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Patience could finally pay off for Hurricanes

Expect Darling to shore up goaltending, Williams to provide veteran leadership needed to return to playoffs

by Kurt Dusterberg / NHL.com Correspondent

The Carolina Hurricanes have improved their point total in each of the past three seasons under coach Bill Peters, but the days of settling for incremental progress appear to be over. General manager Ron Francis used the summer to address Carolina's most glaring needs -- starting goaltending, scoring and veteran leadership -- with the goal of ending an eight-season Stanley Cup Playoff drought.

After years of rounding out the roster with depth free agents and prospects with no long-term outlook, Carolina has patiently drafted and developed players and made trades to improve its depth. The result is a roster of speedy, skilled forwards and big, mobile defensemen. At times, the transition was painstaking, with the Hurricanes overmatched against some of the NHL's elite teams.

"Now every night when we go into a building, I expect to win," Peters said. "We're a deep, deep team right now that can be dangerous offensively. Our defensive core, to me, is in the top echelon in the League. If we get the kind of goaltending we think we're going to get from both goaltenders, we'll be fine."

Here is a look at the five keys for the Hurricanes, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Getting off to fast start

The Hurricanes have been doomed by a slow start in each of the past three seasons, winning no more than five of their first 13 games. They must be better during their annual October road trip that coincides with the North Carolina State Fair. Carolina has gone 4-10-3 on the trip since 2014-15. This season, the Hurricanes open at home against the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets before going on the road to play the Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars.

 

2. Darling taking reins in goal

The Hurricanes are so confident that Scott Darling will be the successor to Cam Ward that they gave him a four-year, $16.6 million contract ($4.15 million average annual value). Acquired in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks on April 28, the 28-year-old has a .923 save percentage in 75 regular-season games in three seasons but has never played more than 32 games in each.

"People ask me if I feel the pressure or if I'm stressed out; I don't really feel like that at all," Darling said. "I'm more just excited for the chance."

 

3. Better results in overtime

The Hurricanes consistently generated chances in overtime last season but went 5-9. Peters wants to find three, three-man units he can trust.

"A bunch of the overtimes, we'd go down on a 2-on-1 and not score, and all of a sudden there is a 2-on-1 the other way and the game is over," he said. "We were on the short end of the stick a little too often. We have to make sure we are finishing our opportunities."

 

4. More production from Lindholm, Rask

The Hurricanes are counting on more from the two forwards, who each had 45 points last season. Elias Lindholm, a first-round pick (No. 5) in the 2013 NHL Draft, has scored 11 goals in each of the past two seasons.

"Overall, I think I'm a passer, but you don't want to score 11 goals," said Lindholm, who scored his first goal in his 17th game last season. "You want to score 25."

Victor Rask dropped to 16 goals last season after scoring 21 in 2015-16.

"If we can score 5-10 more goals, each guy, it's going to make a huge difference," Rask said.

 

5. Grow with Aho

Sebastian Aho was a revelation as a 19-year-old rookie last season, finishing second on the Hurricanes with 49 points (24 goals, 25 assists). The forward displayed elite playmaking and skating, and scored in a variety of ways. Aho (5-foot-11, 172 pounds) showed he can handle the rigors of the NHL by playing 82 games. With added strength from summer conditioning, he could take his offensive game to another level.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Jeff Skinner shed his reputation as a streaky scorer last season with an NHL career-best 37 goals. The 25-year-old forward has the ability to create chances for himself, but his chemistry last season with linemates Derek Ryan and Lee Stempniak helped make him a consistent scoring threat.

 

Biggest battle

There won't be many spots open among the forwards, but there will be several candidates for the last couple of positions. Josh Jooris and roster holdovers Brock McGinn and Phillip Di Giuseppe are veterans, but others will challenge. The Hurricanes have a handful of prospects in Charlotte of the American Hockey League who have made their NHL debut. Lucas Wallmark impressed during an eight-game audition last season, and Valentin Zykov and Andrew Poturalski will push to play in the NHL.

 

Most intriguing addition

The Hurricanes signed Justin Williams on July 1, bringing back a member of the 2006 Stanley Cup championship team. With three Stanley Cup rings and the nickname "Mr. Game 7," he will help shape the identity. But can Williams, who will be 36 when the season begins, deliver a seventh season of at least 20 goals? His two most productive seasons (31 goals in 2005-06 and 33 in 2006-07) came during his first stint with Carolina.

 

Biggest potential surprise

The Hurricanes have their deepest group of forwards in years and are stocked with prospects who have yet to begin their pro careers in North America. Czech center Martin Necas (No. 12 pick in 2017) is a dynamic center who made an immediate impression on Peters at the start of training camp. Julien Gauthier (No. 21 pick in 2016) has the body (6-4, 225) and scoring prowess of an NHL power forward. Either one could sneak onto the roster.

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Sebastian Aho -- Jordan Staal -- Elias Lindholm

Justin Williams -- Victor Rask -- Teuvo Teravainen

Jeff Skinner -- Derek Ryan -- Lee Stempniak

Joakim Nordstrom -- Marcus Kruger -- Josh Jooris

Jaccob Slavin -- Brett Pesce

Noah Hanifin -- Justin Faulk

Klas Dahlbeck -- Trevor van Riemsdyk

Scott Darling

Cam Ward

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