After the Carolina Hurricanes were dumped 5-1 by the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 3, they officially became the worst team in the NHL. The Hurricanes were 30th in the standings, and 29th in goal differential, the power play and the penalty kill. Carolina called up some youngsters, and the youth movement, already in progress, was in full bloom.
And then a funny thing happened to the Canes: They got younger and then they got better. They went 27-18-12 over their final 57 games -- a 95-point pace, projected over a full season -- and finished sixth on the penalty kill. It wasn't until Game 79 that Carolina was officially eliminated from the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.
"And we did that with a lot of young pieces," Hurricanes general manager and Hall of Famer Ron Francis said recently. Uncertainty remains at the ownership level as longtime owner Peter Karmanos continues to try to sell a portion of the team, sparking periodic rumors that it will relocate. That talk will die down -- and perhaps it will be easier to sell part or all of the team -- if the Canes continue to evolve on the ice.
Biggest new faces
Francis was busy during the offseason, continuing to try to rebuild a franchise that had fallen into disrepair since its last playoff berth, a surprise trip to the 2009 Eastern Conference finals. Smallish but skilled Teuvo Teravainen joins an emerging young cast of forwards that includes new No. 1 center Victor Rask. Rask had 21 goals last season, behind only team leader Jeff Skinner (28).
Bryan Bickell came in the Teravainen deal as part of a salary dump by the Chicago Blackhawks, but Francis is hoping Bickell can regain the form that saw him become an integral part of Chicago's 2013 Stanley Cup run. Veterans Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg will help provide leadership in a room in which eight of the team's top nine returning scorers were born in the 1990s. The ninth in that group is "graybeard" Jordan Staal, who just turned 28.
While the Canes ended up middle of the pack in terms of goals allowed after a slow start, they were 27th in goals scored per game and 24th with the man advantage.
Skinner, Rask and Staal are the only returnees who scored 20 or more goals last season. A more dynamic offense could pave the way to a long-awaited return to the playoffs.
Can the youthful defense continue its evolution? Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce look to form half of Carolina's back end. All are big and skilled with tremendous upside. In fact, Slavin may yet turn out to be the best of the bunch. "Jaccob is every underrated, I think, outside our team," Francis said.
The plan, however, is to play the heck out of the group, says the GM. "We don't hide them," said Francis. "If they make a mistake, we put them right back out there."
Finally, and this may be the most critical of the uncertainties, how will the goaltending shake out? There were more than a few arched eyebrows when longtime Carolina netminder Cam Ward was re-signed by the team. Eddie Lack had been extended after Lack came over from the Vancouver Canucks, but neither netminder was particularly good early last season. Francis did explore some trades and free agents but ultimately figured the two goalies he has represent the best options moving forward. If he's right, the Canes will be in the playoffs.
It's still a bit hard to believe that Justin Faulk wasn't among those asked to represent the United States at the World Cup of Hockey, especially given the team's poor showing at the tournament. But Faulk may use that as incentive to continue his strong play in Carolina. He had 16 goals last season, tied for seventh among NHL defensemen, and his four game-winners were tied for fifth most.
Head coach Bill Peters missed part of training camp because he was part of Canada's coaching staff at the World Cup. But there seems to be little doubt that Peters and his coaching staff, which includes longtime former Hurricane Rod Brind'Amour and veteran NHL defenseman Steve Smith, are keys to keeping this young team marching forward.
There's so much uncertainty at the bottom end of the Eastern Conference standings that you can make a case for most, if not all, of the division teams that didn't make the playoffs to bounce back and sneak into one of the final few postseason spots this season. Carolina is one of those teams. Third in the Metropolitan Division.