam Ward, knocking down the goalie and leaving him with a third-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
Ward's season was over, and for the most part so was the Hurricanes'. They won seven of their final 27 games and finished 13th in the Eastern Conference.
"If you look at our season, it was almost like Jekyll and Hyde," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller told NHL.com. "A lot of it had to do around the time Cam got injured. Up until then we were leading our division. … We were just flying along great. Unfortunately the injury happened and we were .500 for a few games and then after that we just couldn't keep the goals [against] down and it affected our production in the second half."
Ward wasn't the only Hurricanes player to miss time with an injury, but clearly he was the most important and the hardest to replace. Carolina added backup goalie Anton Khudobin in free agency to support Ward, and remade a good portion of the defense that will play in front of the goaltenders with the hope of returning to the postseason.
The Hurricanes boasted one of the top first lines in the League with Eric Staal centering left wing Jiri Tlusty and right wing Alexander Semin. The trio combined for 42.5 percent (45 of 127) of Carolina's non-shootout goals last season.
"I played a little bit with Jiri, so I kind of knew what he was about," Staal told NHL.com. "Alex, just playing against him and seeing the skill level and the talent that he was with in Washington … we played together in one intrasquad game, and I think after the second shift I knew it was going to be really good. Just certain passes, certain plays, certain things that happen on the ice … I knew it was going to work."
Staal's success wasn't a surprise -- he led the team and was sixth in the League with 53 points in 48 games -- but it was the first time since his breakout 100-point season in 2005-06 that he averaged better than a point per game.
Semin was second on the team with 44 points, also not that much of a surprise from a player who averaged 31 goals and 64 points the previous six seasons. But what stood out to Muller was his 31 assists, second on the team to Staal's 35.
"The biggest surprise for me was how much of a playmaker he was," Muller said. "I took him as more of a goal-scorer. He might have the best hockey instincts on our team right now. He's a really smart player, loves to make plays. He kind of just fed off the other two guys and played off of those two."
The real stunner, though, was Tlusty, who set career bests with 23 goals and 38 points, and led the team in goals and plus/minus (plus-15).
The trio reminded Muller of one of the top lines he saw from his playing days.
"It's a lot like [Mike] Modano and [Brett] Hull and Jere Lehtinen when I was in Dallas," Muller said. "If you look at that line, Tlusty was the Jere Lehtinen of that line, the reliable guy, the guy who did all the work grinding it out in the corner, the two-way type winger. Given the opportunity, he showed he could score goals and produce on that line while being the real reliable guy. Staal is a workhorse, and with his size and strength opens things up on the line by his presence and his size. And then you've got Semin. … The chemistry was really good on all three. You've got a hard-working guy, you got a playmaker and a goal-scorer. They took a lot of pride in being a really good No. 1 line."
Finding depth behind the top line will be something Muller focuses on during training camp. He envisions a second line featuring Jordan Staal and Tuomo Ruutu, a pairing Muller believes will have more success this season because Ruutu will come to camp healthy (offseason hip surgery limited him to 17 games last season) and Staal has a full season in Carolina under his belt.
That would shift Jeff Skinner to the third line, potentially with Elias Lindholm, the fifth pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Who plays on the right side of that group will be decided at camp, which is exactly what Muller is aiming for.
"This is where some of these young guys have to look at it and go, 'I want that spot and I'm going to get an opportunity in exhibition games and camp to prove it,'" Muller said. "That's what we haven't had before. That's where we have that competition for these guys to battle for it. No, 'I didn't get a chance, I came up and wasn't able to do this.' These guys are going to get a chance and it's up to them to grab it and earn it. You got Dalpe, the thought of maybe moving Bowman over to the right side and being a checking-type winger. [Patrick] Dwyer, who could be the type of guy who's versatile and play there or on the third line, maybe he's the veteran guy that can play with Skinner and Lindholm, if he's ready to play. There's a lot of playing around to do during camp to see where the chemistry matches up."
After finishing 29th in goals-allowed per game last season, the Hurricanes reconfigured a large portion of their defensive group. Gone are five players, including Joe Corvo, who led the team's defensemen with six goals and 17 points.
"Two proven guys that have played, veteran-type players," Eric Staal said. "Mike has got a little something to prove, which is always good to have those guys. They’re motivated to prove something. Andrej's a guy I played against in Buffalo a number of years. He's a solid, serviceable defenseman. He does everything really well, can skate, can be tough to play against. Good additions that I think will help us."
Sekera, 27, was a solid performer with the Sabres, with 12 points in 37 games. Though he was a minus-2 last season, he's been a plus player in four of his seven NHL seasons.
Komisarek, 31, is ready for a fresh start after four rough seasons with the Maple Leafs. He signed a five-year contract with Toronto in July 2009, but things were so bad that last season he played four games with the Maple Leafs, was placed on waivers and sent to the American Hockey League. In June, the Maple Leafs used one of their compliance buyouts to terminate the final season of Komisarek's contract.
Muller has a history with Komisarek, dating to their time together with the Montreal Canadiens. That knowledge has Muller believing Komisarek is ready for a big comeback.
"I think he's really excited about the opportunity to just come and play, and show that he's capable," Muller said. "Who knows whether he's a fourth or top-four or top-six [defensemen]. … All he has to do is worry about playing hockey, helping the penalty kill. He can play physical against teams we're going to have to play against, bring his experience and attitude. You can already tell; when I spoke to him, he's really excited to get playing and everything. I think he's going to fit in great. He's going to bring so much fun energy to the room that I think that's going to be awesome."
Also potentially ready for a full-time job is 20-year-old Ryan Murphy, the team's first pick (No. 12) of the 2011 NHL Draft. An offensive star the past four seasons with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League (220 points in 228 games), his biggest impact will come as the point man on the power play. Murphy made his NHL debut last season and averaged more than 21 minutes per game in a four-game emergency recall that drew positive reviews.
"I was really pleased with him," Muller said. "He doesn't look intimidated at all. There were times he joined the rush and played his game."
Ward's injured knee was the pivot point for the Hurricanes last season. The team went 7-17-3 after he left the lineup, and went from a six-point lead on the Washington Capitals atop the Southeast Division to finishing the season 15 points behind them and 13 points out of a playoff spot.
Ward will be healthy entering training camp and has his sights set on a rebound performance.
"Last season obviously is one I'd like to forget," Ward told the Raleigh News & Observer. "I feel confident I've done everything I can this summer to get my body in the best shape I possibly can to have a healthy season. I want to make a big impact on this hockey team and let my play do the talking."
Muller also said he thinks Ward will have a chip on his shoulder from not being invited to Canada Olympic orientation camp.
"I think the idea that the Olympics being this year, it's really up for grabs for goalie in Canada," Muller said. "I think he wants to show people that not only is he capable of being on that team, but he's got the capabilities of being the No. 1 guy. I think he's got a lot to prove. He wants to get back on the map as one of the top goalies in the game."
Ward played at least 64 games in four of five seasons prior to last season's injury, and to help keep him fresh for a hoped-for postseason run, the team signed Khudobin, who went 9-4-1 with a 2.32 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 14 games as Tuukka Rask's backup last season with the Boston Bruins.
"He played on a very good team with the Bruins and he had great numbers," general manager Jim Rutherford told the team's website. "We have a scout right in Boston that saw a lot of him. He started talking about him midway through the season. He played extremely well, and we feel that he can do that for us."
Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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