It's been seven seasons since the Carolina Hurricanes last treated their fans to a playoff game, but there's hope in Raleigh that the club might be turning a corner.
Carolina's lack of success has hurt it at the box office, with the Hurricanes posting a league-worst average of just over 12,000 fans last season. But the Hurricanes were unexpectedly competitive last season, and after tinkering around a young core this summer the team is confident of taking another step forward.
"We're encouraged the direction it's going," head coach Bill Peters said in an off-season interview, "but we've still got work to do."
Carolina's top players are all young.
Justin Faulk, who scored 16 goals and averaged 24 minutes as the leader on defence, is 24. Jeff Skinner, who led the club with 28 goals and 51 points last season, is also only 24. Victor Rask, a pleasant surprise with 48 points a year ago, is 23. Elias Lindholm, a former top-10 pick, is 21.
Noah Hanifin, the Hurricanes prized young defenceman, won't turn 20 until January.
And there's more on the way.
Sebastian Aho, a second round pick in 2015, is expected to make the Hurricanes as a 19-year-old. He starred in the Finnish League last season, leading Karpat with 20 goals and 45 points in 45 games. Carolina also added 21-year-old Teuvo Teravainen, a former first round pick from Chicago.
The club sought veterans in the summer, signing Lee Stempniak (19 goals, 51 points last season) and speedy winger Viktor Stalberg while also adding big, bruising forward Bryan Bickell in the trade that netted Tervainen.
"When we set back and analyzed our team last year I think the area we felt we struggled in was at times scoring goals," Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis said.
The club, which ranked 27th in scoring last year, felt its power-play unit could use a boost and more skill was needed when the game was on the line. Carolina went 10-16 in overtime and shootouts.
"We looked at maybe adding some size, some leadership, some experience," Francis said.
Save for 35-year-old Ron Hainsey, the Hurricanes remain incredibly young (and entirely American) on defence, but the unit is mobile and effective at moving the puck around.
The Hurricanes were effective in that regard as a group last year, 12th in puck possession under Peters after finishing ninth one year earlier. They also owned a top-10 penalty kill for the second straight season.
Other teams that have the potential to rise up the NHL standings:
Nashville Predators: Nashville took the eventual Western Conference finalists to seven games last spring and they only got better with the addition of P.K. Subban. The all-star instantly beefs up an already deep and impressive defence that features Norris Trophy contender Roman Josi. Young stars Filip Forsberg (22 years old) and Ryan Johansen (24) are only getting better, too, and there's every chance goaltender Pekka Rinne bounces back to all-world form. The Predators are too good for darkhorse status; they're a real threat to compete for the Cup.
Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes own one of the most celebrated prospect contingents in hockey and some of that youth is poised to join Max Domi (21), Anthony Duclair (21) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (25) in the NHL this season. Dylan Strome, the third overall pick of the 2015 draft, is the likeliest bet, perhaps alongside Christian Dvorak, who finished second in OHL scoring last season. An overhauled front office led by 27-year-old GM John Chayka retooled the roster with veterans Alex Goligoski, Jamie McGinn and Luke Schenn all joining the club this season, while captain Shane Doan was re-signed. With emerging young talent and a quality coach in Dave Tippett, upward progress seems likely.
Winnipeg Jets: The Jets took a big step back last year with 76 points after a playoff appearance in 2015. There's just too much talent here though for the club not to get back on the promising path this season. Most intriguing is the addition of exciting Finnish winger Patrik Laine, who is set to join an already strong core of forwards that includes Mark Scheifele (61 points last season), Nikolaj Ehlers (15 goals), Marko Dano, the reliable Blake Wheeler (78 points), Bryan Little and perhaps Kyle Connor, the NCAA's leading scorer last season. The talent is here for a big leap next season.
Calgary Flames: Doomed by bad goaltending last year, Calgary appears to have fixed that issue with the additions of Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson this past summer. Elliott's presence alone should help the Flames step forward after a disappointing season which ended in the firing of head coach Bob Hartley. Calgary's best players are primarily its youngest players and that means growth is likely, especially for Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau (still unsigned) and Sam Bennett, the latter scoring 18 goals as a teenager last season. The Flames added Troy Brouwer to the mix up front, a reliable (if pricey) boost to that promising forward group.
Edmonton Oilers: It's not a lock that the Oilers will eventually take one giant leap into post-season contention, but it seems likely given all the young talent. Connor McDavid is a legitimate threat for the Art Ross trophy this season, Leon Draisaitl is already an impact player at 20 while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is still only 23 and getting better. The Oilers may have downgraded in replacing Taylor Hall with Milan Lucic, but Hall's trade return, Adam Larsson, bolsters an improving defence. Tightening the blue line would help Cam Talbot, who solidified the goaltending position in Edmonton last season (.917 save percentage). The tide seems to be turning for the Oilers, who search for their first post-season appearance since 2006.