2013-14 Carolina Hurricanes Preview

Since reaching the top of the NHL mountain with a Stanley Cup title in 2006, things haven't gone so well for the Carolina Hurricanes.

The franchise has missed the playoffs in six of seven seasons since winning it all and last spring marked Carolina's fourth straight spring without a playoffs appearance.

Despite the recent downturn, it's not crazy to think the Hurricanes have a chance to break the cycle in 2013-14. After all, the club was in first place in the now-defunct Southeast Division before No. 1 goaltender Cam Ward -- the Conn Smythe winner when Carolina won it all in '06 -- suffered a season-ending injury.

Without Ward between the pipes the Hurricanes imploded, losing 20 of their final 27 games and finishing 13 points out of a playoff spot.

A healthy Hurricanes team could challenge for a playoff spot this season, although they'll have to do it in what appears to be a tougher division than the Southeast. With the onset of realignment, Carolina will now compete in the Metropolitan Division along with the likes of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey, the New York Rangers and their old Southeast rivals, the Washington Capitals. That's not to mention a couple of up-and-coming teams in the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets.

Unfortunately, the injuries already seem to be starting for the Hurricanes, who learned earlier this month that top defenseman Joni Pitkanen will miss the entire season with a broken bone in his left heel -- not the best omen heading into 2013-14 if you are the Hurricanes.

FORWARDS - Not normally known as big spenders the Hurricanes made two high- profile moves in the summer of 2012 and they had the effect of raising expectations for last season's lockout-shortened campaign.

Unfortunately, injuries to Ward and other key players eventually took their toll and it wound up being another disappointing season for the 2006 champions.

The two big moves mentioned above landed Carolina forwards Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin, who both expect to figure in the franchise's long-term plans.

Staal, the younger brother of Canes' franchise player Eric Staal, was acquired from Pittsburgh at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft -- an event that happened to take place on the same night as Jordan's wedding -- and shortly after the deal he signed a 10-year, $60 million extension with the Hurricanes.

Eric Staal, the team's top-line center, posted a team-best 53 points (18G, 35A) in 48 games last season, marking the first time he averaged more than a point-per-game in a year since he recorded 100 points for Carolina in 2005-06. Things did not go as smoothly for the younger Staal, however, as he notched 31 points (10G, 21A) in 48 games. Normally a sound defensive centerman, Jordan Staal also finished with a minus-18 rating for the second-worst plus/minus on the team.

Semin, meanwhile, turned in a strong season in 2013, posting 44 points (13G, 31A) in 44 games and finishing second on the club with a plus-14 rating. Carolina apparently liked what they saw from the former Washington Capital and signed Semin to a five-year, $35 million deal back in March.

When speaking about Carolina's problems staying healthy, Jeff Skinner comes to mind. The speedy winger won the Calder Trophy in 2010-11, but has been dogged by concussion issues since registering 31 goals and 63 points over 82 games as a rookie. Skinner sat out 18 games in 2011-12 and six more last season, and the majority of that missed time was due to a head injury.

Skinner, who tallied 13 goals and 11 assists last season, is Carolina's most dangerous offensive weapon when healthy and a concussion-free season from him in 2013-14 would help the Hurricanes chances of returning to the playoffs.

Physical forward Tuomo Ruutu also is hoping for an injury-free season after playing in just 17 games for the Hurricanes last year. The Finnish winger had four goals and five assists in 2013, but he is a threat to score 20 goals when healthy.

Carolina also is counting on Jiri Tlusty to build off a career year in 2013. The Czech forward notched a career-best in both goals (23) and points (38) during the shortened season.

Carolina's offensive depth tails off dramatically after the first two lines, but there could be help on the way in the form of this summer's top draft pick. Swedish centerman Elias Lindholm, selected with the fifth overall pick at the most recent draft, is said to play a polished two-way game and it seems to be a good bet the Hurricanes will find a spot for him on their NHL roster this season.

Although he's only 18 years old, Lindholm did play last season among men in Sweden's top professional league and managed 11 goals and 19 assists over 48 games for Brynas.

DEFENSE - Shortly after it was revealed Pitkanen would miss the upcoming season the Hurricanes signed veteran blueliner Ron Hainsey, but the damage could already be done.

As a whole, Carolina's defense lacks talent and depth and that was before Pitkanen sustained his season-ending injury. Hainsey is a solid, offensive- minded defenseman, but he's unlikely to cover up the loss of Pitkanen, who only played in 22 games during an injury-plagued 2013 season.

Hainsey had no goals and 13 assists in 47 games for Winnipeg last season and has recorded 192 points (34G, 158A) over 591 career games.

Pitkanen's loss will likely be felt most on the power play, a trouble spot for the team a year ago when the Hurricanes ranked 27th in the league on the man advantage.

Justin Faulk will skate on the top pairing and he'll likely lead the team in ice time this season just like he did in 2013 when he averaged 24 minutes per game. The 21-year-old Faulk had a solid performance with five goals and 10 assists last season, but it may be too soon to expect the youngster to carry a defense. Unfortunately, with the veteran Pitkanen sidelined it seems head coach Kirk Muller won't have a better option.

The Hurricanes added defenseman Andrej Sekera to the mix this offseason, acquiring him from Buffalo in exchange for fellow blueliner Jamie McBain. Sekera had two goals and 10 assists in 37 games for the Sabres a year ago.

Carolina also added Mike Komisarek through free agency after the veteran defenseman spent much of last season as a healthy scratch for Toronto. Komisarek was once a well-regarded physical defenseman, but has fallen on hard time in recent years. A bounce-back year from him could help solidify a Carolina defensive group that is unimpressive on paper.

Perhaps, highly-touted youngster Ryan Murphy can be a saving grace on Carolina's blue line in 2013-14. Murphy, 20, failed to register a point in four games with the Hurricanes last season, but the 12th overall pick of the 2011 draft will be given every chance to make this team, especially since Pitkanen went down. Murphy could at least be an upgrade over the likes of Tim Gleason and Jay Harrison.

GOALTENDING - The way Carolina fell off after Ward was injured last season really shows how important the club's longtime No. 1 goaltender is to the team's overall success.

Ward was 9-6-1 with a 2.84 goals against average for Carolina before suffering his injury last season. Despite the injury problems last year, the 29-year-old has earned a reputation as one of the most durable goaltenders in the NHL. In fact, before 2013 Ward had appeared in 60 games or more in five of the previous six seasons.

Still, Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford was wise to try and upgrade his club's backup goaltending position. After all, Justin Peters was just 4-11-1 with a 3.46 GAA in 19 appearances for the Hurricanes in 2013, meaning new backup Anton Khudobin has a low bar to clear this season.

Khudobin played in 14 games for the Boston Bruins last season, spelling Tuukka Rask when necessary. After posting a 9-4-1 record and 2.32 GAA with the Bruins, the Hurricanes landed his services for the bargain price of $800,000 this season.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The reason staying healthy is so important for the Hurricanes is the club is hamstrung by depth issues all over the ice. Once one domino falls, it could have an adverse affect on the whole season and there is a reasonable chance that domino has already fallen in the form of Pitkanen's injury. In reality, a whole bunch of things need to go right for the Hurricanes to end their playoff drought and playing in a new, and seemingly tougher, division isn't going to help those odds.