RALEIGH, N.C. — Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford liked the core of his team enough at the end of last season that instead of moving players from a club that didn’t reach the postseason, he systematically added parts.
Gone, at least for now, is the perception that this is a penny-pinching organization trying to massage a playoff spot out of a group that too often lacked the depth and usually firepower to get past the stronger teams in the Eastern Conference.
So instead of letting Tuomo Ruutu go, he was re-signed, though he may miss the season with a hip injury. The team traded for Jordan Staal, who had just one year left on his contract in Pittsburgh. But that risk was smoothed by the reality that his older brother has been a perennial All-Star with the Hurricanes for nearly a decade and, wanting to stay together, the younger Staal later inked a 10-year, $60 million contract with the team.
They signed sniper Alexander Semin to a one-year, $7 million deal. The lone season was because Semin’s tenure in Washington didn’t end so well and he carries some baggage. For Carolina, it’s a stroke of genius if it works out because it could use a scoring right winger to play with Eric Staal on the first line. If it doesn’t, the organization isn’t tied up with Semin for more than a season and can move on in the summer.
Carolina brought back 35-year-old defenseman Joe Corvo, who’s currently sporting a red, white and blue mohawk and thick beard that would make any Stanley Cup beard envious.
That group combined with the growing talent pool already in Raleigh has Rutherford justifiably looking at the upcoming 48-game season with optimism.
“We feel that with the changes that we’ve made that we’ve given ourselves a better chance to contend,” he said, “and hopefully that’s the way this plays out.”
The holdovers are impressive, as well.
Eric Staal struggled to start last season, but he totaled 50 points in Carolina’s final 43 games and was playing so well that if the season was a couple of weeks longer, he could have led the Hurricanes into the playoffs.
Bringing in Semin was in part to give the team two potentially lethal lines. Teaming him with Staal meant that 2010 Calder Trophy winner and All-Star Jeff Skinner could work with Jordan Staal on the second line. Semin scored 40 goals three years ago with the Capitals, but his totals dropped to 28 goals in 2011 and 21 last season. He has 197 goals and 211 assists in his career, and Carolina is hoping some of his old magic will return.
Semin teamed with Staal should make everyone better.
“He’s definitely got the skill,” Staal said. “Even some nights if you don’t have it, that threat, he’s going to back up defenses and give other guys opportunities. He’s one of those guys that he’s going to be able to score a lot of goals in tight areas.”
Expect the Staal brothers to play together at times, including on special teams, where Jordan excels. Carolina must improve there, especially with a man advantage. The Hurricanes were 20th in the NHL on power plays last season.
Those moves allow coach Kirk Muller to have Jussi Jokinen man the middle on the third line. As strong as the first two lines are, the ‘Canes need punch from the third line, especially if the defense (25th in goals allowed last season) in front of All-Star goaltender Cam Ward isn’t much improved. And on paper, it appears it remains an issue.
“He’s versatile,” Muller said of Jokinen, who had 12 goals and 34 assists last season. “If we put him in there and we experiment with some wingers, he’s going to get power-play time, (because of) his offensive production. He will have an opportunity to play with different line mates at different times. I’d like to see him there because I really think the third line is a crucial part of the hockey club.”
In addition to bringing back Corvo for a third stint with the team, the defense in front of Ward added Kevin Westgarth from the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Reliable Tim Geason and Jay Harrison, who re-signed for more money, both return.
The 48-game slate will be more of a sprint than the slower grind of a normal 82-game schedule. More games played closer together means digging into the farm system to get some occasional players, and it also requires having a competent backup goalie. The Hurricanes may have some advantages there.
They have plenty of experienced talent with their minor league affiliate in Charlotte, plus backup goaltender Dan Ellis, who has played a lot in Charlotte, is game-ready and might be the ideal backup to Ward.
The offseason activity generated much more hockey buzz in the Old North State than is the summer norm, and after a three-month wait, the fans are excited about the Hurricanes’ potential, and they know what a Cup-caliber team looks like, even in college hoops country.
The Hurricanes played for the Stanley Cup in 2002 and won it in 2006. The narrative by many is that this team can steal one in June because the parts are finally in place.