Aside from all the talk about new players and fresh faces, the Hurricanes had equally high hopes when it came to bounce back years for two of their veterans.
Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov have enjoyed excellent starts after experiencing their fair share of troubles last season. Cole ranks tied for third on the team with 8 points and leads the team with a +8 plus/minus rating after injuries limited him to just 40 games last season. Samsonov has 7 points in 10 games after posting the lowest point-per-game total of his career last season, when he registered just 29.
So far, they’re both important players and top six forwards on a young team that is beginning to establish itself offensively.
“They’re both case studies in guys that got back to their game,” said coach Paul Maurice. “For Sammy’s hands to be as good as we’ve seen them, his feet have to be going, and for Erik it’s probably the same thing. They really have to skate to play their best hockey, and they both are skating very well.”
Cole is a member of the Hurricanes’ most consistent and productive line to date along with Tuomo Ruutu and rookie Jeff Skinner. He made key plays in each of the team’s last two games, scoring on a great individual effort in Friday’s game in Florida and then making a great feed to Skinner in the next night’s rematch.
It’s the kind of start that the 32-year-old right wing thought he would have last season, but a broken leg in just the second game of the new campaign changed all that. The injury would only keep him out for a few weeks, but an upper-body injury suffered soon after made it difficult.
“That was a little bit of a setback,” he said, the understatement intentional. “We were struggling and I came back promptly, but I think long term it wasn’t that great. To have an injury a couple of weeks later compounded it.”
Cole would go on to score just 16 points, easily a career worst. Conversely, his current pace to start the new season would rank among his best.
“I had a healthy summer and I felt strong in camp,” he said. “As a group we’ve been working really hard since day one, and I think that’s helped.”
He’s enjoyed almost instant success with Skinner in particular. As one of the elder statesmen on the team, he’s been instrumental in guiding the 18-year-old to his unexpected spot as the Hurricanes’ leading scorer.
“It’s really important when you bring in a young player to have somebody that develops a certain chemistry on the ice that can guide him a little bit,” said Maurice. “Even just sitting on the bench and talking about the other team’s defensemen. This is a complete lifestyle change, and now it’s what he does for a living. To have a veteran player to help him along is really important.”
It seemed at one point as though Samsonov would run into the same challenges as Cole did one year earlier. Although slowed from what could have been a serious neck injury suffered during the preseason, he’s come on strong with 5 points in his last 3 games and currently holds a spot on the top line with Eric Staal.
However, he found it difficult to adjust once back from his injury and spent some time on the fourth line before working his way back up with a three-point night that helped center Jon Matsumoto earn his first two NHL goals.
“He had a very good camp, and then his injury absolutely set him back,” said Maurice, who made Samsonov a healthy scratch twice in October. “Now he’s back, for me, to where he was at training camp. Confidence is a critical piece to any player, but for him it looks like his confidence and his legs are there, so he’s moving better.”
“You can practice all you want, but there’s nothing like game speed,” said Samsonov.
Having had Samsonov pegged for Staal’s line prior to the preseason injury, Maurice now gets to revisit that combination. Since they were reunited two games ago, Samsonov has a goal and an assist, including a key helper for Staal on a five-on-three Saturday.
“Eric just needs somebody to control the puck a little bit for him to get loose,” said Maurice. “(Staal) is going to draw some heavy fire and the other team’s No. 1 and 2 set of D, and we need somebody to buy him some room.”
Samsonov’s rise to the top has come at the expense of Jussi Jokinen, who now occupies the left wing on the fourth line and played just 9:30 on Saturday – his lowest total since March 12, 2009, when he was coming back from his father’s funeral in Finland. It marked just the fourth time he’s been in single digits for minutes played in a Hurricanes sweater.
“Jokinen has struggled a little bit, but he’s going to get some time from me because I think it’s there,” said Maurice.
It’s also kept offseason signing Patrick O’Sullivan on the sidelines, although Maurice said he hoped that would change in the near future.
“I would like to get him a game sooner rather than later, but I want to make sure the guy coming out comes out for a reason,” said Maurice.
For now, there should be no lineup changes heading into Tuesday’s home game against Edmonton, with Cam Ward expected to start in goal and defenseman Joni Pitkanen still seeming doubtful with an upper-body injury. Pitkanen practiced Monday in a non-contact jersey, with Maurice saying that he was “possible” to play the next day.