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'Canes GM excited as All-Star Game approaches

Thursday, 01.13.2011 / 7:37 PM / NHL Insider

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'Canes GM excited as All-Star Game approaches
It's an exciting time to be Jim Rutherford, the president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes.
It's an exciting time to be Jim Rutherford, the president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes.

For one thing, his team was on a 6-0-2 run heading into Thursday night's game in Buffalo, looking to close within one point of eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings.

Then there's also the matter of the upcoming 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover, to be played Jan. 30 at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. Among the representatives will be Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, goaltender Cam Ward and rookie Jeff Skinner, one of 12 first-year players who will take part in the Honda SuperSkills competition during All-Star Weekend.

Rutherford, a guest on Thursday's "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman" addressed the Hurricanes' season to this point.

"I give our team a lot of credit -- we started in Europe, and as everyone knows that can be difficult," Rutherford said. "We did not find it that difficult. We enjoyed starting the season in Europe. But then when we came back (to North America), we went on a long trip to the west coast and the schedule was tough for every game -- you don't get many practice days.

"So I wasn't totally comfortable with our team hanging around .500 in those first 30 games, but it was important that we did that and didn't slip too far back. And then our team just came together. We got a better work ethic, we got more determination, our goaltending was exceptional and the balance of our team started to come through. Everybody contributed and because of that we've had a good run and now we're back in the mix of the playoff teams."

Since arriving in North Carolina, the Hurricanes have seen the completion of the RBC Center, made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002 and won the franchise's first championship in 2006. In 16 days, they will host their first All-Star Game.

Rutherford recalled the challenges the team faced when it first moved from Hartford in 1997 and initially played its games at the Greensboro Coliseum, a 90-minute drive from Raleigh.

"It was a non-traditional hockey market. We didn't have our home arena ready, so we had to play 70 miles away in Greensboro," he said. "It really was a tough couple of years, but now that we've been (in Raleigh) for as long as we have and we look back at day one and where we are today and all the interest in the sport, we are really settled in and we have a very nice fan base, a very good hockey market.

"We're at the point now where youth hockey is producing players -- if we had more sheets of ice in the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham area), we'd even have a bigger group of players playing hockey. The sport of hockey has just grown (by) leaps and bounds in North Carolina."

Rutherford was asked about his hometown All-Stars -- Staal is having another fine season, with 21 goals and 42 points in 42 games. Ward has 18 wins and is among the NHL leaders with a .923 save percentage. Skinner has 14 goals and leads all rookies with 33 points, making him a leading Calder Trophy candidate with his 19th birthday still four months away.

"They're both having all-star seasons … Cam Ward and Eric Staal are really the backbone of our franchise," Rutherford said of the two stalwarts from Carolina's 2006 Cup-winning team. "Cam Ward's had an exceptional first half. He's won a lot of games on his own, if that's possible for one player, but certainly his goaltending in a number of games has given us the chance to win.

"Staal has 20 goals now; he's on his way to another great year. He's the captain of our team and leader. So those are both really good selections and favorites of our fans, and they're going to love to see both players in the game."

"We're at the point now where youth hockey is producing players -- if we had more sheets of ice in the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham area), we'd even have a bigger group of players playing hockey. The sport of hockey has just grown (by) leaps and bounds in North Carolina."
-- Hurricanes' GM Jim Rutherford

Bettman asked Rutherford about the process of selecting Skinner with the No. 7 pick in the 2010 Entry Draft and keeping him on the NHL roster this season instead of reassigning him to juniors.

"He became a player that was talked about stronger and stronger and stronger by our scouting staff from our mid-term meetings to our final meetings until draft day," Rutherford said. "Jeff had 50 goals (for the Kitchener Rangers), which is a real accomplishment for a player playing in the Canadian Hockey League in his draft year. He had 20 goals in 20 games in the playoffs. He was a very determined player. And so this was really the player that we targeted. There were a couple good defensemen still sitting there when we were selecting, but we decided to take the forward. Jeff has become a very, very popular player in a short period of time in the Carolinas."

Rutherford credited Skinner's work ethic and awareness for allowing him to not only stay at the NHL level but excel there.

"What was really special about Jeff Skinner is he was different from a lot of players who come out of junior and college hockey and go into the pros, where they don't understand how big the jump is," he said. "And what Jeff Skinner did was in the offseason he got Gary Roberts who is a former player of the Hurricanes, great NHL player, and worked with him on his conditioning, and that gave him the strength and ability to make the Hurricanes and do what he's doing."

Given the level of fan support it has enjoyed over the years, through good times and bad, Carolina is particularly excited to be hosting an All-Star Weekend.

"Once we were there and settled into the market we got to understand what the sports fans were like in the Triangle … people love their home team," Rutherford said. "I know that different fans in different markets support their teams in different ways, but we have a special fan base and even when we're struggling through times where I've seen in other cities that the players are getting booed, or the coach, or the manager, our fans really support our team. There's been times when we're going through tough games or tough stretches and they stick with us and cheer and cheer. And actually I think have turned the tide for us and made the difference."

Thursday's game for Carolina marked the beginning of a stretch of 23 straight against Eastern Conference opponents. How they fare will likely determine if they make it back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs following a one-season absence.

"Just win games," Rutherford answered succinctly when asked what the Hurricanes needed to do. "It's actually good to be playing within your own conference, the teams that you have to beat. Our opponents are all saying the same thing as we are. But the schedule's tough -- most teams are playing every other day. I don't see an advantage to one team or another. We're looking forward to it. Our team feels confident and we feel that we're capable of being in the playoffs."

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