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Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Updated: September 29, 4:02 PM ET
2007-08 Team Preview: Carolina Hurricanes

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Eric Staal's point production dropped to 70 points last season.

The Starting Line

By Scott Burnside

You might remember when Pam Ewing woke up and found out Bobby wasn't dead after all. That it had all been a bad dream. That might have been when the hit show "Dallas" jumped the shark. The question for the Carolina Hurricanes is whether the Stanley Cup run of 2006 was a mirage and last season's desultory 11th-place conference finish was the reality.

It might be too much to suggest the Hurricanes once again will emerge from the nether regions of the Eastern Conference to win a championship, but this is too good a team to miss the playoffs again. Isn't it? GM Jim Rutherford thinks so; he made only minor offseason moves. His most pivotal move was reacquiring forward Matt Cullen, a terrific dressing-room presence and offensive talent who never quite fit in with the Rangers.

With Erik Cole as close to healthy as he's going to be after suffering broken vertebrae in the 2005-06 season, Cam Ward adjusting to life as an NHL starting netminder and Cory Stillman healthy for an entire year, Rutherford is hoping Carolina will more closely resemble the 2005-06 version than the more recent one.

OFFENSE
The Hurricanes' offensive output dropped 53 goals last season from their Cup-winning campaign. That's a lot, and that's why they were on the outside looking in come playoff time. Eric Staal's production dropped 30 percent from 100 points to 70. That drop-off was because of youthfulness (hey, he's just 22) and the loss of Stillman, who missed the first half of the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Stillman ended up with just 27 points after recording 76 regular-season points and 26 postseason points the season before.

Cole missed 11 games, and Anson Carter was a bust after he was acquired at the trade deadline from Columbus. Staal and Stillman should see their numbers jump dramatically this season, and Cullen should be in the 25- to 30-goal range. Rod Brind'Amour remains the heart and soul of the team and shows no sign of slowing down at age 37. Jeff Hamilton, who had 18 goals in Chicago last season, also will get some power-play time and help give Carolina three potentially potent forward lines.

DEFENSE
The Hurricanes' defense didn't get much respect when Carolina won the Cup, and that unit remains, for the most part, intact if a little worse for wear. Frank Kaberle was expected to miss much of training camp with minor offseason knee surgery after missing all but 27 games last season. Bret Hedican's back and hip woes cost him 32 games, but he'll be back. His health is crucial to the blue line's success.

Glen Wesley missed 14 games, and he, too, will return. The underrated Niclas Wallin (15 games) and Tim Gleason (25 games) also missed time, but both should be healthy when the season starts. Age is a factor for Carolina's blue-line corps. Wesley will turn 39 in October; Hedican is 37; Kaberle is almost 34; and even Wallin is creeping up there at 32. Assuming the group doesn't fall victim to the same level of injury of a year ago, the team will be much better off than its 21st ranking defensively. If the blueliners can't stay healthy, well, things could get ugly.

GOALTENDING
Perhaps the drop-off in play was predictable, even understandable, but the Hurricanes will have to get better goaltending from 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cam Ward if they're going to return to the postseason. Ward saw his goals-against average balloon to 2.93 and save percentage drop below the .900 level (.897) in 60 appearances in 2006-07. Ward did turn in a gold-medal performance for Canada at the world championships, where he had a .915 save percentage and 2.20 GAA, so his confidence should be solid heading into this season.

Another player looking to bounce back is John Grahame, who didn't provide the necessary support as he went 10-13-2 in relief of Ward. The key to Carolina's season in 2005-06 was playing run-and-gun. If that meant giving up odd-man rushes, the Canes believed their goaltending was going to be good enough to handle it and their offense so potent they could afford that kind of tradeoff. On too many nights last season, the offense faltered and the goaltending wasn't good enough. Carolina brought in former netminder "Smilin'" Tom Barrasso to help with the team's young netminders, so we'll see whether that pays immediate dividends.

COACHING
Hard to fault Peter Laviolette for his team's many and varied injury woes, but it'll be a test of his coaching acumen to get his team believing, once again, that the Canes are championship material. Carolina isn't likely to have a true rookie in the lineup, so Laviolette will have to coax playoff enthusiasm from a veteran crew.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

EXTRA CREDITS
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LAST-SEASON REVIEW
• Record: 40-34-8
• Division: Third in the Southeast
• Conference: 11th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify



PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ward

Goaltender: Cam Ward
Ward is so soft-spoken and understated, it's hard to know where he's at emotionally. But there is significant pressure on him to prove that he has the goods to be an NHL starter and that his turn as 2006 playoff MVP wasn't a flash in the pan.

Defenseman: Tim Gleason
The native of Clawson, Mich., came to Carolina from Los Angeles at the start of last season in exchange for highly touted prospect Jack Johnson. Gleason's contributions at both ends of the ice will be crucial if the Hurricanes want to return to contention and keep the trade from becoming a blunder.

Forward: Keith Aucoin
With Cullen returning to the fold, there won't be much room for newcomers to the lineup, especially down the middle. But center Keith Aucoin led AHL Albany with 99 points, including 72 assists, and could find himself in the mix with a strong camp.

MORE FROM BURNSIDE

Buzz Cut
Eric Staal's bachelor party -- the one that ended up with his mug shot plastered all over the front page of the Toronto Sun -- is, by most comparisons, a small deal. Still, Staal will have to make sure it doesn't become a distraction with the team looking to him to have a bounce-back season.

Where They Will Finish
The Hurricanes will finish first in the Southeast Division and third in the Eastern Conference.

ESPN VIDEO

SPORTSNATION

Where do you think the Carolina Hurricanes will finish this time around? Who will lead the Hurricanes in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!

FANTASY TAKE

Brind'Amour

Eric Staal should run the dominant line in Carolina, but Rod Brind'Amour beat him to the punch last season. Both top lines in Carolina take a little value away from each other and all these players should be looked on as No. 2 fantasy commodities. Still, Staal should go the earliest for his upside. Keep an eye on budding power forward Andrew Ladd. With ice time, he could do some damage. Cam Ward is a weak No. 2 goalie until he starts blocking more shots. -- Sean Allen

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