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Season Preview: Carolina Hurricanes

More scoring vital for team trying to end seven-year absence from playoffs

by Kurt Dusterberg / NHL.com Correspondent
At a glance

2015-16 record: 35-31-16, 86 points, 6th in Metropolitan Division, 10th in Eastern Conference

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify

Additions: F: Sebastian Aho, Bryan Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, Lee Stempniak, Teuvo Teravainen; D: Matt Tennyson

Subtractions: F: Nathan Gerbe, Brad Malone, Riley Nash, Chris Terry; D: James Wisniewski

 
Projected opening night lineup

Forwards

Jeff Skinner -- Victor Rask -- Lee Stempniak

Joakim Nordstrom -- Jordan Staal -- Andrej Nestrasil

Sebastian Aho -- Elias Lindholm -- Teuvo Teravainen

Bryan Bickell -- Jay McClement -- Viktor Stalberg

Phillip Di Giuseppe

Defensemen

Jaccob Slavin -- Justin Faulk

Ron Hainsey -- Brett Pesce

Noah Hanifin -- Ryan Murphy

Matt Tennyson

Goalies

Cam Ward

Eddie Lack

Michael Leighton

 

Video: CAR@WSH: Faulk buries the game winner in overtime

The Carolina Hurricanes are a team in transition. They have shed salary, cultivated a young group of defensemen, and reshaped their roster to generate more scoring. After a 15-point improvement last season, Carolina wants to take the next step and bring the Stanley Cup Playoffs back to a fan base feeling renewed optimism after a seven-year absence.

"It's a realistic goal now," center Jay McClement said of making the playoffs. "Part of that is the younger guys growing, but it shouldn't be that far on the horizon. It's something we should expect to do."

The Hurricanes ranked 27th in the NHL in scoring in each of the past two seasons, so general manager Ron Francis moved aggressively to bring in new forwards. Teuvo Teravainen, 22, who had 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists) last season with the Chicago Blackhawks, was acquired along with Bryan Bickell in a June 15 trade. Lee Stempniak, who had 51 points (19 goals, 32 assists) with the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins last season, agreed to a two-year contract as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the same day Viktor Stalberg agreed to a one-year contract after a 20-point season with the New York Rangers.

Those additions give coach Bill Peters an upgrade in a several areas: speed, scoring touch, playmaking ability and net-front presence.

The wild card for Carolina is Sebastian Aho, a 19-year-old Finnish forward the Hurricanes believe can make the jump to the NHL this season. Aho, selected in the second round (No. 35) of the 2015 NHL Draft, led Karpat of Liiga, Finland's top professional league, with 45 points (20 goals, 25 assists) in 45 games last season. He also finished second in scoring at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship.

The defense underwent an earlier-than-expected makeover of its own last season. Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin became lineup fixtures as rookies early in the season and rarely faltered as the season progressed. The only concern is that none of the three is older than 22; Hanifin is 19, Pesce is 21, and Slavin is 22. It's not uncommon for second-year defensemen to level off in their development, but the Hurricanes are willing to roll with this core group.

"They can all skate, but one of their biggest strengths is they're all intelligent," said defenseman Ron Hainsey, the veteran at age 35. "[Last season] they didn't let a mistake bother them, and they didn't make the same mistakes twice."

Cam Ward is back for his 11th season as the starting goaltender, though his grasp on that job could be tenuous. The Hurricanes signed Ward to a two-year contract on June 16 but only after evaluating the free agent market and pursuing trade options. He and backup Eddie Lack combined for a .906 save percentage.

The new forwards will be just one element of Carolina's makeover. It eventually will name a new captain following the trade of Eric Staal to the Rangers prior to the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline. Don't be surprised if the next captain reflects the Hurricanes' status as one of the youngest teams in the League.

Francis is eager to end the playoff drought, but he is equally determined to build a team for the long run. In his two-plus seasons running the front office, he has shed veterans with high salaries in favor of young players and prospects. The youth movement has given fans hope for the coming years, but a brighter future is likely to unfold slowly.

Video: Hurricanes GM Ron Francis on contract extension

 

Why they should make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

In his two seasons as coach, Peters has corrected some of Hurricanes' shortcomings. They no longer are prone to slow starts, they are responsible defensively, and they stay out of the penalty box. Scoring, particularly on the power play, should improve with the additions of Stempniak and Teravainen. If Bickell can recapture the form that made him a net-front presence for the Blackhawks, the Hurricanes will have enough depth for three scoring lines.

 

Why they could miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The influx of forwards is a plus, but the Hurricanes do not have enough top-end scoring talent. Carolina's youth movement is laudable, but there are not many veterans who can be stabilizing forces and help forge a much-needed identity after years of missing the playoffs.

 

Breakout candidate

Center Victor Rask. The 23-year-old Swede jumped from 33 points as a rookie in 2014-15 to 48 last season and demonstrated playmaking skills and finishing touch. He is equally adept at taking the puck to the net or using his body (6-foot, 200 pounds) to clean up rebounds. The chemistry he built with forward Jeff Skinner last season suggests he may take another step forward.

Video: Rask & Ward Sticking in Carolina

 

On the hot seat

Center Elias Lindholm. After three seasons, Lindholm's offensive productivity has stalled. His 39 points last season matched his total from 2014-15, but his goal-scoring dropped from 17 to 11. The Hurricanes need more from the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft.

 

Trophy candidates

Sebastian Aho (Calder)

 

Quotable

"With the talent that is coming in and the players that return, we know we have a good mix. Hopefully we can have a solid season from start to finish and make the playoffs." -- center Jordan Staal

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