Carolina Hurricanes, 36-31-15, missed the playoffs, $17.2 million in cap space
Biggest changes: Midway through last season it became painfully clear that despite having one of the NHL's best defensive corps, the Hurricanes would not be a playoff team with an aging Cam Ward and an inconsistent Eddie Lack as their goaltending tandem. General manager Ron Francis hopes he corrected the situation by acquiring Scott Darling from the Chicago Blackhawks for a third-round draft pick, then signing him to a four-year, $16.6 million contract. That's a big commitment to a goalie who has spent his entire NHL career as Corey Crawford's caddie. The Canes, who finished 20th in scoring last season, fortified their offense by signing Justin Williams to a two-year, $9 million contract. Williams, who turns 36 three days before the Hurricanes' Oct. 7 season opener, put up 24 goals and 24 assists for the Washington Capitals last season and has eclipsed 40 points in six of his past seven seasons. Carolina also strengthened itself down the middle and on the back end by acquiring two more former Blackhawks, two-way center Marcus Kruger and right-shooting defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, via the Vegas Golden Knights. For those counting, that's seven Stanley Cup rings among four newcomers. The Canes parted ways with Lack, defenseman Ryan Murphy and forward Andrej Nestrasil, who signed with Neftekhimik of the KHL.
Case for: Clearly, the Hurricanes think they're ready to make noise in the top-heavy Metropolitan Division. Williams, who won his first of three Stanley Cups with the Hurricanes, said it's a big reason he came back. "This is a team on the rise and a team that will surprise a lot of people," Williams said. "You always want to be a part of that and my role on this team will be an important one." Williams could begin the season on a top line with playmaking center Victor Rask and sharpshooting left winger Jeff Skinner, who recorded a career-high 37 goals and 63 points on a team that finished eight points out of a playoff spot. If Sebastian Aho can build on his 24-goal season and Elias Lindholm can improve on his 11-goal output, the Canes will score enough to win their share of games. And whatever they lack in scoring depth is more than made up for on the back end, where Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin lead a very quick and aggressive blue line that could rival the front four of the Nashville Predators.
Case against: The forwards absolutely need to stay healthy, starting with Skinner, who has missed just eight games in his past three seasons after missing 35 games in the three seasons prior. Rask's primary responsibility is to get the puck to Skinner and whoever plays on his right side (Williams, Teuvo Teravainen or Lindholm). If he has trouble doing that against top checking lines, the Canes might have to part with one of their young defensemen to land a top-line center. They also need Darling to be their best player on most nights, and, quite frankly, no one knows if the 6-foot-6 netminder, who has never started more than 27 games in a season, is capable. If the Canes are not strong out of the gate, there could also be fans wanting to replace head coach Bill Peters with longtime assistant and former Hurricane iron man Rod Brind'Amour.
Trade bait: As deep as they are on the blue line, the Canes also have two more prospects, first-round selections Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury, who could fetch a top-flight forward such as disgruntled Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene. The Canes would be hesitant to pull the trigger on such a deal, unless poor play or injuries up front necessitated it, but they have the cap room to make it fit. A pair of checking-line forwards who will be unrestricted next summer, Lee Stempniak and Derek Ryan, might draw interest, but only if the Canes are out of the playoff hunt.
Goalie situation rating: 5. Darling, 28, was solid last season, going 18-5-5 with a 2.38 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. His save percentage was tied for fourth among goalies who started more than 25 games. He's among the tallest goalies in the league but has had trouble tracking pucks around his feet and will be tested in his first go-around as a member of the Eastern Conference. Darling should benefit from the experience of the veteran Ward, who went 26-22-12 last season and is entering his 13th and perhaps final season as a Hurricane.
Scout's take: "I think Carolina could be the surprise of the conference. They added some more veteran leadership to their room and their defense is built for today's NHL. I think the real difference-maker for them will be whether Darling is able to prove he's a full-time starter in the league."
Prediction: 5th in Metropolitan