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Hurricanes seek more offense to make playoff push

by John Kreiser continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

The Carolina Hurricanes' hopes of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended almost before last season had begun. An 0-6-2 October under new coach Bill Peters proved to be too deep of a hole, and Carolina finished 27 points out of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

The Hurricanes haven't made a lot of changes this offseason, but they're hopeful the ones they have made will help them generate enough offense, especially at even strength, to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

"We like where we are in terms of being able to take a step forward; it will depend on us having the ability to score," Peters said. "We have to find a way to score more at 5-on-5."

However, the biggest offseason move by general manager Ron Francis removed a player who was expected to generate offense. The Hurricanes bought out the final three years of forward Alexander Semin's five-year, $35 million contract after he had NHL career lows of six goals and 19 points last season and spent parts of the second half as a healthy scratch.

Semin's struggles were part of an overall offensive malaise; Carolina scored 183 goals, 27th in the League. Forward Eric Staal's 23 goals and 54 points led the Hurricanes, but they were his lowest offensive numbers since 2002-03, his rookie season.

Aside from a revival by Staal and improvement by younger brother Jordan Staal, much of the Hurricanes' hopes for more scoring rest with improvement by some of the young forwards. Elias Lindholm scored 17 goals and showed the potential that made him the No. 5 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. But even more important is a return to form by 23-year-old Jeff Skinner, a two-time 30-goal scorer who had 18 goals and 31 points last season after he had 33 goals and 54 points in 2013-14.

"We need Jeff Skinner to have a bounce-back year," Peters said. "He's an offensive guy; he's proven he can score at the NHL level. We need to get him back to being a consistent 25- to 30-goal scorer."

Most of the Hurricanes' offseason moves came on defense.

Carolina should get a boost from 2015 first-round pick Noah Hanifin, who fell to No. 5 and was quickly picked by Francis. Hanifin, who excelled in his freshman season at Boston College, is expected to be the linchpin of a solid defense that includes 2014 U.S. Olympian Justin Faulk and could include Haydn Fleury, the No. 7 pick in 2014.

"They're not just big, stay-at-home defenders," Peters said of Hanifin and Fleury, two of a host of young defensemen in Carolina's system. "How much offense they're going to have at the NHL level, that's going to have to play out over time. But they are guys who are going to get up in the rush, and their skating ability allows them to do that."

The power play should get a boost from the arrival of veteran defenseman James Wisniewski, who was acquired in a trade that sent goaltender Anton Khudobin to the Anaheim Ducks.

The other major change is in goal, where longtime starter Cam Ward will compete with Eddie Lack, a draft-day acquisition from the Vancouver Canucks. Ward cut his goals-against average to a career-best 2.40 last season and improved his save percentage to .910 from .898 during an injury-plagued 2013-14 season. Lack was 18-13-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .921 save percentage and helped the Canucks reach the playoffs after Ryan Miller was injured in late February.

At a minimum, Lack is expected to be a better backup than Khudobin; at best, he could challenge for the starting job.

"That trade allowed us to get deeper," Peters said. "I think it's going to be a very healthy 1-2 internal competition battle."

It's Year Two for the tandem of Francis, the most celebrated player in Hartford Whalers/Hurricanes history, and Peters, who said having a full NHL season behind him will make a difference.

"They know what I expect out of them, how I operate, how I run the bench, and what I expect out of them on a daily basis," Peters said. "With the additions and deletions in our program, we're going to get a group that we're proud of every day. They're going to know how we expect to play every day."

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