The Carolina Hurricanes spent big last summer, bringing in Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin, but still missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth straight season and for the sixth time in seven seasons since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.
A combination of injuries and poor play can be blamed for last season's rough run, when the Hurricanes plummeted from the top of the Southeast Division at the beginning of March to 13th in the Eastern Conference when the season ended.
So how do the Hurricanes find a consistent level of play that lets them return to the postseason? How the team answers these six questions could go a long way toward answering that most important of questions:
1. Can Cam Ward stay healthy? -- On March 3 the Hurricanes defeated the Florida Panthers 3-2, but lost Ward 8:56 into the second period with what was diagnosed as a third-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He missed the remainder of the season, and with him went any hope of a playoff spot; the Hurricanes won seven of their final 27 games.
Ward is 29 but played at least 68 games in four of five seasons prior to 2012-13, putting a lot of wear and tear on his body.
Anton Khudobin, who went 9-4-1 in 14 games last season with the Boston Bruins, was brought in as the backup, but coach Kirk Muller said he expects Ward to be healthy when the season starts and to be hungry to disprove any doubters.
"I think the idea that the Olympics being this year, it's really up for grabs for goalie in Canada," Muller told NHL.com. "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."
2. Can the Hurricanes defense hold up? -- Last season, through injuries and poor play, the Hurricanes had 12 defensemen play at least one game, tied for the second-most in the League; four played at least 40 games. That inconsistency showed in the results: The Hurricanes allowed the second-most non-shootout goals last season (151) and had the second-worst goals-against average (3.31).
General manager Jim Rutherford made some changes on the back end, trading for Andrej Sekera and signing free agent Mike Komisarek. Joe Corvo, who led the team's defensemen in scoring, was not re-signed, and a few others were not asked back. Ryan Murphy, a 2011 first-round pick who got into four games last season, likely will play a prominent role this season, and other younger players, among them Michal Jordan, Austin Levi, Danny Biega and Tommi Kivisto, could earn playing time with strong training camps.
"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 [Joni] Pitkanen and hope he's 100 percent when he's here. You got [Justin] Faulk and [Tim] Gleason and [Jay] Harrison, it's a pretty decent-size [defense] back there. Then with kids like 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."
3. Can the top line make the same magic? -- When the Hurricanes opened the 2012-13 season, Muller opted to flank franchise center Eric Staal with Jiri Tlusty on the left wing and newcomer Semin on the right. The result was a trio that combined for 54 goals (42.5 percent of the team's total) and 135 points.
Assuming the knee injury Staal sustained during the 2013 IIHF World Championship heals and he's ready to play opening night, that line should return intact to start the 2013-14 season. But can it have the same magical touch?
Staal, if healthy, easily could be in the 30-goal, 75-point range, and Semin averaged 31 goals per season in six seasons with the Washington Capitals before joining the Hurricanes. Tlusty could be the wild card. The 25-year-old set career-highs last season with 23 goals and 38 points playing all 48 games. That production prorated to 82 games is 39 goals and 65 points; can Tlusty hit those marks when teams have a season's worth of video to draw from and are focused on shutting down his line?
Muller said he believes so and compared his top line to the line of Mike Modano, Brett Hull and Jere Lehtinen, which he played with as a member of the Dallas Stars.
"You got a hard-working guy, you got a playmaker and a goal-scorer," Muller said. "They took a lot of pride in being a really good No. 1 line."
4. Can special teams be special? -- The Hurricanes were 27th on the power play last season (14.6 percent) and 28th on the penalty kill (77.6). It's become an annual problem in Carolina; the power play hasn't ranked above the bottom-third in the League since the 2008-09 season, when it was 19th, and the shorthanded unit has killed off better than 81 percent of opposition power plays once (81.2, 2010-11) since the 2008-09 season.
The power play could be where Murphy makes the biggest impact. The offensively gifted defenseman could be the missing ingredient on the point, getting pucks through to the team's talented forwards in good scoring position.
The penalty kill could benefit from having two full-time healthy pairs on the back end. Last season Faulk and Gleason played the majority of the minutes; having Komisarek, Sekera and a healthy Pitkanen would ease some of their burden.
"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 [at training camp] will be special teams and goals-against. Those will be the two big ones."
5. How important will a full training camp be? -- Muller will enter his third season with the Hurricanes, but this fall will mark his first full training camp. Though he certainly has had time since his arrival in November 2011 to get his team playing the way he wants it, having a full training camp to reinforce his systems could be vital to improving.
"It feels, since we've gotten here, like we've been chasing the game," Muller said. "Came in … and it's bang, let's get playing. You're always playing catch-up, where it's one step at a time to get things going. Last year with the lockout, it was a couple days and here you go again; it was an unusual year. This year it feels like we're all starting out the same. We're all able to take a breath and say, 'Let's start with a process of getting better each day,' working on things. We have time to do all that stuff."
Muller said with time not only does he know the players he's been with in the NHL, but he's gotten to know a number of the prospects, which will make camp evaluations much smoother.
"I think we were jumping in and introducing a different system and a different style of play, them getting to know us, with our main guys," he said. "Now we can really focus more on the personnel, guys that have been in Charlotte [of the American Hockey League] for a while, 'What can you do, can you play this role, can you contribute to the team in this way or that way?' This will be the first time we can really focus on the personnel."
6. Can Elias Lindholm make an impact? -- Rutherford didn't need to watch Elias Lindholm long at the team's prospect camp to make a strong determination on the future of the team's 2013 first-round pick (No. 5).
"The opportunity is there for him to start with the Hurricanes," Rutherford said last month. "I will be shocked if he doesn't based on all of the reports we have and what I've seen."
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound forward had 30 points in 48 games with Brynas in the Swedish Hockey League last season and is lauded for his versatility and two-way abilities. But can he showcase his full skill set in the NHL at 18 years old?
"He doesn't have to light it up from Day One," Rutherford said. "We all know that with a healthy team we have a good team going into camp, and he can just be part of that and go along at his own pace. But based on the experience he has, I don't think it's going to take him very long to fit into our team."
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