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'Canes aim to build on surprising run

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This whole Carolina Hurricanes story has an odd feel to it. On the surface, here's a team that, much like Anaheim in the West, found a way after treading water for most of the regular season to go a lot farther than most would expect.

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Paul Maurice was a hit last year during his second stint behind the Carolina bench.
(Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The Hurricanes won two seven-game playoff series before bowing out to the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins – and the prevailing wisdom is that Carolina will just pick up right where it left off.

The Hurricanes certainly didn't lose any big pieces (Patrick Eaves(notes) and Frantisek Kaberle(notes) depart), but they added four veterans who all come from winners: Andrew Alberts(notes) (Philadelphia), Tom Kostopoulos(notes) (Montreal), Stephane Yelle(notes) and Aaron Ward(notes) (both Boston). So there is basis for the assumption that Carolina can jump into the East elite.

But the Hurricanes play in an interesting division. Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Washington and Carolina all have recently taken a turn at the top. It's been a long time since Florida has been part of the mix, but even the Panthers have shown signs of life lately. Everyone seems to break out for one season and then drift back to the pack. That's changed a little bit as Alexander Ovechkin(notes) has established himself as a force and his Capitals have won consecutive division titles. The Caps figure to be a power again this season.

The 'Canes head into training camp confident that they can rule the division again and go from there. The main reason? Paul Maurice rejoined the team for a second stint as head coach, chosen to replace the fired Peter Laviolette in early December.

Carolina took off under Maurice by going 33-19-5, highlighted by a stretch of 13 wins in 16 games late and securing a playoff spot that would turn into a long run.

The prevailing thought: Just imagine what Maurice can do with a complete season, a more experienced roster and several new pieces to support the talent that's already assembled. The 'Canes better like what they have because there's not a lot of wiggle room under the salary cap. But it is a veteran team (average player age: 30) with a fairly proven track record.

Last season: 45-30-7 (97 points), second place in the Southeast Division, sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes returned to the playoffs for the first time since winning the 2006 Stanley Cup and for the second time in six seasons. Carolina shocked New Jersey in the opening round, turning a one-goal deficit into a shocking series victory by scoring twice in the final 1:20 of regulation on the road.

The 'Canes proved their survival was no fluke as they next rose up against the East's top-seeded Boston Bruins. After letting a 3-1 lead slip away, they scored in overtime of Game 7 on the road to advance once more in surprising fashion. Carolina's luck ran out in the conference finals, where – after losing Game 1 by a 3-2 margin – the Hurricanes fell by three, four and three goals in the remaining games of a one-sided sweep by eventual Cup champ Pittsburgh.

Imports: C Stephane Yelle (Boston), D Andrew Alberts (Philadelphia), RW Tom Kostopoulos (Montreal), D Aaron Ward (Boston), RW Steven Goertzen(notes) (Phoenix).

Exports: RW Patrick Eaves (Detroit), D Frantisek Kaberle (buyout).

Re-signings: C Tuomo Ruutu(notes), RW Chad LaRose(notes), RW Erik Cole(notes), LW Jussi Jokinen(notes).

Salary cap: The Hurricanes are riding pretty close to the ceiling, having approximately $55 million committed. That leaves only about $2.1 million in reserve.

Three keys: Eric Staal(notes) will turn 25 before the end of the season's first month – and he's had five full years in the league already, appearing in 409 out of a possible 410 games (all 82 in each of the past four years). With all due respect to goalie Cam Ward(notes), Staal is the face of the franchise, having grabbed that moniker from Rod Brind'Amour(notes), the classy veteran who has done it all for Carolina. Staal's 40 goals led the Hurricanes, but his 75 points were actually two short of the team lead (ageless Ray Whitney(notes) recorded 77). Staal, who averaged a hearty 23 minutes of ice time per game last season, has to remain the team's leader on and off the ice. Secondly, the 'Canes have an underrated blue line, but all the pieces have fit together well in the past. There's not a lot of change back there, but there is more competition with the emergence of young players and the acquisition of Aaron Ward and Alberts. Tim Gleason(notes) doesn't get a lot of fanfare for being a solid shutdown defender, but the U.S. Olympic brass took notice and invited him to partake in the orientation camp. Joe Corvo(notes) has room to display his offensive skills, and his booming shots are key in the power play. Anton Babchuk(notes), Niclas Wallin(notes), Joni Pitkanen(notes) and Aaron Ward round out what should be a strong and balanced unit. The way the Hurricanes depend on Ward, there was more than minor interest taken when his back flared up at the recent Canadian orientation camp. Ward had back problems in the playoff-ending sweep against Pittsburgh, so there's legitimate reason for concern. Ward appeared in 68 games during the regular season and all 18 playoff contests. His numbers were strong during the season – 2.44 goals-against average and .916 save percentage – considering the team's early struggles and a midseason coaching change. Those numbers slipped a bit in the postseason (to 2.81 and .903).

On the hot seat: As funny as it sounds, there is pressure on Maurice to not disappoint. There are heightened expectations for this team, which had surprising success after he came aboard. Maurice is an excellent coach who deserved a far better fate in Toronto. Just the same, if the ship doesn't sail, the fingers could point right back at him.

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Rod Brind'Amour is still effective, but he isn't expected to play more than 20 minutes a night.
(Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Poised to blossom: Zach Boychuk(notes) is a scoring left wing who turns 20 four days into the regular season. He saw two games of action last year after completing a stellar junior campaign with Lethbridge, where he scored 110 goals over four seasons. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, the Calgary native is quick and skilled. He could be the heir apparent to Whitney.

Time has passed: Brind'Amour has had a great 19-year career, starting in St. Louis, moving to Philadelphia and settling in Carolina. He was one of the first players to really embrace physical conditioning in terms of being a fanatic. He isn't as productive as in his prime, but Brind'Amour is 39 now. Still one of the best (if not the best) faceoff men in the league, his minutes have slipped to less than 19 per game after leading the league almost annually among forwards. Brind'Amour has, however, been a great mentor for the younger vets on the team, especially Staal.

Prediction: Team balance, which is a strength here, will be key again. Outside of Staal and maybe Ward, the Hurricanes don't have a lot of stars in the locker room. GM Jim Rutherford is shrewd and can make a quick fix if necessary. We see Carolina taking advantage of the weaker teams in the division and returning to the playoffs, but falling short of a final-four finish.