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Hurricanes season preview: Aho, veterans look to build on playoff success

Carolina counting on emerging center, defense after run to Eastern Conference Final

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Oct. 2. With training camps open, is taking a look at the five keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Carolina Hurricanes.

Coach: Rod Brind'Amour (second season)

Last season: 46-29-7; fourth place Metropolitan Division, lost to Boston Bruins in Eastern Conference Final




1. Don't be satisfied

The Hurricanes had a lot to be happy about last season, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009 and advancing to the conference final before they were swept by the Bruins. As fun as that was, they'll need to remember the level of commitment and hard work it took for them to get back to the postseason and sustain their success.

Other teams who recently ended long playoff droughts (the Edmonton Oilers in 2017 and the New Jersey Devils in 2018) were unable to do that and returned to being postseason spectators the following season. After reviving fan interest in their market, the Hurricanes are determined not to take a similar step back.


2. Replace Williams' leadership

Named captain before last season, Justin Williams teamed with Brind'Amour to change the culture and raise expectations in Carolina. But the forward, who turns 38 on Oct. 4, is taking some time away from the game to decide if he wants to resume playing or retire.

Without Williams for at least the start of the season, the Hurricanes will need others to step up as leaders and maintain the accountability the three-time Stanley Cup winner helped foster. Center Jordan Staal, who was co-captain with defenseman Justin Faulk two seasons ago, is a leading candidate to succeed Williams as captain, with center Sebastian Aho possibly ready to take on a bigger leadership role.

Video: CAR@NYI, Gm1: Staal fires home the overtime winner


3. Aho's emergence

Aho led Carolina with an NHL career-high 30 goals and 83 points last season. On his way to being one of the elite players in the NHL, the center will get more attention this season, particularly after signing a five-year, $42.27 million restricted free agent offer sheet with the Montreal Canadiens on July 1 that the Hurricanes matched. 

Aho said he signed the offer sheet with the hope that the Hurricanes would match it so he'd avoid missing the start of training camp like some other restricted free agents. Now he'll face pressure to live up to the contract, which carries a Carolina-high annual average value of $8.454 million, in addition to opponents focusing on containing him.


4. Goaltending

The Hurricanes got what they needed in net last season from the combination of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. They'll go with a similar tag-team effort this season, though with a slightly different look.

Mrazek (23-14-3 with a 2.39 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and four shutouts last season) returns after signing a two-year contract July 1. With McElhinney (20-11-2 with a 2.58 GAA, a .912 save percentage and two shutouts last season) gone after signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, James Reimer, Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg will compete for the second goalie job in camp. 

Reimer, who was acquired in a trade from the Florida Panthers on June 30, is a veteran of nine NHL seasons and would appear to have the inside track, but he will have to rebound from going 13-12-5 with a 3.09 GAA and .900 save percentage last season.

Video: Top 10 saves of 2018-19: Mrazek


5. Resolving Faulk's future

The writing appears to be on the wall that Faulk will be traded after the Hurricanes signed unrestricted free agent defenseman Jake Gardiner to a four-year contract Sept. 6. There have been numerous reports of trade talks involving Faulk since, but the 27-year-old remains on Carolina's roster for now.

Faulk, who can become an unrestricted free agent after this season, is a respected leader in the Hurricanes locker room, but his situation could become a distraction if it lingers into the regular season without resolution -- a trade, new contract or management stating it intends to keep him.




Making the cut

Even with Trevor van Riemsdyk likely to miss the start of the season following left shoulder surgery, the roster is crowded at defenseman with Haydn Fleury, Gustav Forsling, tryout Fredrik Claesson and rookies Jake Bean and Chase Priskie (out week to week with an undisclosed injury) in contention for the sixth and seventh spots behind Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Gardiner and Faulk. If Faulk or another defenseman is traded, that would open another spot.

In goal, Nedeljkovic will get an opportunity to beat out Reimer. Carolina sent veteran Scott Darling to Charlotte of the American Hockey League last season after McElhinney emerged as the No. 2 goalie and is prepared to do the same with Reimer if Nedeljkovic proves he's ready. The 23-year-old rookie was named the top goalie in the AHL last season, when he went 34-14-1 with a 2.26 GAA, a .916 save percentage and four shutouts before helping Charlotte to the Calder Cup championship.


Most intriguing addition

Now healthy, Erik Haula, who was acquired in a trade from the Vegas Golden Knights on June 27, should strengthen Carolina's depth at center behind Aho and Staal. The 28-year-old had 55 points (29 goals, 26 assists) in 76 games with Vegas in 2017-18 before sustaining a right-knee injury Nov. 6 that ended his 2018-19 season after 15 games.

Video: Haula on excitement over joining Hurricanes


Biggest potential surprise

Eetu Luostarinen, a second-round pick (No. 42) in the 2017 NHL Draft, has the potential to play for Carolina at some point this season after the 21-year-old forward tied for the team lead with 15 goals for KalPA in Finland's Liiga last season. Luostarinen (6-foot-3, 184 pounds) impressed at the NHL Prospects Showcase in Nashville with four points (two goals, two assists) in three games.


Ready to break through

Martin Necas, the No. 12 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, made the opening night roster last season but was sent to Charlotte after seven games and spent the rest of the season in the AHL, where he had 52 points (16 goals, 36 assists) in 64 games. A shift from center to right wing will help him simplify his game and give him a better opportunity to play regularly in the NHL.


Fantasy sleeper

Nedeljkovic (average draft position: N/A) won his only NHL start (24 saves on 26 shots faced Jan. 23 at the Vancouver Canucks) and could compete with Mrazek and/or Reimer with a ceiling of being the biggest rookie goalie steal in fantasy. -- Pete Jensen



Nino Niederreiter -- Sebastian Aho -- Ryan Dzingel

Andrei Svechnikov -- Jordan Staal -- Teuvo Teravainen

Warren Foegele -- Erik Haula -- Martin Necas

Jordan Martinook -- Lucas Wallmark -- Brock McGinn

Jaccob Slavin -- Dougie Hamilton

Jake Gardiner -- Brett Pesce

Haydn Fleury -- Justin Faulk

Petr Mrazek

James Reimer

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