Back to business. That’s the motto the Carolina Hurricanes have embraced as training camp began today.
The Stanley Cup is a distant memory for most now. Fresh in the mind of most players is the long offseason, courtesy of missing the playoffs following the remarkable 2005-06 championship run.
“I’m confident because we have a healthy team and we’re rested,” said general manager Jim Rutherford. “It’s a totally different approach. Last year at this time we were still celebrating the Stanley Cup, still carting it around town and having a few parties. This year it’s all business and the guys are focused. All the pieces are there for us to have a good team again.”
“Last year, there were so many distractions it just took us away from being mentally sharp and it cost us,” added captain Rod Brind’Amour. “We’re real confident. The feeling we have right now is like we had when we came out of the lockout. We’ve gotten better and we see a lot of the other teams going the other way. We didn’t lose anybody this year, but we added some guys. Other teams sort of disbursed.”
There aren’t many job openings in camp as Cory Stillman and Frank Kaberle are back to 100 percent health, and a familiar face from the Cup team -- Matt Cullen – returns after a one-year stint with the Rangers ready to add some offensive punch to a club that at times was lacking clutch scoring.
“Matt Cullen is going to be a huge addition because there isn’t going to be a transition period,” Brind’Amour said. “We already know how he’s going to fit in. That will be smooth.”
|| David Droschak |
Carolina missed the playoffs by just four points, mostly because Stillman and Kaberle missed a combined 86 games, Tim Gleason
was out for 25 with various injuries, the power-play was abysmal and the Canes were an NHL-worst 0-5 in shootouts.
Rutherford had another good offseason by resigning leading scorer Ray Whitney and Scott Walker, coaxing Glen Wesley back for his 20th season on defense, trading for Cullen and signing free agent center Jeff Hamilton from Chicago.
Once again, the Canes look to have three solid lines and some of the best centers in the league in Brind’Amour, Eric Staal and Cullen.
Rutherford also said he’s received great reports from the players on the health of defenseman Bret Hedican, who had to shut it down last season because of a lingering hip problem.
“We have all we need,” said Whitney. “Look at our team, you take Aaron Ward out and put Tim Gleason in on defense, and our top three lines are pretty much the same with Matt Cullen back. But we’ve added Scott Walker, which is a tremendous addition from what we had two years ago. It puts us in a position to get back to where we were. And when you’re in the running at the trade deadline, who knows what you can do like we did in 2006. Our core group is as good as anybody in the league.”
In goal, Cam Ward has lost more than 20 pounds and could have an all-star type of season in his second year as the starter in net. John Grahame also proved to be a valuable back-up to the 23-year-old former first-round draft pick.
“It has been a long summer, a summer where you’ve had a lot of time to think about things – too much time on your hands,” Ward said. “But if anything you see guys coming back to camp hungry, they’ve got that fire. That gets me excited. We’re expecting great things this year and we’ve got the team to definitely do so. You can’t help but think about the previous year and what you could have done differently, but that’s all in the past. You’ve got to learn from the experience and get better because of it.”
Staal played in 82 games for a second season in a row, but saw his point production drop by 30 points. Still, he scored 30 goals and has 201 career points in 245 games. The former second overall pick looks refreshed and expects his offensive numbers to increase again.
“I don’t think Eric got tired,” Whitney said. “He came off a 100-point season, scoring 45 goals, so the natural thing the next year was for teams to pay attention to him. That’s where the adjustment comes in. How are you going to deal with the extra attention you’re going to receive night in and night out? He still scored 30 goals last year playing against other team’s No. 1 defensive pairings and lines. It’s also easier when things are going well for the team. I still think Eric had a good year and this year will be a big year for him.”
“I wasn’t as positive going into last year because we had our top point getter on defense and our top point getter at forward that were lost for two-thirds of the season,” Rutherford said of Kaberle and Stillman. “Even when they came back it was tough to catch up. And there were a lot of emotions that were really hard to get out of your system. To have an extra month or two of the offseason this year is really going to help our team. I wouldn’t want to have to do it again. But if we’re fortunate enough to win again and have a long season our players will know how to react to that.”
The Canes waste little time getting back into action, playing the Washington Capitals in a preseason game Sunday night at the RBC Center.
David Droschak is the former sports editor for the North Carolina bureaus of the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering organization in the world. In 2003, Droschak was named the North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year. The only writer in the Triangle to have covered the Carolina Hurricanes every season since the organization moved to North Carolina, he currently is a principal in the Raleigh-based public relations firm Hughes-Droschak Communications.