RALEIGH – The Carolina Hurricanes could have an easier time filling their arena this season – and a tougher time reaching the playoffs.
The NHL’s realignment meant the end of the Southeast Division and placed the Hurricanes into the new Metropolitan Division.
A division packed with some of the league’s more popular teams – Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, both New York teams, New Jersey and Washington – might lead to bigger crowds.
But it also figures to make ending their irksome postseason drought a much bigger challenge.
“It’s going to be tough. It’s a good division,” defenseman Justin Faulk said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of teams that are pretty good. ... But we’re looking forward to it. Every team’s good in the league.
Since winning its only Stanley Cup in 2006, Carolina has reached the playoffs just once, in 2009.
Here are five things to watch this season:
1BLUE-LINE BLUES: Carolina once again made upgrading its defensive corps a priority this offseason, though a lingering injury threatened to undercut its moves. The Hurricanes brought in free-agent Mike Komisarek and picked up Andrej Sekera in a draft-day trade for D Jamie McBain, whom the front office had soured upon. A day after it was learned that Joni Pitkanen will miss the season with a slow-to-heal broken heel, Carolina signed free-agent Ron Hainsey to a one-year deal.
2NOT AN INFIRMARY WARD: The Hurricanes need Ward to stay healthy because the team’s tailspin last season coincided with what turned out to be a season-ending injury to their All-Star goalie. Before he sprained his left knee on March 3, the Hurricanes were in prime position to contend for a division title. Carolina wound up finishing with the league’s second-worst goals-against average (3.31). Veteran Anton Khudobin, who signed a free-agent deal in July to back up Ward, looks like an upgrade over Dan Ellis.
3SEMIN’S SECOND ACT: Alexander Semin shed all those unflattering labels that stuck on him during in Washington and fit right in last season with the Hurricanes, who rewarded him with a five-year, $35 million deal in March. He was second on the team with 44 points (13 goals, 31 assists) and teamed with captain Eric Staal and breakout winger Jiri Tlusty to form Carolina’s unquestioned top line, which produced nearly 43 percent of the team’s goals, not counting shootouts.
4CAN JORDAN RULE?: The Hurricanes could use some more scoring punch from their major acquisition of 2012 – Jordan Staal. The younger brother of the team captain had just 10 goals and 21 assists last season, and Carolina hopes he has become fully acclimated to the organization. The right combination could put him on a line with physical forward Tuomo Ruutu.
5NOT-SO-SPECIAL TEAMS: Carolina has struggled lately both when it has had an extra skater and when it’s been down a man. The Hurricanes’ power play ranked 27th in the league a year ago.
last season while their penalty kill was 28th.
Those numbers have to improve if they’re going to bring an end to that postseason drought.
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