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Rutherford sees Hurricanes as a playoff team

by Mike G. Morreale
Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford believes no goal is unattainable.

At least that's the vibe one gets after asking him if his team is in a transitional stage.

"Are we in transition? We're in transition to be considered a contender," Rutherford told "We're not in transition as a team, because we're a team that's capable of being a good enough playoff team. Every four or five years we get good runs in the playoffs, so what we're trying to do is piece players together to have another good run at the Finals again and we're getting closer.


C. larose z. dalpe a. ponikarovsky
j. tlusty t. brent p. dwyer
ones to watch
f drayson bowman
g mike murphy
"Will we make it? I don't know because I know what goes into making the playoffs. But we certainly have a better team than we had last year and we're a team that certainly can be a playoff team."

In order to obtain the ultimate prize, the Hurricanes first need to get into the playoffs, after missing out the last two seasons. Aiding in that effort is improving an offense that was 12th in scoring last season at 2.82 goals per game, and was 21st defensesively, allowing 2.85 goals per game.

In the days following Erik Cole's departure to the Montreal Canadiens via free agency, Rutherford signed free-agent forwards Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart and Tim Brent. Defenseman Tomas Kaberle agreed to a three-year, $12.75 million contract with the hope he can make up for the loss of Joe Corvo, who was dealt to the Bruins. On Sept. 14, the team added 28-year-old depth defenseman Mathieu Roy, who split time last season between the Tampa Bay Lightning and their American Hockey League team.

In addition to those acquisitions, plus franchise stalwarts in captain Eric Staal, defenseman Joni Pitkanen and goalie Cam Ward, Carolina coach Paul Maurice will have a stable of young talent at his disposal, including forwards Jeff Skinner, Brandon Sutter and Zac Dalpe, and defenseman Jamie McBain.

Look for Maurice to pay special attention to the club's defensive-zone coverage this preseason, particularly since Carolina allowed more shots on goal (33.2 a game) last season than any team in the NHL.

The Hurricanes likely will open the season with Staal, Sutter, Tuomo Ruutu and Tim Brent down the middle. Look for Dalpe, a natural center, to begin the 2011-12 season on the wing. Rutherford would like to see the 21-year-old to begin his NHL career in the same fashion Skinner did by working the flanks.

Dalpe had 3 goals in 15 games in Carolina last season, and scored 57 points in 61 games with the AHL Charlotte Checkers.

"It's a little easier for those younger guys coming into the League (on wing)," Rutherford said. "Pat Dwyer was our fourth-line center last year, but he's a natural winger and we needed to get more depth and Tim Brent is the perfect guy to really balance out center ice."

Not only is Brent solid on faceoffs, but he also can manage the point on the power play.


IN: Brian Boucher, G (free agent, Flyers); Tim Brent, C (free agent, Maple Leafs); Tomas Kaberle, D (free agent, Bruins); Alexei Ponikarovsky, LW (free agent, Kings); Anthony Stewart, RW (free agent, Thrashers)

OUT: Erik Cole, LW (free agent, Canadiens); Joe Corvo, D (trade, Bruins); Bryan Rodney, D (free agent, Ducks); Cory Stillman, LW (retired)
Staal has 226 goals and 504 points in 560 NHL games, but hasn't eclipsed the 80-point mark since 2007-08. During Carolina's Stanley Cup run in 2005-06, Staal notched the only 100-point campaign in his seven seasons in the League. Sutter isn't a scoring machine, but he led the team's forwards in shorthanded ice time per game (2:21) and blocked shots (73), while pacing the entire team with a plus-13 rating. He signed a three-year, $6.2 million deal this summer despite an 11-point drop in offensive production from 2009-10 to last season.

Skinner leads a talented group of wing players. The 2011 Calder Trophy winner led all rookies with 63 points, and finished in the top-three among first-year players in goals and assists.

Other players expected to have impact on the wings are Jussi Jokinen, Ponikarovsky, Zach Boychuk, Chad LaRose and Stewart.

Staal, who led the team with 12 goals and 29 points on the power play, and Skinner will be looked upon to carry much of the offensive load, while Ruutu and Jokinen provide needed support. In addition to providing 19 goals and 57 points, Ruutu led the team with 309 hits in 2010-11. The loss of Cole, who signed with Montreal in the offseason, hurts, but Ponikarovsky was added in free agency to help fill that void.

Kaberle, who will be playing for his third team in two seasons in 2011-12, will be important in transition and the power play. Despite having the most opportunities (346), Carolina's power play finished 24th in the League.

"Our organization has always liked Kaberle," Rutherford said. "We really weren't thinking about signing him, but when I started reading about how Boston might have trouble signing him, I called (Boston GM) Peter Chiarelli and got the ball rolling … within 24 hours a deal was in place."

Kaberle had 4 goals and 47 points while averaging 22:06 of ice time in a combined 82 regular-season games with the Maple Leafs and Bruins last season. In the postseason, he played in all 25 of Boston's games en route to the Stanley Cup, and was tied for third among League defensemen with 5 power-play assists. His plus-8 rating in the playoffs was tied for the fifth-highest among all defensemen.

Pitkanen, re-signed to a three-year extension, ranked 13th in the NHL last season in average ice time per game (25:01), and the Hurricanes earned points in 26 of the 30 games in which he had a point (21-4-5). Besides leading the team in ice time, Pitkanen led all Hurricanes defenseman in assists (30) and was second in points (35).

The offensive-minded McBain should get more time on the power play this season after playing 76 games as a rookie in 2010-11. The 23-year-old averaged 19:06 of ice time and had 7 goals and 30 points.

"The real key to our defense, in my opinion, is McBain and Tim Gleason," Rutherford said. "McBain's a year older and he should take a step forward. Gleason is one of our key defensemen and key leaders on the team. We're hoping he can move to his off-side and play right defense with either Pitkanen or Kaberle and play big minutes."

While Gleason, who led the team with 215 hits and 141 blocked shots last season, Bryan Allen and Derek Joslin appear to have spots, it remains to be seen who else might join the group. Candidates include Justin Faulk, Jay Harrison and Bobby Sanguinetti. Ryan Murphy, the team's 2011 first-round pick who signed his entry-level contract Sept. 16, will be given every opportunity to make the team, but likely will be returned to the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers.

The Hurricanes fared well in tight games last season, going 22-15-11 in one-goal games, due in large part to Ward's play.

Ward (37-26-10, 2.56 GAA, .923 save percentage) will be counted on again to carry the team, with free-agent acquisition Brian Boucher signed to provide some support. Ward led the League with 74 starts last season, while Boucher had 18 wins and a 2.42 GAA in 34 games with the Philadelphia Flyers.

If Ward or Boucher suffers an injury, 25-year-old Justin Peters is next on the depth chart. He went 3-5-1 in 12 games last season, and has 21 games of NHL experience.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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