Updated: October 3, 2011, 3:52 PM ET
Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images Jeff Skinner had 31 goals and 32 assists en route to a rookie-of-the-year season in 2010-11.

Hurricanes: 10 Things You Need To Know

By Scott Burnside

It's easy to forget the Carolina Hurricanes were a Game 82 win away from qualifying for the playoffs in April. Instead, they were blown out 6-2 by Tampa Bay at home and missed the playoffs for the second straight postseason.

Logic suggests that the Hurricanes, one of the best-managed teams on the circuit, should be back in the tournament this spring given the enviable collection of young talent and solid leadership provided by captain Eric Staal and netminder Cam Ward. Of course, logic doesn't always come into play when it comes to these things, but this team is poised to return to the playoffs.

1. Spare parts?
Because the Hurricanes will never be a cap team, you'll never see GM Jim Rutherford wading into a bidding war over the big names that crop up on July 1. But that doesn't mean Rutherford doesn't shop, and he came up with a couple of interesting players who could pay big dividends at a bargain price.

Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart give Carolina much-needed size on the wings, and both have 20-goal potential even if they have underachieved during their most recent NHL stops. During camp, Ponikarovsky has played some with Staal, which would be as good a place as any to find out whether he's still got game. If Stewart can maintain his conditioning, he may not experience the drop-offs in play that marked his efforts earlier in his career.

2. Rutherford is sticking around
Rutherford's contract was extended for four more years during camp. That's no surprise given the long history that Rutherford shares with owner Peter Karmanos dating back to junior days in Windsor shortly after Rutherford retired from the game. But Carolina's consistency at the top is crucial to the Hurricanes' continued growth. Rutherford has proved himself time and again to be among the shrewdest of hockey men. His teams won't spend to the cap and won't be in on free-agent spending frenzies, but Rutherford and his staff draft and develop with the best of them.

3. Balanced attack
The outward perception of the Canes is they are a team that plays solid defense but lacks on offense. Not necessarily true. The squad finished a respectable 12th in goals per game last season. Now, Erik Cole and his 26 goals are gone. (He signed with Montreal in the offseason.) Will defending rookie of the year Jeff Skinner hit the 30-goal plateau again?

But between Stewart and Ponikarovsky, there should be an infusion of production, and Brandon Sutter is also due for a jump after registering just 14 goals last season. Still, getting production from up and down the lineup is crucial for a team that aside from Staal does not boast a ton of blue-chip scoring talent.

4. On the other hand …
There was the team's defense that ranked 22nd in goals allowed per game. With an elite netminder like Ward, that stat suggests the blue line isn't quite getting the job done. The team will need to be better in its own zone to be a playoff team. Only one team, Detroit, had a worse goals-allowed mark and still made the playoffs. One area coach Paul Maurice will no doubt want to address is the number of shots per game the Canes gave up last season (33.2), the most of any team in the NHL.

Rutherford is looking for more physical play on the back end, something he said he thought was missing last season. To that end, the GM could look to 6-foot-5 Bryan Allen and 6-4 Jay Harrison.

5. Now in goal, Cam Ward (again)
One of the more even-keeled netminders you'll ever come across in the NHL, Ward finished with a sparkling .923 save percentage (seventh overall in the league). Meanwhile, he made more saves and faced more shots than any other netminder. That's not all that surprising given how many shots the Hurricanes allowed and how many games Ward appeared in last season (74).

Ward will need to have a lighter workload if Carolina is to be a playoff team. The addition of veteran Brian Boucher should help, although he does have a tendency to run hot-and-cold. Let's put it this way: If Ward is appearing in upward of 70 games again this season, it won't be good news for Caniacs.

6. Brandon Sutter
We recall talking to Maurice a year ago when he insisted that even if Sutter's point totals went down from 2009-10, his hockey smarts and ability to play in all three zones still made him a crucial part of Carolina's plans moving forward. Well, after posting 21 goals and 40 points two seasons ago, Sutter slumped to 14 goals and 29 points. But make no mistake, he is hugely important to the evolution of this team. With Staal and Skinner, Sutter represents a major component of the team's depth down the middle. Look for him to have a bounce-back season for Carolina.

7. The kids
Last season, it was Skinner, aka Justin Bieber, who burst onto the scene to become the youngest player to win the Calder Trophy. This season? Watch for Zac Dalpe to make a bid for playing time, as the Canes will be looking to fill the vacancy created by Cole's departure.

"He can really skate and shoot," Rutherford said of Dalpe, who was taken with the 45th overall pick in the 2008 draft. Originally a center, the former Ohio State University star has been moved to the wing because the Canes are deep down the middle.

Chris Terry is another youngster coming off a strong season in the AHL, where he scored 34 goals. He has been working out with Gary Roberts in the offseason.

8. Special teams
One area the Hurricanes will be looking to improve will be the power play. They ranked 24th on the man advantage last season, and their 55 power-play goals were tied for ninth in the league. The Canes also enjoyed more man-advantage opportunities than any other team in the league, so efficiency is key to seeing the Canes jump back into the playoff mix.

9. Blue line by committee
Perhaps it's a function of working under a self-imposed budget that doesn't approach the cap, but the Hurricanes have never had or gone after the big-stud blueliner (Chris Pronger or Shea Weber, etc.). This past summer, though, Rutherford managed to keep underappreciated defenseman Joni Pitkanen and added the much-maligned Tomas Kaberle. Pitkanen topped all Carolina defensemen and was 13th in the NHL with 25:01 in ice time.

Kaberle should help Carolina's power play, although many thought the same for the Bruins' power play after he was traded to Boston from Toronto at last season's deadline. Still, one wonders whether Carolina won't be a better place for Kaberle, who was mauled by fans and media in Toronto and Boston.

10. The captain
It might be a bit of a stretch, but as Staal goes, so go the Hurricanes. The big center led the team in goals, assists and points and was tied for seventh in the league with 12 power-play goals and eight game-winning goals. Staal also had three short-handed goals. He and Ward represent the team's twin dynamos, and both have the maturity and temperament necessary to keep a young team on an even keel.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

More From The Magazine

ESPN The Magazine's preview provides even more in-depth coverage of the upcoming NHL season:

• Custance: Different season for the Caps?

• Chang: The Playoff Power Meter Insider

• Custance: The Crosby/concussion dilemma

• Photos: Hanging with champs in Boston


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