Key questions for Canes as new season nears

calexander@newsobserver.comAugust 14, 2013 

— “Winning Culture” was printed on new T-shirts and the phrase was heard often this summer at the Carolina Hurricanes’ prospects development camp.

Expect to see and hear it again when Eric Staal, Cam Ward and the Canes’ big boys come back next month for preseason training camp.

“It says this is what we're all about,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said. “This is a franchise that's won a Stanley Cup and not every organization can say that. It reflects on the past but it's also what we expect now.

“It's saying, ‘We've got to get back to winning.’ It's an expectation and an attitude within our guys to do better. We want to be a team battling in the playoffs next year and every year.”

Since reaching the NHL's Eastern Conference finals in 2009, the Hurricanes have failed to qualify for the playoffs four straight seasons. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, they've been in the playoffs just once.

Now comes a new NHL look, with a new playoff setup. The Hurricanes join the Metropolitan Division, no longer competing against the likes of the Tampa Bay Lighting and Florida Panthers in the Southeast Division. Instead, they’ll see more of teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers.

“It should be interesting,” Canes defenseman Justin Faulk said. “The new division looks like it should be pretty tough, but everybody in the league is probably saying the same thing. I'm amped up to get back and get the season going.”

The Hurricanes will have some new faces in the locker room. Defensemen Andrej Sekera and Mike Komisarek, backup goalie Anton Khudobin and forward Nathan Gerbe joined the team during the offseason. Swedish forward Elias Lindholm, the Canes’ first-round draft pick this year, could be in the lineup on opening night and another free agent also could be signed.

Questions abound – seemingly as many as players on the roster – as the Hurricanes look to the 2013-2014 season.

Is everybody healthy?

Asked to name his biggest concern, general manager Jim Rutherford said simply: “Our health.”

Eric Staal is coming off a serious knee injury. Joni Pitkanen broke his heel bone late last season. Tuomo Ruutu had hip surgery.

Staal, the Canes captain, was hurt in May playing for Canada in the World Championship, taking a knee-on-knee hit from Sweden's Alex Edler. Rutherford and Muller say Staal's physical rehab has gone well and he should be ready for training camp, but the center’s health will remain in doubt until he's on the ice and playing.

The same for Pitkanen. Heel injuries can linger and Pitkanen relies on his elite skating ability. Rutherford said he has talked with Pitkanen, noting the defenseman's recovery from surgery is on schedule and Pitkanen is optimistic.

Ruutu now has had surgery on both hips. The physical forward, a banger on the ice, returned quicker than expected last season from his first hip surgery, and should be ready for camp.

Cam Ward suffered a knee injury in early March that ended his season. Muller said Ward is healthy and has “a fire in his belly right now,” believing he can still play his way into consideration for Canada's Olympic team despite not being named to August’s orientation camp roster.

What next for Jeff Skinner?

Since winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2011, Skinner has had two concussions and struggled to regain his playing form. Skinner's name was tossed about in some trade speculation and it's possible he could start next season on the third line – at center or left wing – after being among the Canes’ top six forwards his first three seasons.

“It's safe to say we're going to experiment in camp,” Muller said. “I don't want to say yet whether he will be a wing on center. It will depend on what he and other guys do in camp.”

Skinner was a 31-goal scorer as a rookie. The Canes badly need him to be that productive again.

Tougher on D?

Rutherford said a priority was for the Canes to restructure the defense and be tougher to play against in their zone.

Gone are defensemen Joe Corvo, Bobby Sanguinetti and Marc-Andre Bergeron. The Canes traded for Sekera, a steady veteran for the Buffalo Sabres, and signed Komisarek, a big body and former All-Star looking to resurrect his career after some lean years in Toronto.

In the past three seasons, the Canes have allowed an average of 32.2, 32.4 and 33.2 shots on goal. They ranked 26th in the NHL last season after being last the previous two, putting too much strain on Ward and whoever else was in net.

It's not just the defensemen who need to be better and tougher, win more battles and get the puck out. Muller demands that the forwards get back and do their part.

Top heavy again?

Canes owner Peter Karmanos Jr., though admittedly biased, called the Canes’ top line of Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal and Alex Semin the best in the league last season. Unarguably, it was very good.

Tlusty's 23 goals were a career high and ranked fifth in the NHL in the 48-game season. Staal had 18 goals and 35 assists and Semin, in his first season with the Canes, had 13 goals and 31 helpers.

Semin finished with a team-best plus-15 rating and Tlusty was plus-14. Staal, who appeared rejuvenated last season, closed plus-5.

Tlusty said he gets plenty of chances with the focus on Staal and Semin, noting, “I'm always flying under the radar,” and it stands to reason he should continue to get those scoring chances. But again, there's Staal's knee injury to consider.

Will normalcy help?

Muller, who has an overall 44-45-16 record with the Canes, is thankful he'll finally have a normal season – a full training camp and six preseason games before the Oct. 4 season opener against the Detroit Red Wings at PNC Arena.

“It's a chance to introduce everything and make sure everyone is on the same page,” Muller said. “The big thing, more than anything, is for players to go out and win jobs.”

After the Wings, the Canes host the Philadelphia Flyers, then visit Pittsburgh and Washington. Also in October are games against the past two Stanley Cup champions – the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings.

“Right off the hop you're playing divisional teams and playing previous Stanley Cup winners,” Muller said. “We've got to be prepared right from game one.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945 Twitter: @ice_chip

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