Complete 2013-14 Season Preview for the Carolina Hurricanes

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IOctober 1, 2013

Complete 2013-14 Season Preview for the Carolina Hurricanes

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    The long-awaited opening night of the Carolina Hurricanes' 2013-14 season is just days away, but still little is known about the caliber of the team that will take the ice Friday at PNC Arena.

    General manager Jim Rutherford and head coach Kirk Muller trimmed the team's roster to a legal 22 players Monday afternoon, sending the finals to the AHL and giving the best preview they could of Friday's lineup.

    It's been a busy and unstable, if progressive, offseason for the 'Canes, who revamped their entire defensive unit and brought in another generation of youngsters to compete for NHL roster slots. However, that uncertainty has lingered through opening week, thanks to the team's ever-present injury tribulations.

    How do the Hurricanes stand entering this autumn's campaign? What should every 'Canes fan, both informed and casual, know about their new team heading into the season? A complete season preview falls on the coming slides.

Key Roster Changes

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    Additions: F Elias Lindholm (draft), F Nathan Gerbe (free agency), D Ron Hainsey (free agency), D Andrej Sekera (trade), D Mike Komisarek (free agency), G Anton Khudobin (free agency)

    Jim Rutherford let the 'Canes offense, which ranked third in the NHL in shots last season, improve largely through the promotion of prospects rather than out-of-town help.

    However, fifth overall selection Elias Lindholm has the ability to make a major impact in all three zones—if he can stay healthy. Nathan Gerbe, a former 16-goal scorer but also the league's shortest player at just 5'5", had an impressive preseason and also earned a full-time spot on the team.

    The additions of Hainsey, Sekera and Komisarek add tremendous experience, leadership and grit to a defensive unit that has perennially ranked among the NHL's worst. The trio boast an average height of 6'3" and 1,449 combined career NHL starts.

    Meanwhile, Anton Khudobin, the NHL's active career save-percentage leader (among goalies with 10 or more appearances), should finally provide the stable No. 2 goalie the 'Canes have long sought.

    Departures: F Chad LaRose, F Tim Brent, F Zac Dalpe, D Jamie McBain, D Joe Corvo, D Marc-Andre Bergeron, D Bobby Sanguinetti, G Dan Ellis

    A cornucopia of misfits and borderline NHL-ers walked out of Raleigh contract-free this summer.

    Jamie McBain was exchanged for Sekera in a draft-day trade with Buffalo, while Chad LaRose, Joe Corvo and Dan Ellis were upgraded to Gerbe, Hainsey and Khudobin in free agency.

Projected Depth Chart: Forwards

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    Left WingCenterRight Wing
    Jiri Tlusty Eric StaalAlexander Semin
    Elias Lindholm Riley NashJeff Skinner
    Nathan Gerbe Jordan StaalPatrick Dwyer
    Drayson BowmanBrett Sutter Kevin Westgarth

    Injured Reserve: Tuomo Ruutu

    Healthy Scratch: Matt Corrente

    The Hurricanes' first line, arguably one of the best trios in all of hockey last spring, will remain together at all costs throughout this season. However, Alexander Semin's uncertain injury status leaves their unity in question for opening night.

    The second and third lines could well be interchangeable in designation; Jordan Staal's combination, a standout trio of training camp, may be used in more defensive situations while the young-stars combination of Lindholm, Skinner and Nash is employed for attacking shifts. The health statuses of Lindholm and Skinner must both be monitored as the week progresses, though.

    Ruutu is eligible to return from IR at any time, but he seems likely to miss at least the first few weeks of the season. His return will instantly provide a physical boost to the 'Canes' forward depth chart.

    Corrente, a summer signing with the ability to play both offense and defense, should be the healthy scratch behind the fourth line; 36-year-old veteran Radek Dvorak is also currently in negotiations with the team.

Projected Depth Chart: Defensemen

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    Left DefenseRight Defense
    Justin FaulkRon Hainsey
    Andrej Sekera Ryan Murphy
    Jay HarrisonBrett Bellemore
     Mike Komisarek

    Injured: Tim Gleason

    The 'Canes have flip-flopped between dressing six and seven defensemen for opening night; for now, the decision has yet to be made.

    The only member of the 2013-14 'Canes defense who averaged over 20 minutes per game in 2013, Justin Faulk will have to carry the unit solely upon his shoulders this campaign. He'll receive some veteran suport in Hainsey and Sekera, but Tim Gleason's concussion-based absence hurts.

    Ryan Murphy, the 12th overall pick in 2011, was sent down to the AHL Monday but is expected to be recalled by Friday.

    Brett Bellemore, former career AHL-er, translated his surprisingly stellar stint last spring into an equally strong training camp and should see plenty of NHL action in 2013-14.

Projected Depth Chart: Goaltenders

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    Cam Ward
    Anton Khudobin
    Justin Peters

    Cam Ward is finally healthy and ready to return to his former elite form, motivated by a quest to return to the 2014 Olympics as well as to bring the 'Canes back to the postseason. He finished out the preseason with an 18-save shutout of the Sabres and should enter opening night with ample confidence and overflowing drive.

    Khudobin's addition drew a plethora of praise in July. With a 14-5-1 record over his NHL career, the 27-year-old could prove to be one of the unheralded stars of the 2013-14 Hurricanes.

    Justin Peters, following a dismal 2013 campaign, has been demoted to third on the depth chart.

Biggest X-Factor: Injuries

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    Coming off a season plagued and ultimately destroyed by injuries, the Carolina Hurricanes have yet again struggled to stay on the ice this autumn.

    Cam Ward, Justin Faulk, Tuomo Ruutu and Joni Pitkanen all missed major chunks of the 2013 campaign as the 'Canes ranked sixth in the NHL in total man games lost

    The latter two are already guaranteed to miss this season's opener, with Pitkanen shelved for the entire 2013-14 season and perhaps the remainder of his tumultuous career.

    Fellow teammates Semin, Lindholm, Skinner and Gleason are all suffering through ailments, as well; the former two are questionable for the season opener and the latter has already been ruled out.

    For a 'Canes team faced with the tough transition to the Metropolitan Division and a historically problematic lack of depth, an excess of injuries would simply be catastrophic to the 2013-14 campaign. Carolina must stay healthier this year if it hopes to contend under the radar for a playoff berth.

Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios

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    Best-Case Scenario: 3rd in Metropolitan Division, 6th in Eastern Conference

    If the 'Canes can consistently stay healthy, keep shots out of their own net and produce more scoring from their bottom six, they should be easily capable of maintaining a playoff spot all year long.

    The East's top tier (Bruins, Rangers, Penguins, Red Wings, Senators) might be hard to penetrate. However, it's important to remember that the 'Canes stood firmly in third place at 15-9-1 at one point in the second half of the 2013 season. They're arguably an even better team this time around, so plenty of reasons for confidence abound.

    Worst-Case Scenario: 8th in Metropolitan Division, 13th in Eastern Conference

    Many pundits have spotted the 'Canes in the Metropolitan cellar in their 2013-14 season predictions, citing frequent injury bugs and lack of defensive star power.

    These projections, while perhaps overly pessimistic, portray a fate that has befallen the 'Canes more than once in recent years and could easily, if all goes wrong yet again, lay waste to their upcoming season.

    If the defensive and special teams units continue the inconsistency that has become the norm, there's little doubt that Carolina will be carved up quickly by the star-studded offenses of New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the new division.


Final Prediction

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    Prediction: 4th in Metropolitan Division, 8th in Eastern Conference

    With the NHL's spotlight focused elsewhere in the new alignment, the Carolina Hurricanes have both the on-paper talent and the ambitious opportunity to prove themselves one of the bona-fide surprise teams of 2013-14.

    The season could ultimately come to rest on the backs of three great players: Eric Staal, Justin Faulk and Cam Ward. Rarely since Faulk's emergence, though, have all three been healthy and reliable at the same time. The 'Canes fixed their secondary holes this offseason; the onus is now back on the franchise's true cornerstones to orchestrate a successful postseason run.

    The threesome have the talent to hoist the Hurricanes on their shoulders, without question. But do they have the experience, the consistency and the overall ability?

    We think so.

    Opening Night Info: Carolina Hurricanes vs. Detroit Red Wings; Friday, 7 p.m. ET, PNC Arena (FS Carolinas, 99.9 The Fan)