Carolina Hurricanes season opener vs. Washington Capitals
RBC Center
Oct. 27, 7 p.m.

If you don’t know where to set your expectation level for the Carolina Hurricanes this season, then you’re not alone. The phrase “transitional year” used to echo balefully inside a hockey rink, but free agency and the league salary cap make the playoff picture change like a flip board for arriving trains. There are a lot of reasons other than the league-best tailgating scene to head to the RBC Center to see the boys of winter this season. Here’s your guide to all things Hurricanes.

Helsinki or swim?

When the National Hockey League chose the Canes to play their first two marquee games in Finland, players and owner alike beamed with Carolina pride. Along with the awarding of the NHL All-Star Game to Raleigh, it’s a validation of one of the few success stories in the league’s Southern expansion. And the team responded, taking both games from the Minnesota Wild, one in a shootout capped by a sizzling goal from teenage phenom Jeff Skinner.

But the schedule makers exacted immediate payback, sending the team on a five-game, 15,000-mile road trip through Canada and the West Coast before the Canes host their first game versus the Capitals on Oct. 27. Two games into the trip, Carolina’s record has evened, and they appeared to be skating in slush in a 5-1 loss at Vancouver on Sunday night. Here’s hoping their jet lag decides to hit the California beaches while the team circles back east.

Ward is the word

When goaltender Cam Ward’s leg was slashed by an opponent’s skate last November, both Ward’s and the team’s blood pooled on the ice. The Canes promptly fell off a cliff that they could never climb back up. You can count on one handand have fingers left overthe number of general managers around the league who sleep as well at night as Jim Rutherford when it comes to their team goaltending. And although recent Stanley Cup winners have not featured a dominant netminder in the mold of a Brodeur or a Roy, that’s more an indication of the mediocrities in those nets than of the importance of the position. More than any other player, Ward is the franchise.

Hey Mom, can I sign this contract?

Skating the best organizational talent on NHL ice, regardless of seasoning, is de rigueur these days. Veterans were swapped for prospects and picks at last year’s trading deadline, so only four current players have had to blow out at least 30 candles on their birthdays. Six players 22 or younger are on the roster, including seventh-overall pick Skinner, who won’t turn 19 until the playoffs begin in May. A gifted scorer in juniors, he has the kind of hands that you put a Stradivarius in. If you want to impress friends with your Canes acumen, start talking up Skinner now. Alternate captain Brandon Sutter, himself only 21, calls Skinner “a great, hard-working kid.”

Other notables at the kid table include defenseman Jamie McBain, who showed a scoring touch during a cup of coffee in Raleigh last spring, and forwards Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe. Ready to step in from the AHL-affiliate Charlotte Checkers are Zack Boychuk, Jiri Tlusty, Oskar Osala and Jared Staal, one of Eric’s many little brothers.

Brindy’s out…

Rod Brind’Amour, in a show of teamsmanship befitting the assist-first, defensive forward, stepped down as captain midseason, and then retired over the summer. Despite maintaining his famed workout regimen, Rod the Bod was never quite the same after a torn ACL scuttled his 2008 season. His No. 17 will be hung from the RBC Center rafters next February. But great Hurricanes never toss their jersey into the laundry cart; they just pull a business jacket over it. Brind’Amour rides off into that special kind of sunset that is the Hurricanes front office as Director of Forwards Development, joining former Canes Ron Francis, Glen Wesley, Tom Barrasso and Jeff Daniels on the team directory.

… and Staal’s in

The moment they stitched the “C” onto Eric Staal’s sweater last January, the team caught fire, missing the playoff tournament by just eight points. Staal’s instant maturity was the catalyst. Without Brind’Amour, Ray Whitney and Scott Walker to stand next to, he even looks older this year. It’s easy to forget that Staal’s just 25 as he enters his eighth year with the franchise. Look for a big year from the big center.

South-least no longer

The Southeast division contains three teams with potential, one juggernaut and one doormat. The formidable Washington Capitals are favorites to claim the President’s Trophy again for best regular-season record, but little else. Playoff flame-outs have drained the boyish joy from scintillating scorer Alex Ovechkin, who completed his transformation from superhero to super villain by earning multiple suspensions for questionable hits on opponents last year. Washington will play angry and take the division again.

After the Capitals, who knows? The other meteorological phenomenon in the Southeast, the Tampa Bay Lightning, is a sexy pick to spark this year. With retired Red Wing Steve Yzerman managing the club, all the free-agent gaffes and front-office incompetence have now been swept from the minds of most pundits. Although it could come together for the Lightning, they’re a losing streak away from trade rumors and turmoil. Still, they should jockey with the Canes for second place in the division.

The Atlanta Thrashers should steer clear of game wardens, having poached the rosters of the defending-champion Blackhawkswhose salary-cap woes had them handing out pink slips with the champagne bottlesand the New Jersey Devils, who took moody sniper Ilya Kovalchuk off their hands for a small crowd of B-list talent. Once the new Thrashers figure out which jersey to pull over their shoulders, they should at least be a more consistent team.

No one fears the Florida Panthers, however. Run now by Dale Tallon, who built the Blackhawks roster before a premature sacking, the other team in Florida has to pray for prospects and draft picks to grow up a bit. There’s no reason to think this year’s Panthers will claw their way out of the cat box.

Jekyll or Hyde?

As cold as the Hurricanes were to start last year, they posted the second-best record after New Year’s. Although this month’s Scandinavian start has cooled them back down, this team has younger legs and a shorter memory. The Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins have seen similar youth movements gel into champions the past two seasons. Without a veteran presence like Brind’Amour, it’s hard to imagine the Canes will go that far, but with young talent and a full season of Ward in goal, a playoff berth is not out of the question. This team promises to get better period by period throughout the season.