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Roles for Semin, J. Staal among Canes' questions

by Mike G. Morreale
After failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third straight year, Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford made several bold moves.

He started by acquiring two-way center Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins and followed with the signing of unrestricted free agent left wing Alexander Semin, in an attempt to alter the landscape of the Eastern Conference.

The moves certainly give coach Kirk Muller plenty to ponder with regard to line combinations entering training camp. The arrival of Staal immediately gives the Hurricanes a boost down the middle and Semin provides complementary scoring the team has lacked in recent years.

"It's great to have a right-handed goal-scorer like Semin to balance out our lines," Muller said. "Who plays with who, this guy with that guy, can be sorted out in preseason. For us, having Semin adds another dimension to our lineup, with a right-handed shooter we know can produce. Whether he plays with the Staal brothers or splits time with them, we've got an elite player to play with them."

Here are six questions facing the Hurricanes entering the season:

1. How will coach Kirk Muller use Jordan Staal?

One of Kirk Muller's biggest tasks will be figuring out where to play offseason acquisition Jordan Staal. (Getty Images)

Don't be surprised to see Jordan join forces with Eric Staal in training camp and throughout much of the preseason.

"I think that's the great opportunity with training camp, is to experiment," Muller told the Raleigh News & Observer. "We've got lots of [preseason] games. The first initial thing, right now, we definitely want to give them an opportunity to play together in those games and see if there's chemistry."

Jordan is embracing his new role with the Hurricanes as an opportunity to become one of the League's top performers.

"I'm obviously looking to expand my role and be more of an elite player," Staal said. "I know the opportunity is here and obviously there is pressure. Hopefully I can have a big year and a big career here and try to be the elite player I can be."

Despite the fact both Staals are natural centers, Eric has spent time on the wing for Team Canada during international stints. Jordan had been the customary third-line center behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the past six seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"Lots of times, until you put guys together … you know, you've got to get a feel for it," Muller said. "I know they have a little history from before. But I think it makes sense right now to start off with them and see how they work together."

2. Where does Alexander Semin fit in?

Maybe Muller should just throw names into a hat to determine his top three line combinations. The addition of Semin in late July really opened up several options for Muller. While he will probably give the Staals every opportunity to play together, there's also the chance Eric could be flanked by Semin and Chad LaRose.

That would allow Jordan to center the second line between Jeff Skinner and Jussi Jokinen. Tuomo Ruutu could then play pivot on the third line with Jiri Tlusty and Patrick Dwyer. How's that for offensive depth?

Furthermore, Rutherford doesn't envision there being any issues with Semin's work ethic once he becomes acclimated to how the organization operates both on and off the ice.

"We like to think that the way Kirk does things and with our approach and how our training camp is and how our practices are and fitting him in with Eric, that we can get that consistency out of him," Rutherford said. "And if we can, he's a guy that certainly is capable of getting back to the 40-goal mark."

3. Do the acquisitions of Staal and Semin make Carolina a Cup contender?

It remains to be seen whether the arrival of Staal and Semin will have a direct effect on the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. Fact is, Staal was the biggest offseason acquisition in Carolina's history, so that has to account for something.

He's one of the best two-way pivots in the League, capable of producing on offense while consistently shutting down the opposition. Semin, in seven seasons, all with the Washington Capitals, has 197 goals and 408 points in 469 games. He also has 34 points in 51 playoff games.

The Hurricanes ranked 16th in the League with 212 goals scored last season, so both players will certainly aid in that department. Staal posted career highs in assists (25) and points (50), and finished with his second-highest goal total (25) in 2011-12 despite playing in 62 of Pittsburgh's 82 regular-season games.

The additions of Staal and Semin should at least keep Carolina in the thick of the Southeast Division race all season. Both players might also help improve the team's lackluster overtime mark. The Hurricanes played 20 OT games last season and finished 4-16, including 3-10 in games ending in the five-minute overtime period.

30 in 30: Carolina Hurricanes

Preview: Optimism abounds in Carolina

By Mike G. Morreale - Staff Writer
The Canes ended last season on an up note, then went out and added Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin over the summer, creating an air of excitement for the 2012-13 campaign. READ MORE ›

4. How will Muller fare in his first full season behind the bench?

From the moment he was hired, Muller spoke of getting his players believing in his system and being accountable for each other. He guided the Hurricanes to a 25-20-12 record in 57 games, including a 15-9-7 mark after the All-Star break.

"If you give [players] something, a way to believe in how they play and why you're going to win that night, I think that's what players want," Muller said.

The Hurricanes earned points in 16 of their last 23 games (11-7-5), and were 7-4-1 in their final 12 games of 2011-12. The Canes went 35-for-179 (19.6 percent) on the power play under Muller. With even more weapons and a full season to work with, the coach should have his players motivated and raring to go from the start of training camp.

5. Do the Hurricanes have enough depth on defense?

There's a nice blend of young talent and experience on the back end.

The experience comes in the form of Joni Pitkanen, Joe Corvo and Tim Gleason, who led the team with a plus-12 rating in 2011-12. Corvo returns to the team for the third time in his career. Pitkanen did miss 52 games last season with concussion and lower-body ailments, but is expected to be healthy entering camp. Jay Harrison surprised by scoring nine goals and 23 points while logging more than 20 minutes per game. He also ranked second among Carolina defenders in hits (117) and blocked shots (153).

Justin Faulk showed plenty of promise as a rookie, and Jamie McBain, who should be able to handle 22-plus minutes a game, will be entering his third full season with the club. The Canes also signed 25-year-old Marc-Andre Gragnani, who is expected to battle for a roster spot.

Top prospect Ryan Murphy, the team's first-round draft pick in 2011, and Bobby Sanguinetti, who signed a two-year deal in May, will challenge for a roster spot out of training camp. The guess here is that goalie Cam Ward will have plenty of support in the upcoming season.

6. Who will serve as Cam Ward's backup?

Unless a move is made between now and training camp to replace injured Brian Boucher, expect Justin Peters to rightfully serve as Ward's exclusive backup in 2012-13.

Peters, who signed a two-year contract on April 1, split the 2011-12 season between Carolina and the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Charlotte. He went 2-3-2 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in seven appearances for the Canes last season. He appeared in 28 games for the Checkers, going 10-13-2 with a 2.77 GAA.

Peters, chosen by the Hurricanes in the second round of the 2004 NHL Draft, has appeared in 28 career NHL games (11-11-3, 3.23 GAA, .900 save percentage).

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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