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Consistency critical as Hurricanes try to end drought

by Davis Harper

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Consistency in the NHL isn't always easy to pinpoint or maintain, but it can mean the difference between missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs and making it, between an early summer and one spent celebrating a championship.

For the past few seasons, the Carolina Hurricanes have been consistently inconsistent. Gaps in regular-season performance have translated into a five-season playoff drought and two consecutive 13th-place finishes in the Eastern Conference. Over one 12-game stretch from Dec. 20-Jan. 13 that can serve as a microcosm of Carolina's inconsistency, the Hurricanes lost five straight, then won five straight, then lost their next two games.

This offseason the Hurricanes, in search of that elusive consistency, overhauled their front office. Carolina replaced longtime general manager Jim Rutherford with Ron Francis. Shortly after, coach Kirk Muller was fired and Detroit Red Wings assistant Bill Peters was hired in his place.

The disciplined, defense-minded Peters spent three seasons with the Red Wings, a team that has made 23 consecutive postseason appearances and redefined what it means to be a consistent NHL franchise. Peters said a consistent 60-minute effort, night-in and night-out, is crucial to getting the Hurricanes back into the playoff picture in 2014-15.

"We want to become more consistent and want our team to be harder to play against every single game," Peters said. "We want to come in every day and bring 100 percent. All we want is your best. And it's up to us as coaches -- we've got enough good players here and we just have to hold those players accountable."

Here's a breakdown of those players Peters and the coaching staff will be working with, a group that will look largely similar to the one that finished 10 points out of a postseason berth in 2013-14:

FORWARDS

In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the top line of Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin was one of the League's most explosive. Last season was a regression, though, and the trio endured a precipitous drop in individual productivity and line chemistry. Tlusty, who was signed this offseason to a one-year, $2.95 million contract, finds himself on an especially hot seat. The Czech winger scored fewer points in 2013-14 (30) than the season before (38) despite playing 20 more games.

HURRICANES AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are Carolina Hurricanes players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

41. Eric Staal, C (Bounce-back)

97. Jeff Skinner, LW/RW (Breakout)

130. Alexander Semin, LW/RW

139. Anton Khudobin, G (Goalie battle)

179. Andrej Sekera, D (Overvalued)

200. Cam Ward, G (Goalie battle)

230. Justin Faulk, D (Cubeta's sleeper)

235. Jiri Tlusty, LW (Sitkoff's sleeper)

269. Elias Lindholm, C (Cubeta's sleeper)

Despite the obvious talent there, Peters isn't married to this top line. In the preseason, the new coach wants to test young wings Elias Lindholm and Jeff Skinner alongside Eric Staal, a look the Hurricanes sometimes went with on the power play last season, to see if any 5-on-5 chemistry exists.

"[The Tlusty-Staal-Semin line] is something we know is in our back pocket," Peters said. "We probably won't start the preseason with them together -- we know that's something we can go to at any time. We can interchange Skinner and Lindholm with Semin and Tlusty and any combination we want there."

Peters will also be looking for opportunities within games to take advantage of a top-heavy lineup. That means Eric Staal and Jordan Staal could see time together alongside someone like Semin, with Eric moving to the wing to allow space for Jordan in the middle. No matter how those top-six forwards line up, though, Peters will expect them to set the example in 2014-15.

"Your best players have to be your best players," Peters said. "They have to lead the way. So we have to put them in the situation to do that. We've got to find some extra shifts for them in favorable situations."

Skinner and Lindholm will look to build on promising seasons in which they often lined up on either side of the same line. Skinner, a past Calder Trophy winner, led the Hurricanes in goals (33), power-play goals (11) and game-winning goals (eight), all by wide margins. Lindholm scored 21 points in 58 games as an 18-year-old, and the Swede was one of the few bright spots on a Carolina power play that converted only 14.6 percent of its chances for a second straight season.

Beyond those top-six forwards, Carolina's depth chart is a mix of veteran grinders and talented prospects, a dichotomy embodied by the fight for third-line center. The spot will go to either veteran Jay McClement, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who enters his 10th NHL season, or Riley Nash, who is coming off an effective, if unexceptional, first full NHL season.

"Nash had a good finish to the season and we expect him to be an even better player than that to start this season," Peters said. "He's a guy that's just starting to come, he's got nothing but big upside to him."

Like Nash, more is expected of Zach Boychuk this year. Peters also said prospects Chris Terry, Brock McGinn and Victor Rask would be given every opportunity to fight veterans including Brad Malone, Patrick Dwyer and Nathan Gerbe for the remaining spots.

DEFENSEMEN

One of the main reasons Francis and the Hurricanes chose Peters was for his defense-first mentality. After all, the defense and penalty kill were Peters' areas of expertise in three seasons with the Red Wings, and Carolina was in need of a retool in each area.

Peters will test different pairings in the preseason as he searches for lefty-righty combinations, players who have chemistry and pairings that include at least one puck-mover.

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: C Brad Malone (free agent, Avalanche), C Jay McClement (free agent, Maple Leafs), D Tim Gleason (free agent, Maple Leafs)

SUBTRACTIONS: G Justin Peters (free agent, Capitals), C Manny Malhotra (free agent, Canadiens), D Joni Pitkanen (free agent), D Drayson Bowman (free agent), C Andrei Loktionov (free agent), D Mike Komisarek (free agent), Radek Dvorak (free agent)

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: LW Zach Boychuk, LW Brock McGinn, LW Chris Terry, C Victor Rask, D Haydn Fleury, G Drew MacIntyre, G Alex Nedeljkovic

With three full seasons and a trip to the 2014 Sochi Olympics for the United States under his belt, Justin Faulk is officially one of the League's best young defensemen. After signing a six-year, $29 million contract in March, the 22-year-old will also be counted on as a leader of the blue line.

"He's really an important piece to what we're going to try to do," Peters said. "I think he's just on the cusp of becoming that elite player."

Unfortunately, the defense gets a lot less elite, and a lot less young, from there. The Hurricanes have eight defensemen on the roster with extensive NHL experience, but few have Faulk's youth or upside.

Andrej Sekera is the best of the veterans and was effective this past season alongside Faulk, leading the Hurricanes in time on ice (23:40) and netting 15 power-play points, and will be looking for a big season in the final year of his contract. He figures to line up with Faulk again, with the two likely to join the top power-play unit as well.

Down the blue line, Carolina has shored up its veteran core. The Hurricanes signed Ron Hainsey, a solid, underrated defenseman who played all 82 games in his first season in Carolina, to a three-year, $8.5 million contract this offseason. Tim Gleason, who the Hurricanes re-signed after trading him to Toronto on Jan. 1, joins John-Michael Liles, Jay Harrison and Brett Bellemore in the fight for the final defensive spots.

"It's really a good healthy competition from day one to the end of the preseason," Peters said. "We have eight guys fighting to be in the lineup opening night. It's an open competition. The reality of it is that only six are gonna dress and we'll probably only carry seven. Those guys really have to come in and establish themselves."

One prospect who could follow in Faulk's footsteps this season is Ryan Murphy. Since being chosen with the 11th pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, Murphy has been tipped as the next big thing in Carolina. However, he has yet to capitalize on his puck-moving and offensive ability at the NHL level, scoring 12 points with a minus-9 rating in 48 games last season. Peters is hoping 2014-15 will be the season Murphy can break into the top four and become a key part of the first or second power-play unit.

GOALIES

At first glance it might seem straightforward that stalwart Cam Ward holds down the No. 1 job, supported by capable backup Anton Khudobin. But Ward's injury and inconsistency issues in recent seasons, coupled with Khudobin's impressive performance in 2013-14, has the two poised to battle it out for the starting spot in training camp.

Anton Khudobin
Goalie - CAR
RECORD: 19-14-1
GAA: 2.30 | SVP: .926
Peters has said on multiple occasions he prefers to designate a clear No. 1 and No. 2 goalie and treat them as such throughout the season. At this point, though, who will occupy those spots has yet to be determined.

"It's definitely an open competition for sure; it'd be foolish for us to designate a starter before ever getting on the ice," Peters said. "We look at it as a healthy situation in net; those guys are going to push each other to be better. We think we're going to have solid goaltending each and every night, no matter who we go with."

There is also the question of a third goalie in case, like last season, Ward and Khudobin are injured at the same time. The Hurricanes signed journeyman Drew MacIntyre to a one-year, two-way contract this summer, presumably to fill that spot, but Alex Nedeljkovic, a 2014 second-round pick (No. 37), has been the surprise of the Traverse City Prospect Tournament. Peters and Jeff Daniels, who coached Nedeljkovic at the tournament and coaches the Hurricanes' American Hockey League affiliate in Charlotte, each praised the Ohio native's calm under pressure.

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