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Skinner, Eric Staal among Hurricanes questions

by John Kreiser /

The Carolina Hurricanes have a big hill to climb if they hope to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009.

The Hurricanes are coming off a season when they finished last in the Metropolitan Division, 14th in the Eastern Conference and 26th in the NHL. They were among the League's lowest-scoring teams, and their playoff hopes were essentially gone before the first month of the season ended after a 0-6-2 start in October.

It was a nightmarish first season for general manager Ron Francis and coach Bill Peters, and with several teams in the conference making major improvements this offseason, avoiding a seventh consecutive non-playoff season won't be easy.

Here are three questions facing the Hurricanes this season:

Can Jeff Skinner rediscover his scoring touch? The Hurricanes scored fewer goals in 2014-15 (183) than all but three teams despite being among the top 10 in 5-on-5 shot attempts. Eric Staal was Carolina's only forward to finish with more than 40 points (54; defenseman Justin Faulk was second with 49). Carolina made no major additions up front and bought out Alexander Semin, a seven-time 20-goal scorer who had six goals and 19 points last season. For the Hurricanes to improve, Skinner has to return to the form that made him a two-time 30-goal scorer before his 22nd birthday. He dropped from 33 goals and 54 points in 2013-14 to 18 and 31 last season. "We need to find a way to utilize him properly and get him to bounce back to the level he's been at before," Peters said. "If he's done it once, he can do it again."

Can the Hurricanes avoid another bad start? Peters said going winless in October essentially doomed Carolina's playoff hopes before Thanksgiving. A repeat performance will almost certainly yield the same result, and the schedule is more difficult this season. The Hurricanes played six of their eight games in October 2014 on the road; this season, it's eight of 11, including a seven-game trip that includes two visits to the Detroit Red Wings and three games in four nights against the Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. "Our challenge is to get off to a good start and make sure we're in a playoff position around Thanksgiving," Peters said. "Our start is going to be a big focus for us."

Is Eric Staal still a franchise player? Staal, who turns 31 in October, led the Hurricanes in goals (23) and points last season. But those were his worst full-season numbers since 2003-04, when he was a 19-year-old rookie. Staal, who has been a center for most of his NHL career but played wing for part of last season on a line centered by younger brother Jordan Staal, is entering the final season of a seven-year contract. Francis said in late June that he's talked with Staal's agent but that there's no time frame on a new deal. Staal has been the face of the Hurricanes and their top offensive player for the better part of a decade. But for Carolina to end its playoff drought, he has to revert to being a genuine franchise player, not just the Hurricanes' top scorer.

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