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2011-12 Carolina Hurricanes Preview

It's been five years since the Carolina Hurricanes won their one and only Stanley Cup, and those years have not been kind to the franchise.

In fact, the Hurricanes have made the postseason just once since Rod Brind'Amour, whose number is now retired, lifted hockey's most celebrated trophy in the spring of 2006.

Carolina didn't miss the playoffs by much in 2010-11, finishing two points behind the New York Rangers for the East's eighth and final berth.

But last season wasn't all bad for Carolina and the brightest spot had to be the fantastic debut season of 18-year-old scoring sensation Jeff Skinner, who won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. The seventh overall pick of the 2010 draft has since had his 19th birthday and is hoping to avoid a sophomore slump.

Of course, head coach Paul Maurice still has Eric Staal centering the top line and Cam Ward manning the crease, and general manager Jim Rutherford added offensive defenseman Tomas Kaberle to the mix this summer, signing him to a lucrative three-year deal.

The problem lies in Carolina's lack of overall depth and that issue could cause them to fall short of the postseason once again.

FORWARDS - Staal mirrors Carolina's post-Cup era in that his best statistical season as an NHLer came in that championship campaign of over five years ago.

Staal recorded 100 points on the nose in 2005-06, posting career bests in both goals (45) and assists (55). Considering the 26-year-old has averaged 34 goals and nearly 75 points a year since then, it's not like the ensuing years have been bad, but a return to the century mark would obviously make a huge difference for the 'Canes.

Last year, Carolina's captain potted 33 goals and handed out 43 assists over 81 games.

Meanwhile, Skinner made the jump from juniors to the NHL look easy, finishing second on the team in goals (31) and points (63) while skating in all 82 games. With no earth-shattering additions to the club's scoring power this offseason, the Hurricanes will likely need Skinner to at least duplicate last year's numbers if they are to be a postseason threat in 2011-12.

Skinner did not skate with Staal for the most part last season and all signs point to Maurice maintaining that strategy this year. Skinner played well with Tuomo Ruutu at center and the versatile Finn expects to skate in the middle again this year. After all, the 28-year-old Ruutu's 57 points (19 goals, 38 assists) last season were a career-high.

However, Maurice could try numerous combinations on the top-two lines, he could even put Ruutu on the right wing alongside Staal and left winger Jussi Jokinen and have Brandon Sutter center the second line with Skinner and offseason signee Anthony Stewart.

Jokinen figures to be the club's top left winger since Erik Cole departed for Montreal this summer. The 28-year-old Finn had 30 goals and 65 points two years ago, but last season saw his production dip to 19 markers and 52 points.

The 22-year-old Sutter, who is the son of Calgary head coach Brent Sutter, also took a small step back in 2010-11. He had 21 goals and 40 points in 72 games in 2009-10 and 14 goals and 29 points while playing all 82 games last year.

Stewart and fellow winger Alex Ponikarovsky were Carolina's biggest offensive acquisitions in the offseason. Stewart, 26, registered 14 goals and 25 assists in 80 games for Atlanta, while Ponikarovsky, a three-time 20-goal scorer with Toronto, had just five goals and 10 assists in 61 games with Los Angeles. Ponikarovsky has spent time on the top line with Jokinen and Staal in the preseason.

The Hurricanes could also use rookie Zac Dalpe on a full-time basis this year. The second-round pick from the 2008 draft can play center or wing and Carolina thinks he projects as a solid two-way player at the NHL level. The 21-year-old had three goals and one assists in 15 games with Carolina in 2010-11.

The remainder of Carolina's forward spots will feature players like winger Chad LaRose (16 goals in 2010-11) and centerman Tim Brent, who recorded 20 points (8g, 12a) in 79 games for Toronto last season. Brent is also a skilled penalty killer and can help in the faceoff circle.

DEFENSE - For a team that finished 24th in the league on the power play last season, signing two offensive defensemen to lucrative deals was not an awful idea, but those decisions didn't make Carolina's blue line a real strength either.

Kaberle, who signed a three-year, $12.75 million with the 'Canes, is 33 years old and is still a skilled playmaker, but his best days as a strong two-way player are clearly in the rearview mirror. Still, he recorded four goals and 43 assists in 82 combined games with Toronto and Boston last year and also added 11 assists to help the Bruins win the Stanley Cup.

The 'Canes also re-signed defenseman Joni Pitkanen to a three-year, $13.5 million contract and he'll serve as the club's No. 1 defenseman once again. Pitkanen, who had five goals and 30 assists last year, is a big and a smooth- skater, but he also has his share of defensive lapses.

Jamie McBain also turned in an impressive rookie season, even if he was overshadowed by the phenom Skinner. McBain recorded seven goals and 23 assists in 76 games, but also was a minus-eight. The 23-year-old Minnesotan is a key for Carolina this season, as a step forward or backwards could make a big difference for the club's postseason chances.

The rest of Carolina's blue line feature little in the way of offensive upside, but Tim Gleason averaged nearly 21 minutes of ice time a night for the 'Canes last year. Gleason is Carolina's best stay-at-home guy and is a good fit for Pitkanen, leaving Maurice with a second pairing of McBain and Kaberle.

Bryan Allen and Derek Joslin are expected to fill out the defensive rotation.

GOALTENDING - Ward was a rookie when Carolina won it all in 2006, and while he's never quite reached the heights of that Conn Smythe-winning spring, at 27 years old he should be entering his prime.

After battling back issues that limited him to just 47 games in 2009-10, Ward set a career mark last year with 74 games. He went 37-26-10 with a 2.56 goals- against average and an excellent .923 save percentage.

Assuming his back problems don't resurface, Ward will again be one of Carolina's biggest assets.

The Hurricanes also signed veteran Brian Boucher to a two-year deal, giving Ward a more experienced backup than Justin Peters, who the club feels still needs seasoning in the AHL.

Boucher had an eventful 2010-11 in Philadelphia, going 18-10-4 with a 2.42 GAA in the regular season and garnering seven starts in the playoffs. Barring injury, he will be called upon to do much less this year in Raleigh.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Hurricanes have the basic framework for a winning club in place, but there is simply not enough depth to consider them as Cup contenders. Carolina finished third in the ever-improving Southeast Division and it's safe to bet the 'Canes will be looking up at Washington and Tampa Bay again this year. It's possible that they'll sneak into the playoffs, but a near-miss in the postseason department is more likely.