30 in 15: Hurricanes look to piece together defense

Tuesday, 09.17.2013 / 3:00 AM
Adam Kimelman  - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

When the Carolina Hurricanes were healthy last season, things were going well. They were scoring goals and rose to the top of the Southeast Division.

Then came that night in early March when goalie Cam Ward injured his knee, and things went downhill from there. Injuries and losses piled up in equal numbers, and the Hurricanes missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons since winning the Cup in 2006.

The hope is enough of the injured bodies have healed and there's a plan is in place for a return to the postseason. Here are three things to watch in training camp to see if the Hurricanes are on the right path:

1. Who's in on defense? -- The loss of Joni Pitkanen for the entire season puts a defensive unit looking to improve on a shaky performance last season in a tough spot.

Pitkanen was first or second on the team in average ice time per game each of the past five seasons, including last season, when he was second on the team at 22:49 per game. He had nine points in 22 games last season, but when healthy had been a consistent 30-point performer.

With a few new faces this season, Pitkanen was going to be relied upon to eat up more minutes and play in more situations this season.

How will they replace him? The best in-house candidate from an offensive standpoint is 20-year-old Ryan Murphy, an offensive dynamo who averaged more than a point per game in four seasons of junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League and impressed in a four-game emergency recall last season.

The team also brought in Andrej Sekera and Mike Komisarek in an attempt to overhaul a unit that finished 29th in goals-allowed per game (3.31) last season. And Ron Hainsey was signed to a one-year contract the day after the news of Pitkanen's absence emerged.

"Mike has got a little something to prove, which is always good to have those guys," captain Eric Staal told NHL.com. "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."

Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller knows Komisarek well from their time with the Montreal Canadiens, when Muller was an assistant coach and Komisarek was emerging as a top defensive-minded defenseman. But things never worked out for Komisarek after he signed a five-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs in July 2009; he was placed on waivers and sent to the American Hockey League last season.

Muller told NHL.com he is confident the best days are yet to come for the 31-year-old.

"We wanted to bring in some real character guys and one thing Mike is is a great character guy," he said. "… He just wasn't in a comfort zone [in Toronto] and it was tough to get out of it. Here I think he's in a different type of market, a little more laid back, doesn't have to come in with high expectations. All he has to do is come in and be himself, play a good, hard, solid game, feel like he's part of the group and just go out and play his game."

2. Is everyone else healthy? -- The Hurricanes' two most important players will arrive in camp coming off serious knee injuries. Ward sustained a third-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee when a teammate knocked him over during a game March 3; though Ward didn't need surgery, he did miss the remainder of the regular season.

Eric Staal also sustained a serious knee injury when a collision with Vancouver Canucks defenseman Alexander Edler during the 2013 IIHF World Championship left Staal with a third-degree sprain of the MCL in his right knee.

"I knew I was done [for the tournament] and I knew it was going to be significant," Staal told NHL.com. "I just hoped it wasn't like ACL surgery. Luckily, it wasn't. But I knew there was going to be damage. As soon as he hit me, I was squirming around. It didn't feel very good. Once I got back to the room, I knew it was bad."

Staal did not have to undergo surgery, but he did need several weeks of rehabilitation, and Muller said he'll be curious to see where Staal is with his conditioning, and how much catch-up time he'll need after losing valuable workout time to rehabilitating his knee.

3. Can they make the special teams special? -- Without Ward, the penalty kill dropped to 28th in the League last season at 77.6 percent. The power play wasn't much better, finishing 27th at 14.6 percent.

A healthy Ward should help the penalty kill improve, and the belief is the offseason additions of Komisarek and Sekera also should.

Komisarek can improve the team's penalty kill, which hasn't ranked above the bottom-third of the League since the 2009-10 season.

The power play could be aided by the addition of Murphy, who will attempt to stick for a full season after last season's brief call-up.

"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. … He showed that at times he's capable of doing things that will keep him in the NHL. Now it's being consistent."

Follow Adam Kimelman on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

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