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Droschak: Canes Pass the Paper Test

by David Droschak / Carolina Hurricanes
There’s a new overhead video board at the RBC Center, high-tech speakers and seamless glass to allow a more unencumbered view of the Carolina Hurricanes for the 2009-10 season.

What was even clearer Sunday morning as the Canes officially took to a polished sheet of ice for the start of training camp was the talent level and depth recently compiled by owner Peter Karmanos, General Manager Jim Rutherford, top assistant Jason Karmanos and the scouting staff.

The payroll – which exceeds $50 million -- is the most ever spent on a roster by Karmanos and Rutherford, and this is the first time Rutherford can remember an “A” team and a “B” team during training camp sessions, with just 42 players in Raleigh.  

The separation is clear and a tremendous signal that the Canes are a veteran team ready to build on last year’s Eastern Conference Final run, while still able to bring along some of the best young talent hockey has to offer.

Three players in the second group today – youngsters Zach Boychuk, Brandon Sutter and Drayson Bowman – would likely stick on three-fourths of NHL rosters, as would defenseman Brett Carson, who was with the “A” group today filling in for the injured Joni Pitkanen.

However, those players are ticketed for the minors after Rutherford’s incredibly successful offseason that saw players such as Aaron Ward, Stephane Yelle, Andrew Alberts, Jay Harrison and Tom Kostopoulos head to the Tar Heel state. Exiting were Anton Babchuk, Ryan Bayda, Patrick Eaves, Frank Kaberle and Dennis Seidenberg.

It’s an exchange most hockey pundits would take in a minute.

“Our No. 1 focus is we want to play the hockey we did in the second half of the season for a year -- that’s our challenge,” coach Paul Maurice said. “It’s not an easy thing to do and we know we’ll face some adversity. But getting down to a smaller number of players we can get to work faster, and maybe more importantly we can drive the tempo up quicker. We had an NHL team on the ice for the first day of practice and the pace showed it. It was a good pace.”

It’s ironic that the first session of camp was under the watchful eyes of Glen Wesley and Robert Kron, now part of the Canes’ brass who were members of what many believe was the most talented Carolina team other than the 2006 Cup winner. The 1998-99 club included players such as Wesley, Ron Francis, Gary Roberts, Keith Primeau, Kevin Dineen, Sami Kapanen, Paul Coffey, Jeff O’Neill and Arturs Irbe, losing in the first round of the playoffs to Boston.

A much younger Maurice was behind the bench that season too, and while acknowledging that the team 11 seasons ago was a great group, the 2009-10 version of the Canes has a younger array of stars (Staal, Ward, Pitkanen come to mind) and even more depth from top to bottom.

How it all comes together on the ice is another story, and one Rutherford, Maurice and captain Rod Brind’Amour know can turn at any point in the season.

“Just keep in mind that there was a time with two months left in the season that the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t think they were playing in the playoffs,” Maurice said. “So, that’s how close it is. And that team had been to the Stanley Cup finals the year before. That’s how tough this league is and we have to accept that challenge and be ready to battle every night. Our finish, playing in the Final Four last year, should only spur us on and not at all make us feel more comfortable.”

Those teams more equipped to handle adversity, as well as the good times, will succeed.

“You’ve got to put the ink on it,” Brind’Amour said when I suggested the Canes look good on paper. “You’ve got to do the work. When you have a team like we have -- we look pretty darn good from top to bottom and pretty solid -- we still have to go out there and put it to use, put the ink to it.

“We have a veteran team, which is great because we know how to do this, handle the ups and downs and we’re professional. We’re not going to need a kick in the butt -- our guys know what it takes to play at this level. And there is that hunger there. If you look around everybody wants to win. I think it’s going to be a great year.”

It almost sounds silly to say Brind’Amour, beginning his 21st year in the NHL, looked great because he’s always in such great shape, but he looked great after coming off what was a disappointing finish to last season for the veteran. That view was backed up by trainer Peter Friesen, who confirmed, at 39, the captain blew away the competition on the team’s 5-mile and sprint bike testing.

“Just remarkable, remarkable,” Friesen said.

While Brind’Amour remained close to the vest about his fitness cores, Maurice told anyone willing to listen that Carolina was one of the better defensive teams late last season and into the playoffs. Now, he’s got even more to work with in Alberts and Ward.  

“We seemed to be big and moving awful fast on our back end,” Maurice said. “Maybe we just looked bigger maybe because we were wearing the black jerseys, but we’re bigger and we were moving well. One of our goals in camp is to become a better defensive team. In the last two months, we were one of the best defensive teams in the National Hockey League. That has to be our starting point this year.”

When I asked Alberts what his opinion of the Carolina organization was as an outsider, he laughed and said: “All I know was when I was with Boston they used to kick our butts. They always skated so well and were so hard to defend.”

In addition to depth, this club has tremendous versatility, giving Maurice the ability to dangle carrots for playing time as the season moves forward.

And while competition often breeds success, and it appears there are few question marks with this club, remember one thing before we get too far ahead of ourselves with preseason predictions: The ink is still wet.

“The first thing I will do is take 29 sheets of paper and put the other 29 teams on there and then realize that everybody is feeling the exact same way in camp,” Maurice said. “There is nobody this year in the NHL saying, ‘Boy, we got a lot worse this summer and I don’t like that we’re going to do.’ The strength of our team last year was we became a competitive group among ourselves and handled adversity when we got into it. That is going to have to happen here again. The names mean nothing. Our challenge is to come together and play Hurricanes style of hockey as quickly as we possibly can and understand this is going to be an absolute dogfight.”

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