With a new general manager and coach but an almost identical roster to the one that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference in 2013-14, the Carolina Hurricanes enter the 2014-15 season with questions up and down the lineup. General manager Ron Francis and coach Bill Peters will have their work cut out for them, on offense, defense and special teams, if they hope to end Carolina's five-season Stanley Cup Playoff drought.
Here are five questions facing the Hurricanes:
1. Does Carolina have the weapons to improve the power play? -- For the past two seasons the Hurricanes have had an identical 14.6 percent power-play conversion rate, good for 27th in 2012-13 and 28th in 2013-14. At times last season Carolina appeared more dangerous in 5-on-5 situations than it did on the man advantage.
Explaining the lack of movement on the free-agent market, Francis told NHL.com that when healthy the Hurricanes still pose a serious power-play threat. The team backed that up over the final 14 games of last season when it converted 11 of 46 chances (26.2 percent). Jeff Skinner matched Sidney Crosby and Patrick Marleau with 11 power-play goals. Justin Faulk will continue to move the puck from the blue line and another young defenseman, Ryan Murphy, finally could realize his power-play quarterback potential.
Francis said the unit also will rely heavily on the savvy of assistant coach Rod Brind'Amour, the only holdover from former coach Kirk Muller's staff. He will be charged with leading the special teams.
"Obviously Roddy has a ton of experience at playing both power play and penalty killing," Francis said. "He's got a vast knowledge on that and a ton of respect in the locker room from those players."
2. Can Peters inject life into an aging defense? -- When Francis hired Peters from the Detroit Red Wings on June 19, he knew he was getting a defense-first coach. Carolina needs one; the Hurricanes finished 19th in goals-against per game (2.76) and 21st in shots-against per game (30.9) in 2013-14. This season four of the seven defensemen on the roster are 30 or older.
Though Faulk and Andrej Sekera constituted an effective top tandem, there is not much behind them. Ron Hainsey is the best of a group consisting of Jay Harrison, Brett Bellemore, John-Michael Liles and Tim Gleason.
Francis argued for the decision to sign Gleason back from the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he was traded at midseason for Liles, and adds some physicality that was lacking during the second half of last season. Francis and Peters each emphasized the importance of Murphy, the Hurricanes' top pick (No. 12) at the 2011 NHL Draft who has thus far failed to realize his potential at the highest level.
3. Can Carolina reverse its slow starts? -- Last season the Hurricanes often appeared listless at puck drop and trailed after the first period in 29 games. When he was hired, Peters told reporters that starting faster and playing a 60-minute, 200-foot game would be a major priority moving forward.
"I fully expect [Peters] and his coaching staff to have our guys ready to play from the puck drop," Francis said. "Whether that comes down to the goaltender making a big save, somebody blocking a big shot, somebody scoring a goal on the power play or generating offense early in the game somehow, there's a lot of different ways you can turn that around."
4. Will Peters find the right mix of veterans and youth on the top lines? -- On paper Carolina should have one of the most exciting top-six forward groups in the NHL. From veterans Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty to exciting young players like Skinner and Elias Lindholm, the Hurricanes feature some explosive ability.
Unfortunately, nearly all of them took a step back in 2013-14.
Semin and Tlusty are recovered from injuries that handicapped them last season. The pair should flank captain Eric Staal on a formidable top line. Second center Jordan Staal should see more time in an offensive set-up. Lindholm, the fifth pick of the 2013 draft, and Skinner, who had a career-high 33 goals last season, could join him on the second line. New signings Brad Malone and Jay McClement add an element of physicality.
GAA: 2.30 | SVP: 0.926
Despite last season's disappointing performances, this season could signal a return to form. Khudobin was fifth in the league in save percentage (.926) in 36 games. His statistics combined with his age (28), and the fact that he has faced far fewer shots in his NHL career, mean Ward will face a legitimate challenge for the starting role for the first time since his rookie season. The Hurricanes are hoping that competition elicits the best from both goaltenders.