DETROIT — During a trip to Raleigh two months ago, Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. talked mostly about the possibilities of this hockey season.
Despite the Canes' poor start, Karmanos said it was no time to panic, insisting the team could pull out of its tailspin and reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But Karmanos' tone and outlook has changed. In an interview Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena before the Canes faced the Detroit Red Wings, he talked more in terms of next season, about the makeup of next year's team.
Judging from his comments, one thing is clear: The Hurricanes will be greener and the budget leaner.
"We're going to be able to put a very exciting team on the ice," Karmanos said. "I hope we can build around five or six key players that we have that we think are world-class players, and we have some really exciting young players coming along.
"We think we can come back next year, assuming we have used up all of our injuries this season, and we can put an extremely competitive team on the ice that will have a chance of winning it all."
Karmanos said the NHL salary cap "should come down" from the $56.8 million ceiling this season but added that the cap won't be an issue for the Canes.
"We can run a team well under the cap and have it be a team we think can contend," he said. "We knew this year we didn't have any choice, so we added players here or there because we thought we were going to make a run for it this year."
Another Cup, that is. Instead, the Canes (14-25-7) stumbled through a 14-game winless streak early in the season and have spent much of it in the NHL basement.
"Disappointing," Karmanos quickly replied when asked the one word that best sums up the season.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the disappointing season, Karmanos said, has been the play of center Brandon Sutter, just 20 but already one of the team's most productive players.
"We thought he had a couple more years to go and that he might be a third-line guy or possibly a second-line guy," he said. "Now he's developed to the point where he's going to a top-notch player."
The Hurricanes continue to bring in young players from Albany of the American Hockey League. Forward Drayson Bowman is the latest, getting his call-up Friday as forward Jerome Samson was reassigned to the River Rats. Bowman, 20, may join two recent call-ups, Zach Boychuk and Jiri Tlusty, in the lineup today against the Atlanta Thrashers and make his NHL debut.
But it's not just a matter of getting the younger players some experience and preparing them for next year, coach Paul Maurice said Friday.
"We're trying to win these hockey games," Maurice said. "We have players in the American League we want to see, [but] it's not just, 'Let's go out there and play the kids.' Tlusty's got five points in eight games with us, so he's playing some minutes."
Injuries to forwards Sergei Samsonov, Erik Cole and Chad LaRose created the opportunities for Boychuk, Tlusty, Samson and now Bowman. Maurice said it will be Monday, at least, until any of the injured players will be ready to return.
But captain Rod Brind'Amour said many of the names above the lockers will change before next season and that the room will have a younger look to it.
"I'm sure it's going to be real different," he said Friday. "It's pretty obvious. We have a lot of older players who probably won't be around, so it just goes to say they will be younger."
Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, Scott Walker, Niclas Wallin, Aaron Ward, Joe Corvo and Stephane Yelle all will be unrestricted free agents after the season. And what about Brind'Amour? He has one year left on his contract that will pay him $3 million next season.
"At the end of this season, we're going to sit down with Rod and figure out what his future looks like from our point of view, and see where he is and go from there," Karmanos said.
The core of the team won't change, Karmanos said. Nor, he indicated, would the coach.
Karmanos said the Canes still will be built around center Eric Staal and goaltender Cam Ward, who both have had trying seasons - Staal with injuries and the death of his sister-in-law, and Ward with a slashed leg that sidelined him for a month.
"We were very fortunate in a sense in Cam Ward's injury," Karmanos said. "A couple of inches higher and it would have been a career-ending injury."
While Karmanos said the Hurricanes would take a "huge financial hit" this season, a result of a drop in overall revenue and now the likelihood of missing the playoffs, the emphasis will be on putting a competitive team on the ice. Winning more games may cost the Canes a shot at a high draft pick - forwards Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, to name two - but Karmanos said they can't be concerned with that with 36 games still to be played.
"We run a professional hockey team, and if we can win, we're going to win," he said.
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