President and General Manager Jim Rutherford made it clear: there is work to do off the ice to recover from a 113-day work stoppage. Head Coach Kirk Muller made it clear: there is work to do on the ice to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009.
On both fronts, the Carolina Hurricanes are confident they can succeed.
“We’ve gone through a tough six months,” a somber Rutherford opened. “But it’s behind us now. We apologize to all the people that were affected by it: our fans, their frustration and emotions, which in some ways is a good thing because they obviously care about the sport; all the people that worked here, the part-time people that didn’t get the nights that they usually get, especially leading up to Christmas; the businesses that depend on us; and the players.
“This was just a real unfortunate time, but there’s no use in rehashing it now,” he continued. “We’re looking forward to moving into this season.”
And there is plenty to look forward to in what will be an abbreviated 48-game season, including that fact in itself.
“My first year as manager in Hartford was a shortened season,” said Rutherford, who is in his 19th year as the franchise’s GM. “It was one of the most exciting seasons I’ve been a part of in the NHL because the games really are a lot like playoff hockey games.”
The Canes coaching staff isn’t short on experience in shortened seasons, either. In the 48-game 1994-95 season, Muller played his final season with the Montreal Canadiens, and assistant coach John MacLean won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils, who ousted assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour’s Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final.
“The message is going to be: give it all on the ice during the games, and we’ll give you rest at the proper times,” Muller said. “You’re going to need depth.”
Bolstered by two top-six forward additions in Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin, the Canes aren’t short on depth, as a number of their young crop of forwards have been playing with the Charlotte Checkers since October.
Though how large the Canes training camp roster will be is yet to be determined (the Canes scheduled internal meetings on Thursday to discuss that, among other things), a number of Checkers players will be in the mix. Defenseman Justin Faulk, who skated in 31 games with Charlotte and ranked second on the team in scoring (24 points), has already reported to Raleigh. More will likely arrive this weekend.
“There’s probably going to be at least six or seven guys that were playing with the Checkers that will start the season with us,” Rutherford said, noting that there might be player movement around the league before the start of the season. “We’ll still look to add a player that we’ve talked about since the end of last season, a player that plays with a little more grit that can play on the third or fourth line.”
An in-house option for a gritty depth player could be Brett Sutter or Tim Wallace, both of whom were praised last weekend by Executive Vice President and Assistant General Manager Jason Karmanos.
With Tuomo Ruutu sidelined for four to six months after hip surgery, a top-six forward slot is also up for grabs. Whether a forward like Jiri Tlusty or Chad LaRose assumes that role or a young player from Charlotte challenges for that full-time position is a competition to keep an eye on next week.
“It’s just going to give one of the younger players a better opportunity,” Rutherford said. “It’s probably going to give somebody else an opportunity to play in the top six where maybe they wouldn’t have before. We think we have enough players to do that.”
“When you look at a schedule like this when there are so many games in a short period of time, you’re going to need bodies,” Muller said. “You need youth and young legs somewhere in your lineup to play that high pace.”
Another intriguing storyline in camp will be the backup goalie question. Brian Boucher, who is in the final year of his two-year contract, has recovered from his shoulder injury. Justin Peters’ play in Charlotte for the last season-and-a-half has positioned him to make the jump to the NHL. Dan Ellis, still on a tryout contract with Charlotte, gives the Hurricanes yet another option.
“Whoever gets that opportunity and can take it, jump in, do their part and win hockey games for us when they’re in net, that’s what we’re asking from them,” Muller said. “If that pushes Cam [Ward], that means Cam’s a better goalie and our team’s a better team. We’re stronger in that position, and we expect whoever that guy is, he’s going to help us win hockey games when he’s in playing.”
“We do have more depth in goal now, as far as giving Cam a strong partner,” Rutherford said, not counting out the possibility of a roster move. “There are a lot of options there. The good news is, with the way Ellis has come in and played, it gives us a lot more depth at that position.”
These internal competitions will unfold rather quickly over the next week, as a very brief training camp accelerates the team from zero to 60 in a sprint to the playoffs.
How can the team prepare for such an abrupt start? In the absence of preseason games, Rutherford said the organization was in talks with another team for an intersquad scrimmage. Those plans fell through, so an intrasquad scrimmage on Tuesday – depending on the number of Checkers players recalled – is a possibility. A scrimmage with their entire team, however, is logistically impossible with Charlotte slated to play five games in seven days within the next week.
“The timing of this (camp) isn’t great, but we’re trying to make sure they (Charlotte) keep rolling along and we prepare properly,” Rutherford said.
The regular season will follow shortly after. Though nothing is confirmed, Rutherford said the Hurricanes would likely begin on the road, since PNC Arena is occupied the weekend of Jan. 19. The team could return to Raleigh the following week – shaved out of the original schedule for the All-Star break – for an opening week of games, during which the Canes are planning some special programs in appreciation of fans’ support, according to Rutherford.
One thing is for certain: throwing a group of 20-plus hockey players headfirst into a slim season will be exciting from every angle.
“That’s the pitch of our hockey club this year: we’ve got different guys in different positions that can push from the bottom up and push our top players,” Muller said. “If that’s where our hockey club is, we’re a stronger team.”