It was 75 degrees Sunday afternoon, but 1,000 people in Raleigh had goosebumps. Caniacs in long-sleeved jerseys filed into PNC Arena to welcome the Carolina Hurricanes back to the ice. The team held its first practice since a hostile, 113-day lockout nearly scuttled a second National Hockey League season in six years.
You remember hockey, right? You'd better remember fast, as a condensed, 48-game season launches Saturday. The Canes visit the Florida Panthers on opening night before their home opener on Tuesday versus the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Although Carolina's not made the playoffs since 2009, the one-week training camp opened with moderate optimism. These guys could be good. How good? Let's take stock and see.
Coach Kirk Muller runs his second consecutive abbreviated campaign, having arrived last year in the middle of a moribund effort that earned Paul Maurice the boot. Unimpressed by the team's tempo and conditioning, Muller took a month to whip them into competitive shape, but it wasn't enough to climb the standings into a playoff spot.
Now, this is completely Muller's team. He installed a power play that clicked last season and received a talent upgrade in the protracted offseason. He tightened the penalty kill and amped the forecheck to keep the puck in the opponent's end. Impressive work for a rookie head coach.
This season, that conditioning could stake the Canes to the good start they've lacked each of the last two years. It's the first thing out of every player's mouth, and sophomore defenseman Justin Faulk put it best: "It's the first day, but at the same time it's the middle of January, not September."
General managers rarely make decisive statements or tip their hands. So Jim Rutherford's season-ending press conference was a bit of a stunner last spring when he expressed flat disappointment in the Canes' young forward corps, calling out Zac Dalpe, Zack Boychuk and Drayson Bowman. Then he issued what seemed a platitude at the time: The team would actively pursue a top-line scorer in the offseason. We'd all heard that before.
But Rutherford followed through, and this season's edition of the Canes should be the most watchable since the 2009 unit that made the conference finals. First, Rutherford acquired Jordan Staal, younger brother of Canes captain Eric, from Pittsburgh, shipping solid two-way center Brandon Sutter, a top prospect and a first-round pick, to the Penguins. Staal signed a $60 million deal that will keep him in Raleigh for a decade.
Then, well into the free agency period, Rutherford rolled the dice on sniper Alexander Semin, who inked a one-year, $7 million contract to try to reboot his reputation after seven seasons in Washington. Semin can light up the score sheet with a cobra-like wrist shot that tallied 197 goals as a Capital. He's also played the invisible man for long stretches, particularly in the playoffs. In his July press release, Rutherford addressed doubts about the Russian's heart: "We have done a lot of research about Alexander... What's been clear throughout this process was his commitment to wanting to play in the NHL and compete against the world's best players."
The jury's out on these moves. A motivated Semin plus a Jordan Staal happy to share a locker room with his older brother—and to get out of line behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—could equal two deadly lines and an effective third centered by Jussi Jokinen. It's also possible that Staal could amount to an expensive Sutter and Semin could turtle the first time he's checked.
You should be optimistic. Semin brought oohs from the hundreds of Caniacs at Carolina's first practice, flicking crisp passes to open linemates and potting pucks into the upper corners of the goal. Muller started him with Eric Staal and Jiri Tlusty. Later, Jeff Skinner took Tlusty's place. Halfway through practice, the Russian was grinning ear to ear.
Carolina was 25th in the league last season in goals allowed (2.89 per game), and Cam Ward faced more shots than any other goaltender for the second straight season. Muller minced no words about how ugly those numbers were, saying that he wants to shave half a goal a game from the scoreboard. But the defensive unit hasn't changed a lot. Joe Corvo's nimbler feet—and mohawk haircut—replace the hulking Bryan Allen. It's Corvo's second stint in Raleigh, where he'll rejoin Tim Gleason in a pairing and will likely debut as the quarterback of the first power play unit.
Joining Corvo at the other point will be Faulk—last year's rookie they couldn't send down. Playing this season in Charlotte, Faulk's been the top-scoring defender for the minor-league Checkers. Muller is hoping for mileage from other young legs such as Bobby Sanguinetti, Marc-Andre Gragnani and 2011 first-round pick Ryan Murphy, who just played for Canada's World Junior team.
"We can be a skilled enough team to get that fourth man involved and get him up the ice," Muller says. Defensive-zone breakouts were the focus of Sunday's opening practice.
Of course, the last man that a puck has to beat is the goalie. Dan Ellis, a veteran who's been solid in Charlotte this year, will back up Cam Ward after Brian Boucher was traded to the Flyers on Sunday. With nine sets of back-to-back games in the condensed schedule and a six-game road trip in early February, Ellis immediately plays a key role.
Amid high-profile ex-player deaths and continuing research into the relationship between concussions and brain disease, hockey teams still need enforcers. After Skinner was bounced around all last season, missing 16 games with a concussion, the Canes finally found their protection man Sunday, sending depth forward Anthony Stewart to Los Angeles for pugilist Kevin Westgarth. Westgarth's no Neanderthal though—the Princeton grad was the defending Stanley Cup champs' union representative during the lockout. He also has a local connection, having married former NFL coach and Raleigh resident Bill Cowher's daughter Meagan in 2011.
A magic eight-ball would say "Ask again later." Conditioning, injuries and cobwebs make this mutant season more unpredictable than usual. However, Carolina seems raring to go. Southeast Division rivals haven't added the pieces that the Canes have, so Carolina will be in the mix instead of playing catch-up. Let's say that either Washington or Tampa Bay edges them out for the division title but the Canes nab the sixth playoff seed and win a round.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hockey unlocked."