USATSI_9221928_154158418_lowresThe Carolina Hurricanes put the wraps on 2015-2016 with a 35-31-16 record, marking a 15-point improvement from 2014-2015. That’s a good thing, but it’s still hard to tell exactly what’s going on with this rebuilding franchise. There are obvious needs in Carolina, like more skilled players and more offensive consistency, but it’s difficult to hammer down a workable plan to get the Hurricanes back in the hunt.

The club is two years into Ron Francis’ tenure as general manager and they’ve finished 27th in league scoring in each of the past two seasons. After 2015-2016, they parted ways with six forwards with expiring contracts. Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg were traded and Brad Malone, Nathan Gerbe, Chris Terry, and Riley Nash flew the coop via free agency.

Among the new additions is Teuvo Teravainen, a probable top-six forward fresh from a run in Chicago. Bryan Bickell, another former Blackhawk, will provide depth. Unrestricted free agents Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg were also brought aboard.

Offence

24-year-old Jeff Skinner had 51 points last season, including 28 goals, and he’s the best offensive talent the Hurricanes have up front. The issue is with consistency, as the Toronto native tends to be a streaky player. But he’s also upgraded his defensive capabilities and seems more effective in the neutral zone, with improvements in positioning also turning him into a more accomplished forward.

Jordan Staal is the top centre in the depth chart and he had 48 points last season, including 20 goals. Six of his goals came on the power play. The 27-year-old is a quality skater and is effective without the puck, with the tenacity to put in work in the corners. Staal doesn’t have the knack for shooting, though, and that’s something that’ll have to change if he wants to become a consistent scorer.

Victor Rask managed 48 points last season, including 21 goals, and he’s capable of slipping into that second line centre spot with ease. The Swedish pivot has good size and is a playmaker, even if his skating could use a little work. He saw a big upgrade in production and Carola thinks he can score 30 goals, which accounts for his brand new six-year contract.

Teravainen will see a significant jump in ice time with the Hurricanes, as he was always on the outside looking in with the Blackhawks. He’ll turn 22 in September and should be set to emerge as a good power play talent. He’s also a versatile player. Stempniak, the 33-year-old from West Seneca, had 51 points and can chip in on the power play.

Defence

Carolina boasts a young defensive group and it all starts with 24-year-old Justin Faulk. He had 37 points last season, including 16 goals. 12 of those goals came on the power play. Unfortunately, those 12 goals also came in the first 30 games of Faulk’s season. The second half of the year fell apart, with injuries and other troubles dogging him. The Hurricanes are hoping he’ll bounce back.

Jaccob Slavin is coming off a 20-point rookie campaign and is ready for a jump in ice time, which will test his capabilities. He has good size and plays a solid well-rounded game, even if he does lack that physical edge. He reached nearly 21 minutes of ice time last season and should continue to benefit from the veteran presence of Ron Hainsey.

Noah Hanifan is another young defenceman for the Hurricanes. He had 22 points in 79 games and is a terrific skater. Carolina will look for the Boston native to pick up more ice time and he may be tasked to quarterback the power play, which should maximize his upside. 21-year-old Brett Pesce is another thrilling possibility, as he had 16 points last season and can move the puck well.

Goaltending

The Hurricanes are hedging their bets with Cam Ward, who was signed to a two-year deal after trade rumours suggested he was headed elsewhere. The 32-year-old was 23-17-10, with a .909 save percentage and a 2.41 goals against average. Ward can still take the pressure of a multitude of starts, but age is becoming a factor and injuries are eroding his foundation.

Eddie Lack is the backup for now, but most are seeing him as the probable starter as the 2016-2017 season rolls along. The 28-year-old Swede went 12-14-6, with a 2.81 goals against average and a .901 save percentage. He’s a tall dude and an agile netminder, but he’ll have to prove he can handle a heavy workload in order to emerge as a starter in the NHL.

Prospects

There’s a lot of talent down the middle in Carolina’s prospect pool and the selection of blueliners is varied – in a good way. But winger Sebastian Aho is certainly at the top of the list. The 19-year-old Finnish forward led his country to a gold medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship and should be set for NHL arrival this season on a full-time basis.

Defenceman Haydn Fleury, drafted by the Hurricanes in 2014, should be ready to join the team’s young group of blueliners. The 20-year-old is a top-tier skater and can play a shutdown game, even if his offensive talents are wanting. Carolina is looking for Fleury to put up big minutes and they’ll hope he evolves into a more belligerent player.

The Path Ahead

With a group of young defencemen, the Hurricanes have a lot to like about their future. But they’ll still struggle to find scoring in 2016-2017 and their goaltending could be questionable, as Ward continues to decline. They’ll once again find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the post-season, but the growth is coming from within – eventually.

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