The 5 Biggest Storylines to Follow During Carolina Hurricanes' Offseason

Mark JonesSenior Analyst IMay 19, 2013

The 5 Biggest Storylines to Follow During Carolina Hurricanes' Offseason

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    The Carolina Hurricanes will be faced with an offseason of difficult decisions and intriguing plot lines in the coming months.

    From a prominent role in the 2013 NHL draft to a plethora of choices to make in the free-agent market, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford will direct the offseason actions of a franchise in great need of improvement.

    How will stars such as Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner work through their struggles and keep the 'Canes moving forward? What changes and additions will be made to a squad that allowed the second-most goals against during the regular season? What other important topics and decisions should fans keep an eye on during the offseason?

    Here's a breakdown of the Hurricanes' biggest summer storylines.

Early First-Round Draft Choice

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    The Hurricanes will have their earliest draft pick since 2005 come June 30, when they will take the stage fifth in the first round.

    The 'Canes previous four top-10 choices—Eric Staal, Andrew Ladd, Jack Johnson and Jeff Skinner—have all evolved into well-known NHL stars over the years. This year, the club should have an enticing array of top-ranked prospects to add to that group.

    Assuming consensus top-three choices Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin are already off the board, here's an overview of draft-eligible prospects the 'Canes could consider:

    Prospect Amateur Team TSN Ranking CSS Ranking
    C Aleksander Barkov Tappara (Finland) 4 1 (European skaters)
    RW Valeri Nichushkin Chelyabinsk (Russia-Jr) 5 2 (European skaters)
    C Elias Lindholm Brynas (Sweden-Jr) 6 3 (European skaters)
    D Darnell Nurse Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) T-10 4 (N. American skaters)
    D Nikita Zadorov London (OHL) 9 22 (N. American skaters)

    Barkov and Lindholm are both excellent two-way centers, but Riley Nash's emergence as the third-line center this past season may make the 'Canes more inclined to take a winger.

    Meanwhile, Nichushkin, while perhaps the biggest and most physical Russian forward ever to be drafted, is unfortunately signed for at least two more seasons in the KHL.

    Nurse (6'3") and Zadorov (6'5") would add a great deal of size and grit to the 'Canes defense a year or two down the line, but both may be a stretch for the fifth pick.

Eric Staal's MCL Sprain Recovery

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    Hurricanes captain Eric Staal's brutal knee injury in Thursday's Canada vs. Sweden match in the IIHF World Championships sent a shot of agony through the entire 'Canes community.

    Days of worry later, the prognosis of a severely sprained MCL—one that carries an estimated recovery time of about three months but requires no surgery—almost seemed like a miracle.

    Per Rutherford via the News & Observer's Chip Alexander:

    “I don’t know that ‘relief’ is the right word to use but we are thankful the injury was not any worse. It could have been better, but it wasn’t, but Eric has three months to rehab it and we’re hopeful he will be healthy and ready by the start of training camp.”

    The future for Staal looks clear on paper, but one must still wonder about any lingering soreness or hesitation from this injury that will carry into the fall season. Expect progress reports on the 28-year-old star's status to be heavily scrutinized and discussed this summer.

Bottom-Six Forwards Makeover

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    The 'Canes crop of upcoming unrestricted free agents (UFAs) is relatively small compared to most offseasons.

    However, a large portion of them seem unlikely to return in 2014.

    The 14 'Canes forwards cycled through the third and fourth lines this season accounted for just 18 goals while the six first- and second-line forwards accounted for 77. That disparity was simply too great for the Carolina offense to remain reliable and consistently explosive throughout the season.

    Given the UFA statuses of bottom-six forwards Chad LaRose, Tim Brent and Tim Wallace this July, the Hurricanes' lower-tier group of forwards could (and should) look a lot different next season.

    Rutherford will have plenty of potential role-filling acquisitions to choose from—Edmonton's Ryan Jones, Nashville's Brandon Yip, Dallas's Eric Nystrom and Colorado's Chuck Kobasew all catch our eyes in particular—but the subject of a bottom-six remake should, regardless of what exactly happens, be on the tongues of many 'Canes fans this summer.

Goaltending Unit Mess

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    Cam Ward is coming back from a serious injury. Justin Peters must rebuild his confidence after another shaky campaign. Dan Ellis is facing an expiring contract. John Muse and Mike Murphy, AHL goaltenders, are both far from NHL-ready.

    In terms of overall depth, the Hurricanes may have the most uncertain netminding situation in the NHL.

    Ward's March 3 MCL sprain, which ended his season disastrous early, dialed up the pressure on backups Peters and Ellis beyond the survivable point for almost two months. Ellis, almost 33, finished the year with a 6-8-2 record, .906 save percentage and 3.13 GAA; Peters, 26, finished the year with a 4-11-1 record, .891 save percentage and 3.46 GAA.

    The more experienced and slightly more proven Ellis would likely be preferable for next year's backup job, but the current contractual comparison contradicts that. “I do think that there is a little bit of an advantage there for Dan Ellis with the way he played and even at times the way he played in the second half," Rutherford told team reporter Michael Smith last week. "But Peters is under contract, he gave us some good games and he’s in the organization.”

    Outside of the Ellis vs. Peters controversy, the health of franchise cornerstone Ward must also be of at least some concern. The 29-year-old goalie has, due to injuries, missed large chunks of two of the past four years.

    The entire 'Canes organizational goaltending unit should be examined frequently throughout the offseason. 

Jeff Skinner's Role Moving Forward

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    In the first 13 games of the 2013 campaign, Jeff Skinner registered an impressive 14 points.

    In the final 28, after missing five in between with a concussion, he scored only nine.

    The 21-year-old forward has yet to live up the expectations set by his Calder Trophy-winning 31-goal, 63-point rookie campaign. He was a dismal minus-21 in 2013, ranking among the worst in the league in that category, and saw his ice time fall to as low as 17:07 in the season's final week.

    A nagging worry of avoiding yet another concussion may stick with Skinner for the rest of his career, and, for a relatively small winger with his scrappy playing style, that's a major problem.

    Many questions surround Skinner's future at the moment, but it will be months before any short-term answers arrive. As a result, No. 53 and his responsibilities for the Hurricanes moving forward should be hot topics of discussion during the dog days of summer.

    As the draft and the opening of free agency creep closer, keep an eye or two on these five focal storylines as the 'Canes offseason plan begins to develop.

    Also, make sure to stay tuned to Mark Jones (@CanesReport) for continuing team coverage.