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'Canes can't afford bad start in '10-11

by Brian Hunter
The Carolina Hurricanes dug themselves an early hole during the 2009-10 season, then spent the stretch run furiously trying to climb out of it.

From Jan. 21 through the end of the regular season, the Hurricanes posted a 21-10-3 record -- including wins over the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins and the soon-to-be champion Blackhawks, as well as a pair of victories over the Washington Capitals, who went on to claim the Presidents' Trophy.

Instead of building momentum for the playoffs, though, Carolina's second-half surge was good for nothing more than an ascension to 11th place in the Eastern Conference -- eight points back of Montreal for the final postseason berth.

The culprit? A nightmarish 2-12-4 start to the season, punctuated by a franchise record-tying 14-game winless streak (0-10-4) that left the Hurricanes with so much ground to make up, even their frantic sprint to the finish line was destined to come up a little short.

Despite ending up on the outside of the playoff picture for the third time in four seasons, Carolina is just over a year removed from a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals. The 'Canes also boast two trips to the Stanley Cup Final and one championship in the past decade.

This is still a franchise to be reckoned with, but the Hurricanes will need several things to happen in order to get over the hump and back into the postseason. A full campaign from a healthy Cam Ward, for starters. The continued development of young players like Brandon Sutter to fill the voids left by veterans Rod Brind'Amour and Ray Whitney. And, perhaps most of all, a decidedly more prolific showing in the months of October and November.

Brind'Amour announced his retirement on June 30, and his No. 17 will be retired prior to the Feb. 18, 2011, game against the Flyers. After coming over from Philadelphia on Jan. 23, 2000 in a trade for Keith Primeau, he became the face of a Carolina franchise that had relocated from Hartford less than three years earlier. He was captain of the 2006 Cup-winning squad and his 473 points in a Hurricanes jersey are a team record.

However, Brind'Amour finished his final season with just 19 points and a minus-29 rating, suggesting it might be easier to replace him on the ice than it will be in the locker room.

The departure of Whitney, who signed with Phoenix as a free agent, is of greater concern. He was third on Carolina in scoring with 21 goals and 58 points. Seven of those goals came on the power play, a specialty of Whitney during his 18-year NHL career. He also had five game-winners.

Veteran goalie Manny Legace, who was picked up after Ward went down early with a skate laceration to his left leg and filled in admirably (10-7-5, 2.81 goals-against average, .907 save percentage), won't be back as the Hurricanes expect young Justin Peters to assume the backup role. Peters was 6-3-0 with a 2.83 GAA and .905 save percentage as a rookie.

It shouldn't take Carolina fans long to get accustomed to the two "new" faces on the blue line this coming season.

Anton Babchuk returns to the NHL after playing for a year in Russia. Babchuk had a breakout season for the Hurricanes in 2008-09, registering 16 goals (9 on the power play) and 35 points with a plus-13 rating. However, he was limited to just a single assist in 13 playoff games and was a healthy scratch on more than one occasion.

Joe Corvo, who was dealt to the Southeast Division-rival Capitals at the trade deadline, is also back. Corvo battled through an inconsistent and injury-plagued season, totaling 6 goals and 18 points in a combined 52 games for Carolina and Washington. But in 2008-09, his only full season with the 'Canes, he put up 14 goals (8 power-play goals) and 38 points.

In this year's Entry Draft, the Hurricanes selected Kitchener center Jeff Skinner with the No. 7 pick. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds, Skinner may not intimidate anyone with his size, but the combined 70 goals he tallied between the regular season and playoffs attest to his ability as a sniper. Carolina had four picks in the second and third rounds and used them all on defensemen.

Another young player to watch at training camp will be center Riley Nash, a former first-round choice of the Oilers whom the Hurricanes acquired for a draft pick. He signed with the Hurricanes after three seasons at Cornell.

It would appear Carolina has the requisite firepower up front to run and gun with some of the more offensive-minded teams in the League.

Eric Staal, who inherited the captaincy from Brind'Amour midway through last season, led the team in scoring, averaging a point per game. The Hurricanes' goal leader was actually Jussi Jokinen, who seemingly came from nowhere to register a career-high 30 and was also second to Staal in scoring with 65 points. Brandon Sutter, who had just one goal in 50 games as a rookie, emerged in his sophomore season with 21 goals and 40 points.

Joni Pitkanen returns to lead the defense along with the unheralded Tim Gleason, while Jamie McBain showed himself to be an exciting young talent during a 14-game NHL stint late in the season. McBain registered a point in each of his first four games, including an overtime goal in Pittsburgh with less than a second remaining.

But while Carolina ranked in the middle of the pack in offense a season ago, its defense landed in the bottom five with a 3.06 team GAA. Two decades ago that would have been a respectable figure, but in today's NHL giving up three goals per game is a surefire recipe for missing the playoffs.

The Hurricanes will need to get more from their blue line as well as a bounce-back year for Ward, who started his career by winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe as a rookie before reeling off seasons of 30, 37 and 39 victories. Battling the skate cut and back problems in 2009-10, he slipped to 18-23-5 with a 2.69 GAA, though his .916 save percentage was identical to the previous season.

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