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Improved 'D', healthy Ward have 'Canes hopeful

Thursday, 09.23.2010 / 3:00 AM / 2010-2011 Season Preview

By Brian Hunter - Staff Writer

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Improved 'D', healthy Ward have 'Canes hopeful
With an improved defense and a healthy Cam Ward in goal, the Carolina Hurricanes are taking aim at a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Carolina Hurricanes have been an all-or-nothing franchise over the last decade. Since the 2000-01 season, the Hurricanes have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs only four times. But boy, did they make those appearances count.

After losing in the first round to New Jersey in 2001, the Hurricanes paid the Devils back the following spring en route to the franchise's first berth in the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in five games to Detroit.

Carolina wouldn't get another taste of the postseason until 2006, but it ended with captain Rod Brind'Amour raising the Cup high over his head after the team survived a seven-game battle with Edmonton to bring a championship to Raleigh.

Three of the four seasons since have ended with the Hurricanes sitting outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference, but in the one instance where they did qualify, in 2008-09, they pulled off a pair of heart-stopping Game 7 wins on the road in New Jersey and Boston before bowing out against eventual champ Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Change came to Carolina during the offseason as Brind'Amour announced his retirement and another veteran forward, Ray Whitney, left for Phoenix as a free agent. Eric Staal, who took over the captaincy midway through last season, returns to lead the offense, while goalie Cam Ward will try to rebound from an injury-plagued campaign.

"We're going to definitely be competitive," Staal told the Raleigh News & Observer. "The nature that we have in our dressing room is competitive guys and guys who hate to lose.

"I'm just looking forward to getting started and trying to do my thing. I feel strong. I feel really good."

The Hurricanes begin their season with a pair of games against the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, as part of the Compuware NHL Premiere series, then play their first five games in North America on the road before finally returning home to the RBC Center on Oct. 27 to face the three-time defending Southeast Division champion Washington Capitals.

Staal (29-41-70 in 70 games) was a point-per-game player for the second time in three seasons and led the Hurricanes in scoring. Set to turn 26 at the end of October, he's already recorded a 100-point season and won a Stanley Cup. Now, with Brind'Amour retired, he's the undisputed leader on and off the ice.

"He's a presence out there," teammate Tom Kostopoulos told the News & Observer. "He's one of those dynamic players.

"When he took over the captaincy last year, I think he did a great job. He really turned it on at the end and our team played well. I hope he can keep going from where he left off and he can lead us to the promised land."

The Hurricanes will need to address the loss of Whitney, whose 58 points ranked third on the team, as did his 7 power-play goals.

Two players who took major steps forward last season were Jussi Jokinen and Brandon Sutter. Jokinen scored just 7 goals in splitting 2008-09 with the Lightning and Hurricanes, but he was a key contributor in that spring's postseason run and busted out with career highs of 30 goals and 65 points. Sutter, a first-round pick in 2007 who only lit the lamp once in 50 games as a rookie, assumed a larger role in the offense and rewarded the coaching staff's faith with a 21-goal, 40-point sophomore season.

Might the team see similar progress from 2008 first-round pick Zach Boychuk? He split last season between the AHL and NHL, playing in 52 games for Albany (15-21-36) and 31 for Carolina (3-6-9), and could be ready for a full-time role this season.

If veteran Erik Cole (11-5-16 in 40 games) can stay healthy, he adds scoring ability to the second or third line. Tuomo Ruutu (14-21-35 in 54 games) and Chad LaRose (11-17-28 in 56 games) also battled injuries, while Sergei Samsonov remained something of an enigma -- he recorded 32 points in 38 games for the Hurricanes after they acquired him from the Blackhawks in 2007-08 and followed that with a 48-point season, his best output since 2001-02 with the Bruins. But he slumped to 29 points last season.

Kostopoulos and Patrick Dwyer proved themselves useful role players, while Oskar Osala and Jiri Tlusty were interesting acquisitions during the season who could warrant longer looks with the big club this season.

The Hurricanes have added a pair of returnees to their defense corps by signing Joe Corvo and bringing Anton Babchuk back from Russia.

Both players are expected to provide some offensive punch from the blue line, especially on the power play. Corvo spent parts of three seasons with Carolina before getting dealt to Washington for the 2010 stretch run. He put up 14-24-38 in his one full season with the Hurricanes. That was in 2008-09, when Babchuk set career highs with 16 goals and 35 points only to depart for the KHL, where he spent last season playing for Omsk Avangard.

Joni Pitkanen (6-40-46) led the defense in scoring, Tim Gleason (5-14-19) was a steady presence and Jamie McBain provided a spark during an exciting 14-game stint at the end of the season in which he registered 3 goals, 10 points and a plus-6 rating.

Brett Carson, Jay Harrison and Bryan Rodney likely will figure into the mix, as well as Casey Borer, whose once-promising career repeatedly has been derailed by serious injuries.

In an intriguing draft-day trade, the Hurricanes also picked up former Rangers first-round pick Bobby Sanguinetti. He made his NHL debut last season by getting into five games with the Blueshirts, but apparently was caught in a numbers game amid a glut of young talent on the New York blue line.

No doubt Cam Ward is happy to put 2009-10 behind him. Not much went right on the ice, including the night of Nov. 7, when the skate of Columbus captain Rick Nash sliced his upper left leg and knocked Ward out of the lineup for over a month. Back issues later sidelined him from early February until late March.

Ward played 47 games, the lowest total since his rookie season, and his 18-23-5 record was the first sub-.500 mark of his career. But his .916 save percentage actually tied his career high, and if Ward can stay healthy there's little reason to doubt he can return to the form that saw him capture the Conn Smythe Trophy during the 2006 Cup run and follow with three consecutive 30-win seasons.

Two 24-year-olds, Justin Peters and Justin Pogge, are vying to be Ward's backup. Peters would seem to have the inside track -- he's a second-round pick by the Hurricanes who received a nine-game audition last season and took full advantage, winning six times. Pogge once was a hot commodity in Toronto and got into seven games for the Maple Leafs in 2008-09, but he's bounced around since then, going to Anaheim and then Carolina at last season's trade deadline.

Quote of the Day

You could feel it. You could feel that they were going after each other and trying to win the game for their team.

— Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom on Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals, in which Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin and Penguins forward Sidney Crosby each scored hat tricks
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