Last season: (35-37-10, 80 points, 3rd in Southeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference) It seems the Hurricanes alternate good seasons and bad seasons. One season they charge deep into the playoffs (or even win the Cup), the next they don’t even make the playoffs. In 2009-10, they had one of those bad seasons.
Head coach: Paul Maurice is their coach, one of those rare guys who was fired only to be re-hired by the team. If he falters, GM Jim Rutherford will be in big trouble too.
Key departures: F Rod Brind’Amour (retirement), F Ray Whitney. The Hurricanes didn’t lose a lot of players, but both guys were big parts of the team. Rod the Bod was a heart-and-soul leader and a big part of the team’s Cup-winning run while Whitney is an underrated playmaker. Both will be missed.
Key arrivals: D Joe Corvo, D Anton Babchuk, F Jeff Skinner. It’s almost as if Rutherford lacks a pro scout as he goes the nostalgia route with a lot of his moves. Corvo and Babchuk both have been to Carolina, left and came back again. Kind of like Maurice.
Under pressure: Don’t worry, Eric Staal. All you have to do is carry an offense full of castoffs such as Sergei Samsonov and guys who turned around their careers like Jussi Jokinen. The team depends on Staal and goalie Cam Ward to carry the load, so if they don’t succeed, neither does Carolina. No pressure there.
Protecting the house: Last season, Ward went down with an injury and his team collapsed with him. With a Stanley Cup on his resume and plenty of hockey ahead of him, he’s one of the genuine franchise goalies in the NHL. Unfortunately, the team depends too much on Ward. If he gets injured, backup Justin Peters doesn’t seem like a goalie who can handle the workload. Will they need to turn to someone like Manny Legace in desperation again this season?
Wow, that defense isn’t very good. Joni Pitkanen is a solid player who would be fantastic on a deeper blue line, but I’m not sure I’d want him to be my No. 1. Perhaps the group will be decent if promising youngster Jamie McBain improves, but I’m not very impressed by a group that includes Tim Gleason, Corvo and Babchuk.
Top line we’d like to see: Jokinen-Staal-Tuomo Ruutu. There’s an obvious drop-off from Staal to every other forward on this roster. Still, this line would include the elite talents of Staal, the crafty skills of Jokinen and the rugged play of the superior (but more injury prone) of the Ruutu brothers.
Oh captain, my captain: How could it not be Staal?
Street fighting man: The Hurricanes aren’t big fighters, but Tom Kostopoulos would be the man to throw some punches.
Best-case scenario: The Hurricanes use their hard-charging style to take the second spot in the division. Staal, Ward and Cole stay healthy and play their fullest potential. Samsonov bounces back from injury problems while Jokinen keeps up the positive momentum from last season. The team makes it to the Eastern Conference finals by playing aggressive, exciting and opportunistic hockey.
Worst-case scenario: The season ends up being a mirror image of last season, with Carolina falling short of the playoffs while not getting a good enough pick to nab a high-end prospect.
Keeping it real: The Hurricanes are alarmingly dependent on their two best players, but Staal and Ward are legitimately good. The problem is that they’re no longer the only semi-competitive team other than the Capitals in their division, so getting into the playoffs by default isn’t an option any more. Expect a season on the playoff bubble for Carolina.
Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, Carolina deserves a 2. I almost want to say they should get a 3, but this team only went backwards this summer. They seem to work off of mojo and momentum, though, so I wouldn’t put it past them to have another Cinderella run.