Biggest Takeaways from Carolina Hurricanes' Start to the 2013-14 Season

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IOctober 10, 2013

Biggest Takeaways from Carolina Hurricanes' Start to the 2013-14 Season

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    Only three games into the 2013-14 NHL season, the inevitable turbulence of the coming Carolina Hurricanes campaign has already risen to the surface.

    Through one fantastic game, one inconsistent game and one poor game, the ‘Canes offense and defense have each received passing, yet far from Ivy League-caliber, grades.

    The highly touted first line has mysteriously disappeared, but a few unlikely candidates have stepped up to keep the offense afloat. The inexperienced defense stood strong through the opening homestand, then crashed back to ugly old habits in Pittsburgh.

    As a testing stretch of four games in six days begins on Thursday, what key takeaways can be drawn from the first three matches of the Hurricanes’ season?

    A breakdown of four crucial points fall on the coming slides.

First Line Expectations Too High

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    The first line of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty, coming off a 2012-13 campaign that spotted them as among the most productive trios in the NHL, have combined for a mere one point through three games.

    In fact, the ‘Canes plus-minus distribution has done a near 180 since last spring.

    Jeff Skinner, a minus-21 a year ago, is now a plus-three; Staal, Semin and Tlusty, a combined plus-34 a year ago, are now a combined minus-seven.

    For Tlusty, the slow start should have been expected—his 19.7 shooting percentage in 2012-13 was over six percentage points over his career average, and a regression was likely unavoidable.

    For Staal and Semin, though, the pressure of exceedingly ridiculous expectations (as well as some nagging injury concerns) has clearly derailed at least the season’s opening week.

    A few matches of separation—which may have already begun Tuesday, when Drayson Bowman took Tlusty’s spot for a time—could be highly beneficial to the long-term viability of this fearsome trio.

Summer Acquisitions Making an Impact

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    From Nathan Gerbe to Andrej Sekera to Radek Dvorak, the impact of the Hurricanes’ smart yet decidedly under-appreciated offseason are already shining brightly.

    Gerbe, a summer buyout of the Buffalo Sabres, and Dvorak, a PTO success signed just two days before opening night, have accounted for four of the team’s six total goals to date. The former, in particular, has quickly asserted himself as a legitimate top-six weapon and Jordan Staal chemistry maker in Tuomo Ruutu’s absence.

    Meanwhile, Sekera has been arguably the ‘Canes second-best defenseman of the season so far, and Ron Hainsey has provided a stabilizing veteran presence for young Ryan Murphy and raw Brett Bellemore.

    The ‘Canes could well stand 0-3-0 today, if not for the strong early performance of their four major summer acquisitions.

Restructured Defense Has Potential

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    After drawing rave reviews for their grit and positioning through the opening two games, Carolina’s D put forth an undeniably weak effort on Tuesday against the Penguins.

    The penalty kill, previously a perfect 5-of-5, allowed two man-advantage goals on three Pittsburgh opportunities.

    The defense, previously a top 10-ranked unit in all three categories, was beaten heavily by the Penguins in hits (25-16), blocked shots (16-11) and takeaways (8-5).

    The centers, previously on pace for a franchise record faceoff percentage, won just 38.0 percent of their draws.

    Clearly, the inexperience of the ‘Canes back-end corps—four of the six defensive starters have fewer than a dozen games of Hurricanes experience—will not fail to translate into predictable inconsistency.

    Which caliber of defense will be seen in Thursday and Friday’s challenging back-to-back against Washington and Los Angeles? There’s no way to tell at the moment.

Anton Khudobin Pushing for Starting Job

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    Surprising July signing Anton Khudobin, the NHL’s active leader in save percentage among goaltenders with double-digit appearances, flashed his pads and blockers 17 times on 18 shots Sunday en route to a 2-1 win over Philadelphia.

    So far, that low-scoring night is the Hurricanes’ only victory of the campaign so far.

    The 27-year-old’s stellar preseason and regular-season debut continue to keep his fan-favorite stock on the rise; Caniac nation has truly yet to see a poor performance from the former Bruins backup.

    Khudobin was expected by many to push Cam Ward to improve in 2013-14, but is it plausible to think that Khudobin could push Ward for the starting role in its entirety? At this rate, it may soon be.