Carolina Hurricanes' 5 Burning Questions for 2013-14 NHL Season

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst ISeptember 24, 2013

Carolina Hurricanes' 5 Burning Questions for 2013-14 NHL Season

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    The Carolina Hurricanes are set to enter the 2013-14 NHL season with great expectations and few certainties.

    The team proved their ability to, when healthy, contend among the league's elite during the first half of last season, and their summer offseason acquisitions seemed to fill the final remaining on-paper holes.

    However, an abundance of concerns and ambiguities have re-arisen in training camp and seem likely to remain unanswered through next week's season opener.

    What burning questions will the 'Canes have to provide answers for in the next six months? We break down five in particular on the coming slides.

Can Cam Ward Stay Healthy?

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    The question 'Canes fans have been asking all summer is still one and the same: can Cam Ward stay healthy and return to elite goaltender status?

    Optimism bubbled all around when Ward returned to the ice hungry and motivated this autumn, supposedly driven to recover his spot on Team Canada for the 2014 Olympics by being, per Chip Alexander, "in [the] best physical condition of his career."

    Yet Ward, who has not played a meaningful game since Mar. 3, has surrendered 13 combined goals in his two preseason starts to date. 

    New backup netminder Anton Khudobin has impressed just as much as Ward has disappointed, but the 'Canes will still be in trouble in Ward isn't ready for at least 50-55 appearances in 2013-14.

    Can No. 30 survive the physical and emotional tribulations of an 82-game campaign? For the Hurricanes' sake, he better.

What Impact Will Elias Lindholm Make?

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    The fifth overall pick from last June's draft, Elias Lindholm has earned rave reviews all around throughout his brief time with the Carolina Hurricanes.

    When he's been able to play.

    The 18-year-old Swedish center has struggled through a rash of injuries, missing most of the competitive portions of the team's prospect development camp in July and then the last three preseason contests. Thus, with the regular season only nine days away, Lindholm has played only 16:04 of professional NHL hockey.

    Will Lindholm immediately emerge as the two-way star many expect him to be, or will he merely bounce in and out of the bottom-six lineup as the NHL's 2013 reincarnation of Nino Niederreiter? No. 16's development-versus-usefulness conundrum needs a swift and decisive resolution.

Will Defensive Makeover Stop the Bleeding?

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    Established NHL veterans Andrej Sekera and Ron Hainsey are in.

    Hopeful former All-Star Mike Komisarek is in.

    Former 12th overall pick and OHL top scorer Ryan Murphy is in.

    Physical minor-league products Brett Bellemore and Matt Corrente are in.

    Thanks to all of GM Jim Rutherford's offseason transactions, and coach Kirk Muller's training camp decisions, the Hurricanes defense could have more new faces than old taking the ice for warmups come Oct. 4.

    The team added a cornucopia of experience, size and grit—and replaced perennially injured Joni Pitkanen—to the unit that allowed the second-most goals against in 2013.

    While that revamped defense hasn't done so well on the box score through the first four matches of the preseason, it nonetheless seems likely the impact of the added depth and reliability will be felt shortly. 

     

Can Special Teams Improve from 2012-13?

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    The Hurricanes power play hasn't ranked in the league's upper half since 2007-08.

    The Hurricanes penalty kill hasn't ranked in the league's upper half since 2006-07.

    Few franchises have endured such pathetic special teams for such a long time; the 'Canes dismal annual performance in both man-advantage efficiency and shorthanded success could arguably be the biggest reason for their lack of postseason berths over the same time span.

    Moreover, it's hard to tell if the special teams have improved significantly this summer, either. Ryan Murphy's new power-play quarterback role merely offsets the loss of talented puck-mover Pitkanen; Komisarek, meanwhile, is far from a lock to add much to the penalty kill.

    Any special teams improvement in Raleigh will need to stem almost solely from better coaching and more practice, and that will take both time and commitment to implement over the course of the season.

     

Can 'Canes Survive in Metropolitan Division?

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    While the Hurricanes' move to the new Metropolitan Division may good for PNC Arena ticket sales and national exposure, it more than offsets it with greatly increased strength of schedule.

    Over the past three seasons, the 'Canes have won a woeful 22 of 73 meetings with their new division rivals, recording a losing record against all seven opponents except for the Islanders.

    For all the renewed hope and optimism pulsing out of the Hurricanes' organization as the 2013-14 campaign approaches, the realization that the "easy" days of the old Southeast Division are no longer here may not have sunk in yet.

    The 'Canes are going to be facing players like Sidney Crosby, Henrik Lundqvist, John Tavares and Claude Giroux on a near-nightly basis, and they must face them with confidence.

    The Metropolitan will pose a wholly unfamiliar set of challenges for the raw and young Hurricanes.