Originally Published: September 24, 2013

Carolina Hurricanes: Things are looking grim

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

It seems like a million years since the Carolina Hurricanes won their first and only Stanley Cup (it was actually 2006) and half a million since they last scratched their way into the postseason (it was 2009).

And yes, a four-year playoff absence has been difficult to swallow for a franchise that has worked tirelessly to keep hockey on the local sports radar. Injuries to key players, including netminder Cam Ward, and poor team defense and special-teams play plunged the Canes near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings (13th last season).

Still, this represents the first full season under coach Kirk Muller, who came aboard in late November 2011 and dealt with the lockout and a shortened training camp.

"It gives him a chance now to run a team like he should run it," GM Jim Rutherford told ESPN.com. "He's a good coach. He's very well prepared."

Expectations were high at the end of the lockout for the young, skilled Hurricanes. They remain high with Rutherford hoping the team will be significantly harder to play against in the newly aligned Metropolitan Division.

Rutherford hopes a change of scenery will revitalize defenseman Mike Komisarek's career, allowing Komisarek to get back to the physical play that made him a high-profile star in Montreal before signing a big contract in Toronto.

The change that could have the most impact, though, is the signing of netminder Anton Khudobin, who apprenticed in Boston under Tuukka Rask and whom Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli would have liked to re-signed but couldn't because of cap reasons.

"That's a pretty good recommendation from an NHL GM. He's a very capable guy," Rutherford said.

When Ward went down with injury last year, the Canes goaltending did not respond. Khudobin has the potential to give them a solid 1-1A tandem.

The disappointing news on the eve of camp that injury-plagued Joni Pitkanen would miss the entire season with a heel injury was followed immediately by the signing of veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey to a one-year deal. Hainsey will fit seamlessly into the Canes locker room and brings much of the same skill set that will be missed with Pitkanen's absence: big body, can eat up a lot of minutes and decent offensive upside.

There was a surprise move in the front office with owner Peter Karmanos firing his son Jason as executive vice president and assistant GM on the eve of training camp. Hall of Famer Ron Francis and Darren Yorke will assume those duties, respectively.

This is a team that shouldn't struggle to find the back of the net, blessed as it is with size and skill down the middle and a nice mix of skill and grit on the wings.

It begins and ends with captain Eric Staal, who said he's recovered from a gruesome knee injury suffered at the world championships. He has point-a-game potential and looks to continue to play with the oft-maligned Alexander Semin, who earned a five-year, $35 million contract extension after collecting 44 points in 44 games last season.

Staal told ESPN.com he heard the grumblings about Semin before last season, that he sometimes wasn't fully engaged, but said he never saw any of that.

"He wanted to be counted on, and he wanted to contribute every night," Staal said. "Definitely the most skilled player I've ever played with."

This will also represent a good chance for Jordan Staal, the former Selke Trophy nominee, to fully integrate into the Canes' world after being traded at the 2012 draft. Jeff Skinner needs to bounce back after a 13-goal performance last season that was mitigated by injury. The former rookie of the year was also minus-21.

Regulars Tuomo Ruutu and Jiri Tlusty are back, and Rutherford hopes youngsters including Elias Lindholm (the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft), Brock McGinn (47th overall in 2012) and even small, skilled forward Sergey Tolchinsky might find their way onto the opening-day roster.

Defensively, Komisarek is looking to revitalize his career after a forgettable turn in Toronto.

"He just needs to play within himself," said Rutherford. "It'll be a totally different situation for him here."

Andrej Sekera is also aboard in the hopes of making the Hurricanes a much more difficult team to play against in their own zone, and Ryan Murphy (12th overall in 2011) is expected to have an impact.

Staal put it pretty succinctly when he said Carolina's special-teams play was "dismal" last season. We'll accept that. Carolina's power play was 27th and the penalty kill 28th.

A player such as Radek Dvorak, on a tryout at the Canes' camp, might get a shot given his history as a penalty killer. Either way, the play of both units must improve substantially for the Hurricanes to return to the playoffs.

Overall team defense -- and team toughness -- must improve as well, after Carolina ranked 29th in goals allowed per game. Some of that is personnel and the injuries the team suffered, including Ward's, although his .908 save percentage when he was playing wasn't up to his standards. Rutherford said Ward's diligence in rehabbing the third-degree MCL sprain in his left knee gives him confidence the goalie will return to form (.923 save percentage in 2010-11). All in all, lots of questions for a team that has a long way to go defensively to become a playoff team.

Rutherford said he loves the league's realignment plans and that it should have no bearing on his squad. He feels it doesn't matter where you play, because "you have to get a lot of points" no matter what. The bottom line is that in the former Southeast Division there was always a chance to rebound from a bad start or prolonged slump to win the division or make the postseason (like Washington did last season), but that won't be the case now if Pittsburgh is as good as we think. The Hurricanes will have to duke it out with teams like the Flyers, Rangers, Blue Jackets, the up-and-coming Islanders and their old pals the Capitals to get back to the postseason. Tough road to travel, indeed.

Burnside: A lot of things are going to have to go right for the Canes to make their first playoff appearance since 2009, when they shocked most observers by advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. But you can likely say that about seven or eight teams in the Eastern Conference. Still, I'm not sure the team defense or goaltending is going to be good enough, and I see the Hurricanes just outside the playoff bubble, fifth in the Metropolitan Division.

Custance: Eighth in the Metropolitan Division.

LeBrun: Seventh in the Metropolitan Division.

Melrose: Eighth in the Metropolitan Division.

Strang: Eighth in the Metropolitan Division.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer


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