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'Canes hope for return to playoffs

Wednesday, 09.03.2008 / 9:00 AM / Season Preview

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

After failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs the last two seasons in the wake of winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford is optimistic his club can turn it around this season.

Having forwards Rod Brind'Amour, Justin Williams, Matt Cullen and Ray Whitney healthy will certainly help that cause. Brind'Amour (knee) and Williams (knee) missed a combined 67 games to injury, Cullen (concussion) was sidelined 23 games and Whitney (ankle) missed 16 contests. Their return, in addition to a full season from forward Tuomo Ruutu, will only help enhance an offense that finished 2007-08 scoring at a 3.05 goals-per-game clip. When Rutherford re-signed Ruutu, left wing Erik Cole, who spent six productive seasons in Carolina, was dealt to Edmonton in exchange for 24-year-old defenseman Joni Pitkanen. It marked the continued summer rebuilding process of a defense that ranked 25th in the League, allowing three goals per game.

In addition to Pitkanen, who Rutherford hopes will become his defensive cornerstone, the GM also signed Anton Babchuk (Russian Super League in 2007-08) and Josef Melichar (Swedish Elite League) to take the place of Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican.

Carolina was actually atop the Southeast Division for much of the season before losing out to the surging Washington Capitals on the final day of the regular season. The Canes needed to win two of their final four games to secure a playoff berth, but just couldn't get it done. As it turned out, the Hurricanes dropped four of their final six games, including two against the Caps. As a result, the Hurricanes became the first team ever to miss the playoffs two seasons in a row after winning the Stanley Cup.

Goalies

Cam Ward, the first goalie since Patrick Roy (1986) to win the Stanley Cup in his rookie year, completed his third full season with the Hurricanes in 2007-08, finishing tied for fourth in the NHL with 37 wins and ninth with four shutouts. He established career-bests for games played (69), minutes (3,930), goals-against average (2.75), saves (1,690) and save percentage (.904), and was voted by teammates as Carolina's nominee for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy as the player who best exemplified leadership qualities on and off the ice.

CAROLINA HURRICANES
2007-08 SEASON STATS

Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 92
(9th east/16th NHL)
Change from 2006-07 +4
Home Points 52
(4th east/8th NHL)
Away Points 40
(10th east/22ND NHL)

When former Carolina backup John Grahame signed overseas in May, Rutherford answered by signing 27-year-old Michael Leighton to a two-year deal on June 11. The 6-foot-3, 186-pound Leighton enjoyed an exceptional season with the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League, earning Goalie of the Year honors after posting a league-high .931 save percentage and 2.10 GAA. He was 28-25-4 in 59 regular-season games for the River Rats with an AHL-leading seven shutouts. He appeared in three games with Carolina last season, going 1-1 with a 2.66 GAA.

Defense

While it will certainly be interesting to see how the new defensive alignment comes together, there's no question the acquisition of Joe Corvo from the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 11 was a bright spot for Carolina in 2007-08. Corvo, 31, scored seven goals and 21 points in 23 games with his new team. For the season, he had 35 assists and 48 points while finishing tied for the overall team lead with a plus-17 rating.

Pitkanen (6-foot-3, 202 pounds) will certainly add size and an offensive spark alongside the 24-year-old Babchuk, his projected defense partner. Corvo could see time with the 25-year-old Tim Gleason, who was third on the team with 151 hits.

Frantisek Kaberle, who posted 22 assists in 80 games, and Niclas Wallin (8 points in 66 games) will also see significant playing time in the back end. Additionally, Melichar, Dennis Seidenberg (15 assists, 110 hits, 47 games), Casey Borer (3 points, 11 games) and Tim Conboy (5 assists, 19 games) could also fit into the defensive rotation.

Wesley, who announced his retirement on June 5 after 20 NHL seasons, will have his No. 2 retired prior to Carolina's Feb. 17 contest against the Boston Bruins. Wesley, the all-time franchise leader in games played (1,457), was an exceptional shut-down defenseman for three franchises, including Boston, Toronto and Hartford/Carolina.

"Glen played the most games as a Hurricanes player (903 games in 13 seasons with Carolina), and did so at a high level," Rutherford said. "We're honored to have been a part of his distinguished playing career and look forward to paying tribute to his accomplishments."

Forwards

There's no question a healthy Brind'Amour, Cullen, Whitney and Williams will go a long way in determining a return to playoff prominence.

At the time of his Feb. 14 knee injury, Brind'Amour was first in the NHL in faceoffs won (851) and faceoffs taken (1,460) and third in face-off winning percentage (58.3). Cullen had established career-highs with 36 assists and 49 points despite missing 23 games with a concussion. He was also third on the team with 8 power-play goals and fourth with 15 power-play assists. One little known fact about Cullen is his ability in shootouts, where he is 11-for-20 in his career.

Williams, who might work the top line with center Eric Staal and left wing Whitney, had 30 points (21 assists) in 37 games at the time of his season-ending knee injury in December. Whitney ranked first on the team in power-play assists (24), second in power-play points (30), second in takeaways (41) and third in shots (204) despite undergoing ankle surgery in March. Staal led the team in goals (38), assists (44) and points (82), was sixth with 99 hits, and was the only skater on the roster to appear in all 82 games.

Brind'Amour is currently penciled in to center a line with Sergei Samsonov and Patrick Eaves. Samsonov has seemingly resurrected his career with the Hurricanes since being acquired off waivers from the Blackhawks, scoring 14 goals and 18 assists in 38 games with his new club. Eaves signed a three-year extension on June 4.

Coach Peter Laviolette could have Cullen flanked by Ruutu and Scott Walker on another line. Ruutu, acquired from Chicago on Feb. 26 in exchange for Andrew Ladd, not only finished 2007-08 with 32 points in 77 games, but ranked second among Carolina skaters with 171 hits and finished tied for the team lead with a plus-4 rating. Walker led the team with 115 penalty minutes while posting 14 goals, 32 points and 98 hits last season.

Rutherford and Laviolette are also anticipating the debut of top prospect Brandon Sutter, the son of New Jersey Devils coach Brent Sutter. As the ninth member of the Sutter family to be drafted into the NHL, Brandon completed his third full season with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League this past season with 26 goals and 49 points while also helping Team Canada win this year's World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. He could be given fourth-line duty with wingers Chad LaRose (23 points in 58 games) and Ryan Bayda (73 hits, 31 games).

Three reasons for optimism

* A healthy Rod Brind'Amour, Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney and Justin Williams should play a vital role in the team's quest to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in three seasons. The Hurricanes began 2007-08 winning seven of their first 13 games. When the injury bug crept in at the quarter mark, the club was still in decent shape at 12-6-3. In the end, however, the team lost 333 man-games to injury, the most since the '02-03 campaign, when it lost a then-franchise high 290 man-games to injury.

The knee injuries to Brind'Amour and Williams last season were particularly tough to overcome as they left Carolina's penalty-killing unit undermanned. Carolina allowed 75 power-play goals -- only the Toronto Maple Leafs (77) allowed more -- and finished 26th in the League while a man short. The team only generated four shorthanded goals.

* A bulked-up defensive corps to support goalie Cam Ward will only improve Carolina's chances in the competitive Southeast Division. Newcomers Joni Pitkanen (6-3, 214), Anton Babchuk (6-5, 212) and Josef Melichar (6-2, 220) should help alleviate some of the stress along the blue line.

* Motivation. There's no question Carolina's management, coaches and players are fed up with hearing about how they haven't qualified for the playoffs the last two seasons following their memorable Stanley Cup run in 2006.

A quick glance at the roster and you'll discover that nine players who began the 2007-08 season in Carolina are now gone. That list includes defensemen Glen Wesley, Bret Hedican and Mike Commodore, forwards Erik Cole, Cory Stillman, Jeffrey Hamilton, Andrew Ladd and Craig Adams and goalie John Grahame.

"We've made our team younger and added some good players," Rutherford said. "We have a chance to be one of the real good teams again."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.

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