No. 41: Carolina Hurricanes

Last year's rank: 28
Title track: 31
Ownership: 51
Coaching: 73
Players: 66
Fan relations: 37
Affordability: 23
Stadium experience: 27
Bang for the buck: 61

The Hurricanes missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season last year, and the horizon gets darkened by the NHL's conference realignment, which the league announced in March. The new Metropolitan division -- basically the old Atlantic plus a few additions -- includes seven teams that finished with more points than the Canes last season. No surprise, then, that the title track ranking is down, as are numbers for players, coaching and ownership.

In fact, the only increase for the Carolina squad came in stadium experience, where PNC Arena jumped 16 spots and is now ranked seventh in the NHL (last year it was ninth). Promotions, cheap tickets and food were priorities for the Canes last season, they said, to increase attendance in a shortened season. Apparently it worked: The arena averaged more than 1,500 more fans per game than the previous season.

Even with realignment, there's reason for optimism on the ice. Yes, Carolina will play in a division that actually will be challenging, but the return of Cam Ward -- whose injury was a huge loss for the team last season -- will return the Canes to potential contenders. And with the signing of Alexander Semin to a five-year, $35 million contract, who knows. We could see a repeat of the surprise 2006 Cup title.