Can the Hurricanes avoid the basement in a new, formidable division? | Hockey | Indy Week
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Can the Hurricanes avoid the basement in a new, formidable division? 

A pileup on the ice during Friday’s preseason contest between the Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres at PNC Arena. The Canes won, 1–0.

Photo by Justin Cook

A pileup on the ice during Friday’s preseason contest between the Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres at PNC Arena. The Canes won, 1–0.

The Carolina Hurricanes are back on the ice, which means it's time to thaw out all of our "ifs."

If Cam Ward stays healthy all year, and if the team's second line gels around Jordan Staal, and if Jeff Skinner regains his rookie-season form, and if the defense allows five fewer shots per game, and if the special teams improves just a little...

Yeah, that's a lot of ifs. But that's Carolina's situation after several Jekyll-and-Hyde years finishing out of the playoff pack. Caniacs know the calendar well: abysmal Octobers and Novembers, glimmers of hope in January, exhausted collapses in April.

This season's league realignment makes matters even more difficult. No longer sequestered among lightweights in the Southeast Division, Carolina now skates among Stanley Cup contenders and large-market northeastern clubs in the new eight-team Metropolitan division. Last year's point totals locate Carolina well in the cellar of their new group.

If this team doesn't look competitive over the first couple weeks—and they're showing uneven spunk in the preseason—you might begin to wonder about coach Kirk Muller's job. He might be expected to be on the hot seat already for neither improving their special teams (his purported specialty) nor upping the intensity of the team. We haven't been able to call the Canes "hungry" since a run to the conference finals in 2009.

Muller seems like a really nice guy—too nice, perhaps. Having held the job for nearly two years since Paul Maurice was sacked, Muller gives the appearance of having settled into the "player's coach" identity of a lot of young coaches whose own playing days are not very far behind them. The result, at least in Raleigh, is a complacent locker room. Players seem assured of their spot on the depth chart by reputation rather than performance. The word's been out for a couple seasons now that you can blitz the Canes in the first period and build a lead that they're not talented enough to surmount over the final 40 minutes.

How many of the "if" scenarios will come into being? In net, there are some reasons for optimism. The Canes quietly brought in an ambitious backup goaltender, Anton Khudobin, who exchanges Boston, where he had no chance of displacing Tuukka Rask, for a crease occupied by a Cam Ward at the hinge moment of his career.

Behind a defense that gives up more shots than any other, Ward has been shockingly average when he hasn't been hurt. Over the last few years the Canes have brought in retreads like Brian Boucher and marginal NHLers like Justin Peters to back up Ward, who's had to carry the team. But Khudobin could be different if the Canes are ready to admit that their Conn Smythe winner of seven years ago might not be the franchise goalie they've been paying for.

To be sure, it would help if whoever's in net isn't getting shelled from every angle. Unfortunately, this is a poor defensive team, somehow less than the sum of its parts. On paper, the lineup looks balanced between veterans and young guns, but not all veteran defensemen are created equal.

Here's another "if" for you—if this team annually gives up the most shots in the league, doesn't that say something about the defensemen who are logging the most time on the ice? Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason are lauded for being "minutes eaters," but what about their performances during those minutes?

Sadly, Pitkanen's season (and possibly his career) is already over as his injured heel from last season has not recovered. The Canes just invested about half of the big Finn's $4.5 million that came off the books in defender Ron Hainsey, most recently of the Winnipeg Jets. He joins trade deadline acquisition Andrej Sekera and free-agent pickup Mike Komisarek on a blueline that seems fairly foot-slow when you figure Gleason and Jay Harrison into it. Keep an eye on youngsters Justin Faulk—a special player who deserves to be in the top pairing—and highly touted 20-year-old Ryan Murphy, who will begin the season in Charlotte but may turn up if someone gets hurt.

Because they're so often playing from behind, pressing for the tying goal, you get the feeling that the Canes don't score enough. But the statistics don't bear that out. They were 13th in a 30-team league last season, potting 2.6 goals per game. Which brings us to the bright spots.

Eric Staal has broken through a slump that claimed the 2010–11 and 2011–12 seasons. He was a monster last year, earning back the face of the franchise and showing flashes of the leadership that this team desperately needs. Despite a nasty knee injury in the world championships in May, he looks ready to repeat his more-than-a-point-a-game pace this season. Joining him on the line will be Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty. Semin, after joining on a one-year flyer of a contract last year, now has a home here with a long-term deal, while Tlusty's been gimpy in the preseason but isn't expected to miss the season's start. Together they make a line that's among the best in the business.

The thinness in the Canes' attack shows up quickly, though. Jordan Staal's arrival was supposed to lock down a second scoring line, but he never clicked with Skinner, who hasn't progressed after the revelation of his rookie campaign. In the two seasons since he scored 31 goals and won the Calder Trophy, Skinner has missed chunks of time with two concussions, and let his team-first attitude slip some nights, circling at center ice hoping for a breakout pass instead of backchecking.

While the rookie-season book on Skinner had several chapters detailing his skill set, it's now an early reader—just get a little chippy with him in the first period and he'll chase you around the rest of the game trying to retaliate. Will he mature into the consistent 35-goal, 80-point forward many assume he'll be? The franchise is a little hung up on the question. Skinner might be handed third-line duty to begin the year, which could motivate him to find his game although he'd be skating with lesser talent. Still, if you're looking for an "if" to be hopeful about, Skinner's probably the most gifted Canes player. And remember, he's still only 21 years old—pair him with intriguing Swedish draftee Elias Lindholm and turn them loose.

It's hard to imagine the Canes will finish anywhere but the Metropolitan basement. The aging defense is neither quick nor feisty enough to stifle the attacks of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders or Philadelphia Flyers, among other new division foes. Nor is Muller committed enough to wringing more effort from his middling roster.

But if Ward's healthy and steady, and if Skinner lights up the line, and if shot-blocking is added to the blueline's repertoire, the Canes should produce some excitement. It will be a season of ifs.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Cross your fingers, Carolina."

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