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'Canes have high hopes after springtime success

by Brian Compton
It's been roughly four months since the Carolina Hurricanes shocked the hockey world and reached the Eastern Conference Finals by ousting the No. 3 New Jersey Devils and the top-seeded Boston Bruins.

The 'Canes will enter the 2009-10 season with a very similar look. The only major difference is that this time around, they'll have Paul Maurice behind the bench right from the beginning.

After the 'Canes got off to a poor start, Maurice replaced Peter Laviolette behind the bench on Dec. 3, 2008, and guided Carolina to a 33-19-5 record down the stretch. The Hurricanes topped that with their tremendous postseason run, and GM Jim Rutherford rewarded Maurice with a three-year contract.

"You'd like to come in at the start with the foundation of your game, but I enjoyed coming in halfway through because you can kind of maybe lighten the mood a little bit," Maurice told "I think, more importantly, is the coaching staff has now had a few months to work together. I'm looking forward to working with those guys."

Up front, Carolina's hopes all begin with star center Eric Staal. The No. 2 pick in the 2003 Entry Draft enjoyed his second 40-goal season in 2008-09 and added 10 more goals during the playoffs. He'll likely be flanked by veterans Ray Whitney and Erik Cole, who combined for 42 goals last season. Whitney actually led the team in scoring with 77 points, while Cole arrived via trade from the Edmonton Oilers in February. He had 15 points in 17 games with Carolina.

But as they enter the season, the players who are skating together on opening night won't necessarily be on the same line in April.

Heck, they may not be linemates in November.

"We're down to only having 10 pages of line combinations," Maurice joked. "But if you look back at the way we operated in the last three months of (last) season, there was quite a bit of that going on. Players moved around an awful lot."

Maurice is most excited about the depth of his team. Take veteran forward Scott Walker, for instance. The 36-year-old showed tremendous versatility down the stretch and in the postseason and scored one of Carolina's more memorable goals -- the overtime winner in Game 7 that give the 'Canes their second-round upset of the top-seeded Boston Bruins.

"In the first series against New Jersey, he was playing on I guess what some people would call the fourth line," Maurice said of Walker. "I didn't do it like that. It was a certain style of line. And then he scored the game-winner in overtime against Boston playing with Eric Staal. We're not setting people into spots. We're expecting to move people around when they get going."

A potential second line for the Hurricanes could be the trio of Matt Cullen, Chad LaRose and Tuomo Ruutu, while the unit of Rod Brind'Amour, Sergei Samsonov and Jussi Jokinen can provide solid play on both ends of the ice. Maurice is especially excited about having LaRose back in the mix after Carolina nearly lost the pesky winger to free agency.

"He and Ruutu grind and grind and grind," Maurice said. "I really do feel we have great depth in competitiveness."

With the summer additions of Tom Kostopoulos and Stephane Yelle, it appears as if younger players such as Brandon Sutter and former first-round pick Zach Boychuk will have a hard time winning jobs. But Maurice hasn't shut the door on either one making the team.

"I think the young players will have an opportunity," Maurice said. "At the same time, we're probably a bit deeper than maybe ever. It will take a real special effort to crack that unit. But we're excited about the fact that we think we have a number of young players if it's not this year during the year, next year they'll have some pro experience and will be able to help our team." 

Carolina's blue line will have a slightly different look in 2009-10; as veteran Aaron Ward has returned thanks to a July 24 trade with the Bruins that sent forward Patrick Eaves and a fourth-round draft choice to Boston.

Ward was a Hurricane when Carolina when it won the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 2006. He left that summer to sign a free-agent deal with the New York Rangers. That didn't exactly go as planned, and Ward was traded to Boston during his first season in Manhattan. But he'll likely feel right at home in Carolina.

"Clearly, he was part of an important tandem in Boston," Maurice said of Ward. "But he's been in Carolina before. He knows our systems. He's a real solid guy. He brings an important, veteran presence on our blue line. And those Stanley Cup rings aren't an accident."

Maurice anticipates pairing Ward with the offensively-gifted Joni Pitkanen. The 6-foot-6 blueliner had 33 points in 71 games last season.     

"We may look at playing him with Pitkanen, allowing Joni to do some of the fine offensive things that he does," Maurice said. "He can be a real stabilizing influence."

Also expected to log major minutes for the Hurricanes are Joe Corvo and Tim Gleason. Corvo led all Carolina defensemen in 2008-09 with 38 points -- and both showed during the 'Canes postseason run that they can handle the opposition's top guns.

"He was injured quite a bit when I got here, and he and Joe Corvo ended up being our shutdown pair," Maurice said of Gleason, a former first-round draft pick. "They were the pair that played against the other team's best. The offense was a fortunate byproduct of just keeping his game simple."

Andrew Alberts and Niclas Wallin are expected to make up the team's third pairing. Alberts signed with the team as a free agent after going 1-12-13 with 61 penalty minutes in 79 games with the Philadelphia Flyers last season.


Between the pipes in Carolina, it begins and ends with Cam Ward.

The 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner is coming off a fabulous campaign that featured 39 wins during the regular season before a postseason that saw him outduel Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas in the first two rounds.

Ward has won at least 30 games in each of the last three seasons while emerging as one of the top goalies in the NHL. He's expected to vie for playing time on Team Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver after being invited to the club's orientation camp in Calgary last month.
Will that have an impact on how Maurice divides playing time between Ward and backup Michael Leighton? Time will tell.

"You play the kind of hockey you're supposed to early in the year, as a coach you get to make the better decisions on when to rest your No. 1 guy," Maurice said. "You want to put Michael Leighton in a position that he can be successful as well. I'm hopeful that Cam will be able to crack (Canada's) lineup. I have all the faith in the world in him. We'll measure his games a little more carefully -- and I say that until we lose our first set of back-to-back games, and then he'll be playing. We have a plan for him, but how that unfolds we'll have to wait and see."     

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