It has been hard decade for the Carolina Hurricanes since their run to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals. One trip to the playoffs since and none since 2009, and ongoing salary-cap issues mean this is a turning-point season for sophomore GM Ron Francis, who has captain Eric Staal and franchise goaltender Cam Ward both headed toward unrestricted free agency. "I'd like to say that I think that we're going in the right direction," offered defenseman Justin Faulk, probably the team's most consistent performer. "I think the way Ronnie has been doing things and taking his time to change things to make sure he does it the right way is great. I think the way he's been going, trying to build for the future more so than the short term and stuff has been great. It's all been good. That brings a lot of excitement to the room, and probably the fans, too."
BEST NEW FACES
Kris Versteeg is the biggest impact skater, added late in the offseason in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. The two-time Stanley Cup winner could immediately settle into a top-six role, which (no slight to Versteeg) speaks to Carolina's lack of scoring depth. James Wisniewski, who never quite fit in with the Anaheim Ducks, was brought in via trade and will help a thin, young blue line. The biggest new name, though, is netminder Eddie Lack, coming over in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks. Lack should get a chance to challenge Ward for the starting job if he plays well. Noah Hanifin, the fifth-overall pick in the 2015 draft, is expected to play on the big club coming out of college. It will be up to coach Bill Peters to monitor Hanifin's exposure to NHL competition to ensure the former Boston College star doesn't get overwhelmed.
The Hurricanes were fourth on the penalty kill (84.7 percent) and tied for 13th on the power play (18.8 percent), but ranking 27th in 5-on-5 goals (127) illustrates the lack of scoring depth. The team had one 20-goal scorer, Eric Staal, and that won't cut it. So where do the goals come from? Jordan Staal has struggled since coming over from the Pittsburgh Penguins and signing a big contract. Former rookie of the year Jeff Skinner has been the subject of trade talks. Elias Lindholm, the fifth-overall pick in 2013, needs to hurry along his development. And then there's the blue line. The 'Canes were 24th in goals allowed at 5-on-5 (168), reflecting lack of depth there, too. Throw in the uncertainty over the Eric Staal/Ward contract situations, and you have myriad questions.
Under Francis, there will be no knee-jerk decisions. The team swallowed hard and bought Alexander Semin out of the rest of his deal in the offseason. Under Francis, there will be a patient (if painful) path to reversing the team's fortunes. That's a given, and so is the hard work put in by Peters and his staff. The former Detroit Red Wings assistant got rave reviews last season, in part because he did not play favorites. Semin got benched despite his huge contract when he did not follow the plan. Culture change must continue, but Peters seems to have the full support of management, which is key to stabilizing the franchise.
WORLD CUP CANDIDATES
Faulk looks ready to be a top-six member of the U.S. defensive corps next fall in Toronto. Lindholm could play his way into consideration for Team Sweden, although that's a team already chock full of top-end offensive talent. Fellow Swede Victor Rask will be in the same boat. Big center Andrej Nestrasil should find his way onto the Czech Republic roster, as will defenseman Michal Jordan.
PENDING FREE AGENTS
Eric Staal's situation is the most immediate. Staal, 30, will not command his current $9.5 million salary going forward. What works in terms of money and years for both, and is Staal more valuable as trade bait in March given that he's a center and a proven winner? Would Staal, who has a no-trade clause, move to a move to a contender? The same questions apply to Ward, although the market for his services would be significantly narrower. Lack will get a chance to assert himself and build for the future, and he is likewise eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. A slew of young players are headed for restricted free agency, including forwards Rask and Joakim Nordstrom, and defensemen Jordan and Ryan Murphy. Versteeg is in the final year of his deal as are Nathan Gerbe, Riley Nash and Brad Malone. Francis has a big year ahead.
Hard to imagine any circumstances in which the Hurricanes challenge for a playoff spot given the lack of depth and uncertainty at so many positions. In fact, they won't finishing higher than any of their division rivals. Eighth in the Metropolitan Division.