The Carolina Hurricanes made three deep playoff runs in a span of eight years, including a championship in 2006, but they have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for five straight seasons.
PNC Arena boasts one of the League's best playoff atmospheres, but it has been too long since the building has been full of standing, screaming fans in the spring. The Hurricanes have a new general manager and a new coach, but they don't have a lot of new players.
Two seasons ago the Hurricanes scored enough to be a playoff team, but their goaltending failed them. Carolina prevented goals better in 2013-14 only to have the offense disappear. Depth up front remains a problem, though the defense corps could be improved.
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: CANES
Undervalued: Jeff Skinner --
With 33 goals in 71 games, Skinner's 0.46 goals/game ranked eighth in the NHL (minimum 30 games). His plus/minus won't help (he was minus-14 last season), but the left wing makes up for that with great power-play production and boatloads of shots (his 274 ranked ninth in the NHL).
Overvalued: Andrej Sekera --
Prior to last season's breakout 44-point performance (0.59 points/game), Sekera averaged 0.27 points/game in his previous 339 NHL games. The 28-year-old defenseman may have found his calling in Carolina and he'll receive some power-play time, but expect a fair share of regression.
Sleeper: Elias Lindholm --
After putting up 21 points in 58 games last season, the 19-year-old center could find himself getting more responsibility and playing time. Carolina's first-round draft choice in 2013 averaged 14:31 of ice time per game in his rookie season with 2:30 on the power play; if those numbers increase, Lindholm's production across the board should do the same.
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Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Hurricanes:
Jiri Tlusty - Eric Staal - Alexander Semin
Jeff Skinner - Jordan Staal - Elias Lindholm
Nathan Gerbe - Jay McClement - Patrick Dwyer
Zach Boychuk - Riley Nash - Brad Malone
The top line was great in 2012-13, but Semin missed 17 games (he's long had durability issues) and Tlusty's shooting percentage predictably fell back from an unsustainable 19.7 percent in 2012-13 to 12.2 percent last season. Jordan Staal had a really strong season, but the team shot 5.1 percent when he was on the ice at even strength.
There is a lot of high-end talent and Lindholm could make this group look even better with a strong second season, but forward depth was a problem last season, and unless some of the younger players in the organization take big steps forward, it looks like a potentially serious flaw again.
Lindholm's long-term place likely is at center, but he spent most of his rookie season on the wing. If he could handle playing in the middle in 2014-15 it might give the Hurricanes a little more balance. Gerbe could earn a top-six role in that scenario.
Andrej Sekera - Justin Faulk
Ron Hainsey - Ryan Murphy
John-Michael Liles - Jay Harrison
Faulk has developed into one of the best young defensemen in the League, and Sekera had a breakout season next to him in 2013-14. Hainsey is an underrated player who had a strong first season with Carolina, and the Hurricanes made one of the best July 1 moves by signing him for three years and $8.5 million.
If Murphy can follow Faulk's path, the Hurricanes might turn a weakness into a strength. That also would allow them to not have to rely on the other older players in important roles, and to possibly have their deepest group on the blue line in several seasons.
The Hurricanes traded Gleason for Liles and then brought him back at a much lower rate. Liles played pretty well for Carolina after being exiled in Toronto.
After playing at least 60 games in five of six seasons, Ward has played a total of 47 the past two seasons and it hasn't been pretty. The list of goalies who saw at least as many shots at even strength last season (693) and had a worse save percentage (.909) than Ward is: Ondrej Pavelec, Martin Brodeur, Kevin Poulin, Devan Dubnyk, Reto Berra.
Khudobin had very nice numbers in 36 games (34 starts), and it's conceivable that he could take the No. 1 job from Ward this season. Ward has the big contract (two years left at $6.3 million per season), but a new regime could mean a chance for Khudobin to play more if he is performing better.
If both play well it could be enough to keep the Hurricanes in postseason contention. If there are more injuries or ineffectiveness, it will be another spring without playoff tailgating in Raleigh.
ALSO IN THE MIX: F Brock McGinn, F Victor Rask, D Brett Bellemore, D Michal Jordan, G Drew MacIntyre
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