It was a tale of two seasons in 2012-13 for the Carolina Hurricanes.
It opened strong, with Carolina starting 8-4-1 and bolting to the top of the Southeast Division on Feb. 24.
The Hurricanes were in first place when they arrived for a game against the Florida Panthers on March 3. Carolina led 3-0 8:56 into the second period, when goaltender Cam Ward left with a lower-body injury that later was diagnosed as a third-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Ward didn't need surgery, but with a recovery time expected to be 6-8 weeks, his regular season was over.
In theory, the Hurricanes' season also ended that night. They held on for a 3-2 victory against the Panthers, but won seven times the rest of the season, going 7-17-3 to finish 13th in the Eastern Conference, 15 points behind the Washington Capitals in the division.
"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. … All our stats were in our favor as far as plus/minus [scoring] differential, scoring more goals than we were giving up. We cut down on our goals-against from a year ago. I think we were 8-2 the last 10 games before Cam got hurt. 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 down and it affected our production in the second half."
Ward wasn't the only player sidelined due to injury. Backup goalie Dan Ellis and defensemen Joni Pitkanen and Justin Faulk were among those who missed time late in the season, all of which contributed to the late-season slide.
However, the injured players -- including captain Eric Staal, who sustained a knee injury at the 2013 IIHF World Championship -- are expected to be fully healthy before the 2013-14 NHL season begins. With those players returning, combined with offseason changes, Muller is positive his team can pick up where it left off in early March.
Part of his optimism comes from the changes to the team's blue line, where Andrej Sekera was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres and free agent Mike Komisarek signed a one-year contract after being bought out by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"Sekera and Komisarek coming back there are veteran guys," Muller said. "We believe Mike can bounce back and Sekera can eat up some minutes. You throw the two of them in the mix with Pitkanen and hope he's 100 percent when he's here. You've got Faulk and [Tim] Gleason and [Jay] Harrison, it's a pretty decent-size [defense] back there. Then with kids like [Ryan] Murphy pushing the envelope, and whether they're ready or not they'll get a chance at [training] camp, it gives us a different dimension back there. The big thing is looking at those six [defensemen] and we feel we can be a little stronger in our end and also can cut down on goals-against."
Komisarek is a big variable in the Hurricanes' new defensive equation. He never lived up to the five-year contract he signed with the Maple Leafs in the summer of 2009 and was placed on waivers and sent to the American Hockey League after playing four games last season with the Maple Leafs. The team used one of its compliance buyouts to terminate the one year left on his contract.
Muller has history with Komisarek going back to their time together with the Montreal Canadiens, when Komisarek was establishing himself as one of the better stay-at-home defensemen in the League and Muller was an assistant coach.
"We wanted to bring in some real character guys, and one thing Mike is is a great character guy," Muller said. "Under the circumstances of what went on [in Toronto], I don't think anyone is going to say he handled it wrong or was a bad team guy or anything like that. When I was in Montreal, he was very close to being arguably maybe one of the next captains there. He brings great leadership and all that. I think what happened is the pressure … he's played in two major markets, Montreal and Toronto. Signing a big contract, going in and starting off on the wrong foot and playing in that type of market, the pressure really mounted on him and they're not markets you can get off to bad first impressions if you want to stay. It's hard to get out of the hole. He just wasn't in a comfort zone 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."
Komisarek can help improve the team's penalty kill, which was 28th in the League last season and hasn't ranked above the bottom-third since the 2009-10 season.
Muller said the penalty kill and power play will be a heavy focus at training camp.
"I would say the two biggest things for us is special teams No. 1, and No. 2 is goals-against," Muller said. "Our big focus will be special teams and goals-against. Those will be the two big ones."
The power play was 27th in the League last season, but help for that aspect of the game also could come from the blue line in the form of 2011 first-round pick Ryan Murphy. The 11th pick of the draft proved to be an offensive dynamo in four seasons of junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. Injuries forced the Hurricanes to bring him to the NHL as an emergency recall for four games last season, and though he didn't score a point, he averaged 21:03 of ice time.
"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, but we did call him up at a time where we were missing three regulars, so he never had that opportunity to come in and play with the proper veteran, stay-at-home defenseman that makes sense … so he never was matched up with the right partner to get a good evaluation of him [but] each game he started to get more comfortable.
"He showed that at times he's capable of doing things that will keep him in the NHL. Now it's being consistent."
One place Muller isn't worried about, at even strength or on the power play, is his team's offensive production. The top line of Eric Staal centering right wing Alexander Semin and left wing Jiri Tlusty proved to be among the best in the League, combining for 54 goals. Muller said the trio reminded him of a line he watched during his playing days.
HURRICANES' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
Additions: D Mike Komisarek, D Andrej Sekera, C Nathan Gerbe, RW Aaron Palushaj, D Matthew Corrente, G Anton Khudobin.
Subtractions: D Jamie McBain, D Joe Corvo, D Marc-Andre Gragnani, D Bobby Sanguinetti, RW Jerome Samson, G Dan Ellis, RW Tim Wallace.
UFAs: D Marc-Andre Bergeron, RW Chad LaRose.
Promotion candidates: D Ryan Murphy, C Victor Rask, LW Brock McGinn.
"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, who the biggest surprise for me was how much of a playmaker he was. 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 and kind of just fed off the other two guys and played off of those two. The chemistry was really good with all three. You 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."
The key, however, will be finding complementary pieces to play behind them. There are options, with Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, Tuomo Ruutu and 2013 top draft pick Elias Lindholm all candidates to serve as secondary scorers.
"You look at getting Ruutu back and Jordan Staal being a lot more comfortable this year in our system with everything going on," Muller said. "Our top-six should be real strong. … The big thing will be the opening for who wants the No. 3 center position. If Lindholm can jump in there as a guy and play possibly with someone like Jeff Skinner and a good veteran guy on the left side, that is going to be the strength of our hockey team. If we can improve our third line … that will help our hockey club a lot."
As far as filling a second-line spot alongside Staal and Ruutu, Muller said that will be part of the competition of training camp -- the coach's first since being hired Nov. 28, 2011 -- where a number of spots will be available for those willing to seize the opportunity.
"I feel for the first time that we can grab guys in the organization and give them a full opportunity to win a job or lose a job," Muller said. "We have some decisions to make with these players. Training camp gives you an opportunity to really check these guys out and see what they bring. There's spots open this year."