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By Scott Burnside
If there's a handbook on how a small- to medium-size team can not just survive but thrive, it likely was written by Carolina GM Jim Rutherford.
After his team won a Stanley Cup in 2006, Rutherford watched as the Hurricanes missed the playoffs the next two seasons. He didn't panic or blow things up, but rather kept his core of talent while adding pieces such as defensemen Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason and repatriating Cup winners Matt Cullen and Erik Cole. And voila! The Canes not only returned to the playoffs this past spring but also upended New Jersey and Boston in thrilling seven-game sets before being swept by the eventual Cup champs from Pittsburgh.
This offseason has seen more of the same from Rutherford as he re-signed his own free agents, Cole and Chad LaRose (who had a breakout playoffs), and added a former Cup winner in Stephane Yelle and experienced forward Tom Kostopoulos while keeping the rest of the team's core elements together.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Canes this season:
1. Never say die
Last season, no team won more times when giving up the first goal than the Canes, who won 20 games (they were tied with Calgary), which speaks to the team's experience and maturity. Of course, they'd be happier if they didn't give up the first goal 43 times, but why quibble. Strangely, Carolina managed to win just 25 times when it scored first, 22nd in the league in that category. Hmm. Discuss amongst yourselves.
2. Cam Ward
There has been much said and written about Ward since he earned playoff MVP honors after Carolina's 2006 Cup run. In the ensuing two seasons, Ward had difficulty raising his game to that level again. But last season, and especially in the playoffs, Ward was terrific, outdueling incomparable Martin Brodeur in the first round and besting Vezina Trophy-winner Tim Thomas in the second round. People will point to Ward's soft performance against Pittsburgh, but he was pretty banged up by that point and his play in the Eastern Conference finals isn't indicative of his skill level.
He was also a workhorse for Carolina, which looked like a non-playoff team through the first half of the season, starting 28 straight games from Feb. 12 to April 9 and going 19-7-2 in that stretch. As Ward battles for a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, this season will serve as a benchmark for the young netminder.
3. Interesting chats?
So, what will Aaron Ward and Scott Walker talk about in the dressing room?
"Hey, remember when you punched me in the face in the playoffs and I was just standing there," Ward might ask.
"Yeah. What was up with that?" Walker might counter. "Why the heck didn't you put your hands up? I thought you were supposed to be a Mensa guy."
Should make for fun times after Ward, the veteran defenseman who was part of Carolina's 2006 Cup-winning team, returns to the place where he hopes to retire. As for Walker, who did indeed punch a defenseless Ward (playing with Boston at the time) in the face in the playoffs, he is part of a gritty forward contingent Ward will be happy to be playing with, not against.
4. Last hurrah?
Rod Brind'Amour, Carolina's inspirational leader, turned 39 in August, and his goal production has declined since the team's Cup year (2005-06) from 31 to 26 to 19 to 16 last season. He followed a difficult regular season with just one postseason goal. Perhaps even more troubling for Brind'Amour, one of the game's best faceoff men and a rugged two-way player, was his minus-23 rating in the regular season.
So, is the clock ticking away on a stellar career, or is there life in the tank? This season will go a long way in answering that question, but coach Paul Maurice told ESPN.com that Brind'Amour reported to camp in terrific shape and will be afforded every opportunity to continue to play a significant role.
"The fact of the matter is he was just never healthy," Maurice said. "He looks good, he feels good."
It's worth noting Brind'Amour produced eight goals and 12 assists in the Canes' final 17 regular-season games and was plus-8 in that period.
5. In the beginning
A slow start last season cost coach Peter Laviolette his job and forced the Canes into a desperate late-season run to qualify for the playoffs. Maurice would like to erase that trend.
"Historically, we haven't gotten off to great starts here. We have to emphasize that we have to get into the dogfight early," Maurice said. "That's really what our focus is."
Whether that was a function of playing in front of smaller crowds at the beginning of the season or the weather, look for Carolina to be much better in the early going than last season.
The Hurricanes consistently have relied on a defense by committee, and this big squad will be no different, with solid, if underappreciated, performers such as Gleason, invited to the U.S. Olympic orientation camp, Joe Corvo, 6-foot-5 Andrew Alberts, Pitkanen and Aaron Ward. Last season, the Canes ranked ninth in goals allowed per game. If they can repeat, it'll mean another trip back to the postseason.
7. Building blocks
The Canes' power play went from tepid (12.9 percent in the first 25 games) to red-hot in the final 57 games (21.3 percent) after Maurice took over. The Canes allowed just 21 power-play goals in the team's final 37 regular-season games. Keeping those special teams special is another way of guaranteeing a return to the postseason ball.
8. Eric the Great
He might not have liked how the Eastern Conference finals turned out (he lost to younger brother Jordan), but Eric Staal again proved he is among the finest young leaders in the game. He followed up a 40-goal regular season, a tally that included eight game winners, with a nine-goal postseason. When Staal scored, the Canes were 22-3-2 in the regular season and 7-1 in the playoffs. Only four NHL players -- Alex Ovechkin, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jarome Iginla -- have scored more goals than Staal over the past four seasons. A lock to make the Canadian Olympic team, Staal is well-groomed to take over the captaincy when/if Brind'Amour ever calls it quits.
9. A scheduling note
The Hurricanes never play more than four straight games away from the RBC Center and will hit the Olympic break in mid-February with three straight home games.
10. Olympic exposure
The Canes have a chance to be well-represented in Vancouver. Staal is pretty much guaranteed a spot on the Canadian team; Cam Ward, not so much, but he is in the mix as a third goalie behind Roberto Luongo and Brodeur. Gleason was invited to the U.S. orientation camp, but he is a long shot, as are Cullen, Corvo and Cole. Tuomo Ruutu, Pitkanen and Jussi Jokinen all look to be helping to build on Finland's silver-medal effort in 2006.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 45-30-7
• Division: Second in the Southeast
• Conference: Sixth in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in East finals by Penguins
• There is something steady and reassuring about the Carolina Hurricanes. Not too high, not too low, which is pretty much where we have them -- third in the Southeast and back in the playoffs.
• There were a lot of eyebrows raised when GM Jim Rutherford tapped former Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice to return to the Carolina bench when Peter Laviolette was handed the pink slip after a 12-11-2 start last season.
A team noted for its conservative ways appeared to have taken an easy way out by bringing back likable Maurice. But with Hall of Famer Ron Francis working the bench alongside him, Maurice helped the Canes turn their season around, posting a 33-19-5 regular-season run before upsetting New Jersey and Boston in the playoffs.
In both series, the Canes won seventh games on the road. Although this team is much more skilled than the teams he coached in Carolina the first time around, Maurice believes the team's DNA is that of a hardworking, honest group. Sort of like its coach.
F -- Eric Staal
• The engine that drives the Canes. Look for him to top 40 goals once again.
F -- Ray Whitney
• Tireless point producer.
F -- Tuomo Ruutu
• Durability always an issue, but feistiness not.
D -- Joni Pitkanen
• Will miss start of the season with knee issues, but he's the big man on an underappreciated blue line.
D -- Tim Gleason
• Came over from Los Angeles and has become an important part of the Canes' defense by committee.
Best Bet: Cam Ward, G: In his fourth season backstopping the Hurricanes, Ward had his best season yet. Questions about his ho-hum save percentage have been answered, as he shot up from the .900 range to post a .916. His goals-against average, as it has every year of his career, creeped down to a settle at a stellar 2.44. Ward even won a career-high 39 games. We have him down to match or best each of those benchmarks again as the Hurricanes blow through the Southeast Division.
Risky Move: Ray Whitney, F: Whitney is the embodiment of the stable veteran. Playing with guys young enough to be his kids, Whitney has managed to sustain a near point-per-game presence for the past three seasons. As he will certainly resume his role in Carolina's top two lines, another 75-point season is in the offing. However, with no penalty minutes to speak of and a plus/minus that tends to be on the poor side, Whitney is more of a low-tier starter in fantasy.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Carolina Hurricanes finish this season in Southeast Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.