A young group of quickly maturing defensemen nearly pushed the Carolina Hurricanes into the playoffs last season. Now they're hoping for a similar boost at the other end of the rink.
The Hurricanes' rebuilding project could take another step forward — perhaps even back to the postseason for the first time since 2009 — if their inexperienced forwards can play older than their ages. Among the young new faces who could play key roles on offense are 19-year-old Sebastian Aho and 22-year-old Teuvo Teravainen.
"If they can kind of jump in like those young (defensemen) jumped in," veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey said, "the sky's the limit."
The storyline of last season was how that group of fresh-faced defensemen — led by Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin — stepped up while the team continued its patient rebuild and dealt face-of-the-franchise Eric Staal at the trade deadline.
The Hurricanes earned points in 12 of the first 14 games after the deadline to make a push to end the Eastern Conference's longest active postseason drought, but ultimately finished 10 points behind eighth-seeded Philadelphia.
Carolina hopes all those young legs translate into playing at a faster pace.
"That's the idea — not only (skating speed) but puck speed," veteran forward Jordan Staal said. "Just moving the puck, finding the right guy, working as a unit on the ice, and doing those things makes the game that much faster."
Some things to know about the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes:
The Hurricanes will have a familiar look in goal: Cam Ward is staying with the team he led to the Stanley Cup in 2006 after signing a two-year deal worth a total of $6.6 million, $200,000 less than he made in 2015-16. Carolina also brought back 35-year-old Michael Leighton, who played with the Hurricanes from 2007-10, to join Eddie Lack in what's suddenly a crowded goalie's crease.
Carolina led the league with 16 losses in either overtime or the shootout last season, and their 2-5 record in shootouts was one of the worst in the league. That only underscores the thin line between making and missing the postseason, Hainsey said, because "if seven of those (OT losses) go your way, you're a playoff team."
A big reason for the Hurricanes' playoff drought has been their slow starts. Carolina won just eight of its first 25 games in 2015-16, and the year before was just 10-23-4 in the first three months. The Hurricanes open the season with six straight road games before the home opener Oct. 28 against the New York Rangers, and can't afford to stumble.
The Hurricanes did not select a captain to replace Eric Staal after his trade to the Rangers, and the message has been clear: You don't need to wear a letter to be a leader. Defenseman Justin Faulk and Jordan Staal continued to wear the "A'' as alternate captains in Eric's absence, and the team is counting on those two, plus Hainsey, former rookie of the year Jeff Skinner and new addition Lee Stempniak to lead either vocally or by example.