RALEIGH — With a tap on the helmet before Monday's practice, Carolina Hurricanes captain Rod Brind'Amour welcomed a new teammate.
It was goaltender Manny Legace, who signed a one-year contract with the Hurricanes and could be a lifeline for the team in the month or so that star goaltender Cam Ward will be out with an injured left leg.
Legace, 36, was playing with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League and was at a rookie dinner Sunday when the text messages rolled in from his agent. He was headed back to the NHL, where he won 177 games, won a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002 - against the Hurricanes - and was an All-Star for the St. Louis Blues just two seasons ago.
"He's a proven winner," Canes coach Paul Maurice said Monday. "He's stopped a lot of pucks and is a veteran guy. He's been around the league long enough that he shouldn't have the normal jitters of a guy coming into this situation."
But Maurice quickly noted that Legace, whose two-way contract pays him $500,000 at the NHL level and $105,000 at the AHL level, wouldn't automatically be installed as the No. 1 goaltender. The competition, Maurice said, would continue in practice between Legace and Michael Leighton, Ward's backup.
"We've got lots of hockey here in the next month or so before we expect Cam's return," Maurice said. "There's going to be enough net for both guys, but clearly if either one of them gets on any kind of roll, we'll run him."
Ward was lost for a minimum of three to four weeks after being cut on the upper leg by the skate of the Columbus Blue Jackets' Rick Nash during Saturday's game in Columbus, Ohio. Ward was taken to a Columbus hospital, returning to Raleigh on Monday.
The Canes took a 1-0 lead after Ward left in the first period, and Leighton took over in goal, but they gave up three goals early in the third and lost 3-2. The Canes are 2-11-3, winless in their past 12 games and last in the NHL -- much to Legace's surprise.
"It's too good of a team to be struggling," he said Monday after his first practice. "You look at the team on paper, you look at the way they played last year, it's just bounces. You see some highlights, and weird stuff is happening, and the puck's not bouncing for them.
"But if they keep working as hard as they worked out there today, it's going to turn."
The Hurricanes, even with Ward out and center Eric Staal sidelined another two weeks, still believe a turnaround is possible.
"We do," winger Ray Whitney said Monday. "As funny as that sounds to some, and probably only the people in the organization think anything of us as a group, we haven't lost that belief in the locker room yet. Which is good. Once that leaves, we're in real trouble.
"We obviously have had some games we felt we should and could have won, and haven't. We've had a stretch now of bad luck with injuries, Who knows, in three months we may be saying 'we told you so,' but it is time to get going."
Whitney believes the Canes, who face the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday, can win with Legace and Leighton. Legace, drafted by the Hartford Whalers in 1993, was Whitney's former teammate with the Red Wings in 2003-04, and Leighton stepped in last season and won big games for Carolina.
"We're confident we've got two guys who can play," Whitney said. "Obviously, they're not Cam Ward. There's not too many goalies who are. But we're confident in what we have."
In his lone season with the Wings, Whitney said, goaltenders Curtis Joseph and Dominik Hasek were injured, leaving it up to Legace.
"He carried the load for three months and got the job done," Whitney said. "He plays the puck well, he's competitive, he's fast.
"He gets on a hot streak, and he can carry you. He carried us in Detroit when we had no business winning, and we're going to need the same thing out of him now."
After leaving Detroit, Legace was an All-Star with the Blues before a freak accident in late October 2008. Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was in St. Louis to drop a ceremonial first puck before a Blues game, and a red carpet was rolled out on the ice.
Legace slipped on the carpet and injured a hip flexor. He missed five games and never fully regained his form.
Before the season was over, Legace had been placed on waivers, then sent to the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL.
"I deserved to get sent down, and I wasn't professional about it," he said. "I took my medicine, and it cost me over the summer. A lot of teams were shying away because of it."
But the Atlanta Thrashers offered to give him a preseason tryout. The Wolves, the Thrashers' AHL affiliate, then gave him a place to play. Retirement, Legace said, was never an option.
"I'm too young to retire," he said, laughing. "I just want to play."
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