Hurricanes’ biggest question: Where will the goals come from?

Heading into their second season under head coach Bill Peters one of the biggest questions surrounding the Carolina Hurricanes is where the goals will come from.

Carolina averaged 2.23 goals-for per-game last season, which ranked 27th in the league. The ‘Canes scored one or fewer goals in 31 contests including a six-game stretch in December, which saw them score just one goal in each game.

“It’s no secret, we need to find away to score more goals,” said GM Ron Francis. “We lost, whichever way you look at it, but potentially could be 34 one-goal games when you take empty net goals (and) overtime (goals) into the equation. We need to find away to score more goals.”

Francis hasn’t done much to address the scoring issue. In fact, he bought out Alex Semin who just two seasons ago scored 22 goals. The 31-year-old, who signed a one-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens, has averaged 23 goals per season over the course of his 10 years in the league.

“Bill and his staff have already been looking at tape and come up with ideas,” Francis said. “It’ll start in practice and in training camp and different things to get into the tougher areas to score goals. Hopefully if we can do that, we can turn our fortunes around.”

Barring any further additions, the ‘Canes will rely on the likes of Eric Staal, Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner to carry the offense next season. Elias Lindholm had a career season last year scoring 17 goals and 39 points in 81 games – more will likely be expected out of him.

Eric Staal led the ‘Canes with 23 goals and 54 points in 77 games last season, but those were his lowest numbers since his rookie season (2003-04).

“We like where we are in terms of being able to take a step forward; it will depend on us having the ability to score,” Peters told NHL.com. “We have to find a way to score more at 5-on-5.”

Skinner, who is entering the third year of his six-year, $34.35 million deal, scored 18 goals and 31 points in 77 games last season – a far cry from the 33 goals and 21 assists he produced during the 2013-14 season.

His drop in production had the ‘Canes reportedly trying to move the 23-year-old prior to the NHL Draft.

“We need Jeff Skinner to have a bounce-back year,” said Peters. “He’s an offensive guy; he’s proven he can score at the NHL level. We need to get him back to being a consistent 25- to 30-goal scorer.”

After breaking his leg in the preseason and missing 35 games, Jordan Staal scored just six goals and 24 points in 46 games last season.

Jordan Staal and Skinner are due to have bigger goal totals this season, but how much will it help a Carolina team, which scored 127 even strength goals and missed the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season? Only time will tell.

Looking to make the leap: Noah Hanifin

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Carolina Hurricanes prospect Noah Hanifin is hoping to follow the footsteps of Aaron Ekblad and make the leap to the NHL after being the top defenseman selected in his draft class.

The 18-year-old, Norwood, MA native is going to get every opportunity be in the ‘Canes opening night lineup despite the crowded blue line in Carolina.

“We certainly think with his skating ability and his size, he has the potential to step in and play, but we’re certainly not going to rush him in that regard,” GM Ron Francis told the team’s website recently. “I think if you look at history, a lot of young defensemen take a little longer to develop.

“There have been more and more (defensemen) recently that have been able to step in and not only contribute, but have tremendous success.”

Carolina’s fifth overall selection in the June draft scored five goals and 23 points in 37 regular season games with Boston College last season.

His experience playing against older players while with the Eagles is one of the reasons Francis believes Hanifin will be able to make jump to the NHL this season.

“You look at what he did as a 17-year-old, he jammed in a bunch of classes to make sure he’s eligible for college and at 17 was playing against guys in that league that are 22, 23 and not only held his own, but excelled,” Francis said.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound blue liner believes with a full offseason of training he’ll be prepared for the NHL game.

“There’s a lot of good defensemen here and nothing is guaranteed. I’m going to put in a lot of good work this summer up until camp and I’m hoping I’m going to make it,” he said after signing his entry-level contract. “The pace of the game is going to be a lot higher, but with all the training I’m going to be putting in this summer, if I can continue to get better, I feel that I can go in (to camp) and do OK, do well.”

In order to make the leap, Hanifin will have to beat out some stiff competition. The ‘Canes currently have eight blue liners with NHL experience under contract for next season.

Coach Bill Peters is looking forward to watching the competition.

“What I see is there’s going to be an unbelievable competition on the back end between Hanifin, you’ve got (Haydn) Fleury, you got (Brett) Pesce you got (Jaccob) Slavin and then you’ve got all your returning guys,” Peters said following the club’s development camp. “I think the competition there is going to be very high and we’re just going to give everybody an opportunity and see who takes advantage of it.”

It’s Carolina Hurricanes day at PHT

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Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The Carolina Hurricanes.

Despite changing their head coach and general manager, the 2014-15 season was more of the same for the Carolina Hurricanes.

For the sixth season in a row (and eight of their last nine campaigns), the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs. Much like 2013-14, they were in the cellar of the East.

Granted, there are murmurs of hope; the Hurricanes subtly improved toward the end of the year and Carolina showed some signs of defensive improvement under head coach Bill Peters. Such patter sounds like baby steps in the grand scheme of things.

Despite some significant expenditures on that side of the puck, Peters identified scoring as a particularly glaring issue.

“We like where we are in terms of being able to take a step forward; it will depend on us having the ability to score,” Peters said, according to NHL.com. “We have to find a way to score more at 5-on-5.”

Off-season recap

GM Ron Francis faces tougher decisions soon, yet he was fairly busy this summer.

It was costly, but the organization cut ties with Semin via a pricey buyout.

In trading Anton Khudobin to Anaheim and acquiring Eddie Lack from Vancouver, Francis gives himself flexibility with Ward, as Lack could end up the No. 1 or even combine for a platoon situation. Swapping with Anaheim also netted an expensive upgrade to Carolina’s needy defense in James Wisniewski.

Optimists may cross their fingers that the Hurricanes will opt for a youth movement. Blueline prospect Noah Hanifin joins Elias Lindholm, Justin Faulk, Victor Rask and Ryan Murphy as intriguing young talents who aren’t in limbo like Jordan Staal or Jeff Skinner.

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This time it really does feel like a fork-in-the-road season for the Hurricanes, even if it also seems like the organization has been procrastinating when it comes to making difficult (yet crucial) decisions.

Will things finally start to turn Carolina’s way in 2015-16?

Vancouver Canucks ’15-16 Outlook

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It was another eventful offseason in Vancouver, the second under GM Jim Benning, and it left both fans and media asking the same question:

What exactly are the Canucks doing?

To hear Benning explain it, the plan is simple in theory, yet difficult to execute — rebuild while staying competitive, giving young players a winning environment in which to grow.

“From the time I took the job (14 months ago) until 10 days ago, I went at it hard,” Benning explained, per the Vancouver Sun. “It hasn’t been easy. I’ll admit it — it’s been hard. I’ve had to make hard decisions to try to remain competitive while building for the future. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

“But for the most part, we’ve been able to accomplish that this summer.”

Some will argue with that last remark.

This summer, Benning took heat for a variety of his moves, most notably his trade of popular (and relatively successful) backup goalie Eddie Lack to Carolina for a third-round pick, which many saw as a middling return. After tiring of the Zack Kassian experiment, the Canucks cut bait and got what they could in exchange — 31-year-old Habs tough guy Brandon Prust — then paid a tidy sum to acquire third-line Pittsburgh center Brandon Sutter, paying him an even tidier sum to be their second-line center ($21.875 million over five years, specifically).

In the end, it’s tough to say the Canucks got any better this summer. It’s tough to say they stayed even. Most say they got worse.

And that makes next year’s outlook kinda bleak.

Sure, the same old suspects remain — the Sedins, Alex Burrows, Radim Vrbata, Chris Higgins, Jannik Hansen, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler — but they’re all a year older, and now surrounded by kids. Bo Horvat, 20, projects to be the No. 3 center while winger Sven Baertschi, 22, will get a shot at the top-six. Former first-round pick Jake Virtanen (18) figures to get a long look in training camp, and Frank Corrado (22) will likely be in on defense. Other prospects like Hunter Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen, Brendan Gaunce and Jared McCann could all get looks, too.

Which makes for an odd dynamic, especially since the Canucks were competitive last year, registering 101 points and a playoff spot. But their opening-round loss to Calgary only confirmed what most suspected — Vancouver was a flawed team, nowhere close to contending.

Now, the club heads into this season minus the services of veteran contributors like Kevin Bieksa, Shawn Matthias and Brad Richardson — jobs that will be filled by (the aforementioned) inexperienced players. And should injuries strike the team’s aging core, it could be grim; at no position is this more concerning than in goal, where 35-year-old Ryan Miller, who missed extensive time with a knee injury last season, is backed up by a total wildcard in Jacob Markstrom.

Oh, and lest we forget, the Canucks play in a tough Pacific Division in which the Ducks, Kings, Flames and Oilers all made significant upgrades this summer.

If you believe Benning, though, his moves weren’t designed to make the Canucks less competitive.

The way he sees it, the club is more versatile than ever.

“What we’re trying to do is build a team that can play whatever style the game dictates,” he explained. “So we’ve made some changes this summer. I thought maybe in the playoffs we didn’t play with the intensity and emotion to step up in a playoff series and win.

“We’ve got some good, young, skill players coming up. But we want to surround them with players who fit.”

Looking to make the leap: Jacob Markstrom

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Canucks GM Jim Benning cleared a path for Jacob Markstrom to start the 2015-16 campaign with Vancouver by trading Eddie Lack, but this is far from the first time Markstrom has been given a good opportunity to establish himself in the NHL. The question is, will things be different this time around?

There certainly is the potential for that after the season he had in the minors. He was dominant with the AHL’s Utica Comets, posting a 1.88 GAA and .934 save percentage in 32 regular season contests. From there Markstrom led Utica to the Calder Cup Finals with a 2.11 GAA and .925 save percentage in 23 playoff games.

“I think if you look at the history of, whether it be Corey Crawford or Ben Bishop, or these types of players and how they perform at the American Hockey League level, and look at stats and numbers, you can put Jacob in that category,” Canucks president Trevor Linden argued in June.

“He’s had an excellent year. He needs to continue to develop at the National Hockey League level, and we’re going to give him that opportunity.”

Markstrom still has a 3.19 GAA and .896 save percentage in 50 NHL contests, but to be fair to him, he’s just 25 years old and goaltenders can take longer to find their games than forwards or defensemen.

To that end, Linden didn’t simply use those goaltenders as examples because they were the competing netminders in this year’s Stanley Cup Final. Crawford was 25 years old (26 on Dec. 31) in his first full campaign with Chicago while Bishop didn’t participate in more than 22 games in a single season until 2013-14 when he was 27 years old (as of Nov. 21 of that campaign).

So it would be premature to dismiss Markstrom just because he hasn’t developed as quickly as some anticipated. This time — as the backup to Ryan Miller — he might be ready to take advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.