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Five Reasons Why Carolina Will — And Won’t — Be This Year’s Avalanche

Can first-round pick Jeff Skinner win a spot on the Carolina roster and make the kind of impact Matt Duchene made on the Avalanche last season?  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Can first-round pick Jeff Skinner win a spot on the Carolina roster and make the kind of impact Matt Duchene made on the Avalanche last season? (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The 2010-11 Carolina Hurricanes are one of the upcoming season’s biggest question marks. Some think the up-and-down franchise will bounce back from a disappointing 2009-10 and return to the postseason, while others see the roster turnover and abundant unproven youth as a sign that the Canes will be rebuilding toward 2011-12.

Last season, the Colorado Avalance emerged from the depths of the NHL to make the postseason, shocking all the pundits and proving that the post-lockout NHL is as unpredictable as any time in league history. Here are five reasons the Hurricanes will go from cellar-dweller to contender — and five more why they won't.

Pretender To Contender

1. New Leadership — No one denies how great a player Joe Sakic was, but the long-time captain retired prior to last season and veteran Adam Foote took over the reins. In Carolina, the Canes replaced Rod Brind'Amour — nearly as iconic in Raleigh as Sakic is in Denver — with Eric Staal late in the season, and both the team and Staal were much improved. The Hurricanes, under Staal's leadership right from training camp, could very well jump out of the gates and continue playing at the pace they did once No. 12 was given the C.

2. Better Goaltending — After a terrible 2009-10, the Avalanche got a boost in net by newcomer Craig Anderson. Peter Budaj, who struggled the year before along with Andrew Raycroft, proved a suitable backup and Colorado roared out of the gates to start the year. Carolina's netminding was suspect last season, mostly due to injuries to Cam Ward and a revolving crease that saw Michael Leighton, Manny Legace and Justin Peters perform admirably but not spectacularly. Ward is a world-class goalie who, when healthy, can be as good as last year's Vezina winner, Ryan Miller. Don't count on Ward struggling in back-to-back seasons

3. Influx of Youth — Colorado benefited from the addition of several young, impact players in 2009-10. Matt Duchene, Ryan O`Reilly, T.J. Galiardi, Ryan Wilson and Brandon Yip were all rookies last season and were huge contributors to the Avs. First-round pick Jeff Skinner isn't a lock to make the Canes — like Duchene last year — but if he does, the sniper could add a much-needed boost on offense. Zac Dalpe, Riley Nash, Drayson Bowman and Jamie McBain could all contribute as much, or more, than the Avalanche's rookies last year.

4. Sophomore Breakout — Chris Stewart was a big part of the Avalanche's success last year. The second-year NHLer had 28 goals and 36 assists in 2009-10, a 45-point increase on the previous season that made him the Avs’ No. 2 scorer. Zach Boychuk was underwhelming in a 31-game stint in Carolina last year, managing just nine points (three goals, six assists) in his first significant NHL action. But Boychuk's talent in undeniable, and if he can find space — and confidence — he could be a deadly weapon for the Canes and have a Stewart-like scoring impact.

5. Divisional Help — Outside of the Canucks, the Northwest Division has been a mishmash of mediocrity and underachieving. Colorado actually had a losing record against the Northwest (10-11-3), but the rest of the division's struggles against the remainder of the league opened the door for the Avs to finish second in the Northwest and get the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. In the Southeast, Washington is the undisputed favorite but the other four teams are all wild cards. If Carolina can either feast on those teams or outperform them in games outside of the Southeast, they should be in the mix for the postseason.

Rebuilding Takes Time

1. Coaching — Paul Maurice has proven he can win in the NHL — and in Carolina — but Colorado benefited from having a new voice behind the bench last season in Joe Sacco. That doesn't mean Maurice is incapable of turning around the Canes — he's done it before — but there will likely be few surprises from him when camp opens.

2. Defense On The Blueline — While Joni Pitkanen and Joe Corvo are underrated defenders, the Hurricanes boast only one proven stay-at-home defenseman in Tim Gleason. Brett Carson is definitely defense-first, but the second-year NHLer is far from a shutdown blueliner this early in his career, plus he will be in a battle for a roster spot. The Canes have a wealth of offensive potential, but you have to wonder how well they will be able to help Ward in their own end. By comparison, the Avs had veterans Foote and Scott Hannan leading the way last year.

3. Coming Out Of The Gate — Colorado was the hottest team to start 2009-10, whereas Carolina was arguably the worst. Things won't be easier for Carolina this year with the season starting overseas in Finland and a total of seven games away from the RBC Center before they finally play on home ice Oct. 27. Of those seven games, just two — both against Minnesota in Finland — come against a team that failed to make the postseason last year. Ottawa, Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix host the Canes in October and could potentially ruin the season's first month for Carolina.

4. PK Might Not Be OK — Colorado got great contributions from rookies Galiardi and O'Reilly on the penalty kill, and coupled with veterans like Foote and Hannan they were able to stay afloat on the PK at 80.2 percent (21st in the league). While that's nothing to call home about, Carolina finished 19th (80.6) in 2009-10 and has subtracted shorthanded minute munchers like Brind'Amour, Nic Wallin, Matt Cullen and Aaron Ward. Asking Carolina to improve on a 19th place finish — or even maintain it — is a tall task.

5. Budget Crisis — Carolina GM Jim Rutherford has been told to keep the team's salaries in check until owner Peter Karmanos can find a new partner to invest in the team. That means the team should hover around the mid- to high-$40 million. Karmanos has been willing to spend when Rutherford has expressed that the team has a chance — see 2005-06 — but with youth on the menu and expectations relatively low, it's likely Carolina will have to win with what they have.