Hurricanes focused on finding supplemental scoring

Thursday, 09.26.2013 / 9:00 AM
Kurt Dusterberg  - Correspondent

RALEIGH, N.C. -- First, the good news: The Carolina Hurricanes had one of the top lines in the NHL last season.

Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal and Alexander Semin spent nearly the entire season together, combining for 54 goals. Even better, they're back for an encore in 2013-14.

Now the bad news: The rest of the Carolina forwards, 20 in all last season, combined for 55 goals. Among the players who skated mostly on the third and fourth lines, no one scored more than four. Coach Kirk Muller knows he has to find some find some supplemental offense.

"Yeah, that and chemistry," Muller said. "You want a line you can go out and feel real confident with, that can play hard on the road. It's easier at home to make your matchups, but on the road, it's like, can these guys go out and play consistently against any type of players?"

While production was a clear issue among the bottom-six forwards, the Hurricanes never found the right chemistry on the second line, either. Carolina had high hopes for a line anchored by Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner, but the two never quite clicked. Together they accumulated a modest 23 goals, but were saddled with a combined minus-39.

This season, the two likely will be separated. But there's more to it than that. Skinner, who scored 51 goals in his first two seasons, saw some time at center last season. Muller is mindful of Skinner's versatility, but re-establishing the 21-year-old's dynamic offensive game will get top priority.

"He's a game-breaking kind of player," Muller said. "As this all unfolds, I'm 95-percent sure he's going to be on the left wing. Who his linemates will be, I'm not sure yet. We will continue to experiment with different guys there. The third line is really going to be trying to find the right mix there."

While Skinner is itching to put up big numbers again, he's not the type to lobby for a particular linemate. After three seasons in the League, he realizes that on-ice chemistry can come from a variety of players.

"There are so many variables," Skinner said. "For me, I've had some success playing with all types, so it's tough to pinpoint one type of player. As long as they're smart, that's the biggest thing. I like someone I can read off of a bit."

The Hurricanes are hoping there's a little magic between Skinner and Elias Lindholm, the fifth pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Last season Lindholm had 30 points in 48 games in the Swedish Elite League. But at age 18, it's difficult to project whether he will make an immediate impact in the NHL, particularly playing center.

The Hurricanes have a few free-agent newcomers who could round out a line with Skinner, or perhaps spend time on Staal's unit. Former Buffalo Sabres forward Nathan Gerbe, who had spinal surgery in July 2012, hopes to find his scoring touch one season after settling for five goals.

"The organization seemed pretty high on me," said Gerbe, who scored 16 goals three seasons ago. "I wanted to go somewhere where they believed in me and thought I could get the job done."

Carolina might also look to 17-year veteran Radek Dvorak, who was invited to camp on a professional tryout. Known as a quality penalty killer, Dvorak has 223 career goals, four of them in a nine-game stint with the Anaheim Ducks last season.

"I'm still thinking I can play," Dvorak said. "I had an incredible time in Anaheim last year and I proved to myself that I can still play."

A little extra scoring punch from Dvorak and Gerbe might be more than a luxury; it could be critical. Veteran forward Tuomo Ruutu has had two hip surgeries since last December. The Hurricanes will need as many scoring options as possible.

That's where Carolina's organizational depth comes in. The Hurricanes have waited patiently for a group of young forwards to claim jobs in Raleigh, but none have seized the opportunity yet. With 106 NHL games under his belt, Drayson Bowman appears to have an inside track at landing one spot.

"Playing over 100 games doesn't hurt," said Bowman, who has 11 career goals. "I'm getting to a comfort level that I haven't reached before, and it feels good."

But he knows it will take more than feeling like he belongs.

"You can't just float around and hopefully get one," he said. "You've got to play hard and show them what they want to see, and production never hurts anything."

The sooner the better for the Hurricanes hopefuls. Finding the net early could be the ticket to a season-long roster spot in the NHL.

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