When the Carolina Hurricanes finished the 2013-14 campaign outside of the playoffs for the 5th consecutive year, the conclusion was made that wholesale changes needed to occur. The front office was gutted from the top down, as the Hurricanes replaced the team president, general manager, and head coach, along with several assistant coaches.
Newly promoted general manager Ron Francis faces a tall task in putting a successful squad on the ice considering there were no major changes made in player personnel during the offseason. With few acquisitions and fewer departures, the Hurricanes will rely on their youth and new coach Bill Peters to turn things around in Raleigh.
The top six forwards were all but set. The first line of Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty, and Alexander Semin looked to regain some of the spark they created in the shortened 2012-13 season. Youngsters Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm were expected to flank Jordan Staal on the second line. Then, disaster struck as Jordan Staal suffered a broken leg during a preseason game in Buffalo. Staal’s diagnosis was a broken fibula, which will sideline him for 4-6 months after surgery was performed. A surprising candidate has risen to take his place in Victor Rask. Rask, who played in Charlotte for the AHL Checkers last season, has had an impressive camp and will most likely start in the second center position.
The Hurricanes added a few gritty players to bolster their bottom six. Jay McClement figures to start the season as the 4th line center. With the injury to Staal, however, McClement could see time centering the third line. Chad Larose, who won a Stanley Cup with the Canes in 2006, is currently on a tryout and could be signed to give the Hurricanes some team depth. The bottom six also has any combination of Nathan Gerbe, Zack Boychuk, Riley Nash, and newcomer Brad Malone battling for positions. The Hurricanes need their stars to perform better than they did last year and their younger players to perform at a higher level than expected in order to see the postseason this year.
Much like the offense, the defense will look very similar, if not completely identical as it did last season. The only change is the signing of gritty veteran defenseman Tim Gleason after he was traded to Toronto for John-Michael Liles last season. The top pairing looks to be set with Justin Faulk and Andrej Sekera. The second pairing will have Ron Hainsey as the anchor. Puck-moving defenseman Ryan Murphy is on pace to be paired with Hainsey in the top four, leaving a smorgasbord of third pairing possibilities. Gleason and Liles are in the mix, along with Jay Harrison and Brett Bellmore. While it’s not the weakest defensive group the team has had in recent years, it’s certainly not the team’s strength.
This is where team battles get interesting. Carolina signed goaltender Anton Khudobin to a two-year extension after he posted very respectable numbers. In 36 games, he compiled 19 wins with a 2.30 goals against average and a strong .926 save percentage. Khudobin will push veteran goaltender Cam Ward for the starting position. Ward, who was the center of several trade rumors last season, will try to rebound from lackluster performances over the past few seasons. Carrying a $6.2 million cap hit, he must be much better to justify his salary. It appears that Ward will start against the Islanders in the season opener on October 10th, but he will certainly have a short leash with Khudobin waiting in the wings.
It’s a guessing game right now for Carolina. A new coach could possibly fuel a team with a different system, and Bill Peters seems to have a no-nonsense attitude coaching style. Newly-motivated youngsters could provide the Hurricanes with a jolt that could propel the team into a mid-to-low playoff position. On the other hand, the injury to Jordan Staal is a big blow to a team that lacks in depth. Young players may need a year or two of seasoning before they’re ready to play with elite NHLers, and the team may need time to gel or learn a new system that comes with a new coaching staff.
The Hurricanes must get off to a good start if they want to compete, and their schedule is favorable for them to do just that early on. If the Canes struggle out of the gate, big names could be on the move at the trade deadline, and the team could find themselves firmly in the hunt for one of this year’s coveted top draft picks.