When Cam Ward last started a game in goal for the Carolina Hurricanes, he had some older, familiar faces working in front of him.
The defensemen were Tim Gleason and Joe Corvo, Aaron Ward and Andrew Alberts, Joni Pitkanen and Brett Carson. That was the group Feb. 3 in Calgary when Ward first experienced the severe back pain that has sidelined him the past seven weeks.
Ward is scheduled to return tonight and start in Atlanta against the Thrashers, and he'll find the group of D-men has a different look and a younger makeup. Gleason has a broken foot and may not play again this season. Gone are Corvo, Ward and Alberts, all traded March 3.
Pitkanen and Carson remain, but Brian Pothier, Jamie McBain, Jay Harrison and Bryan Rodney now are a part of the defensive mix. Pothier came from the Washington Capitals in the Corvo trade; McBain, Harrison and Rodney spent much of the season with the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League.
Pothier wasn't sure what to expect when he joined the Canes. Pitkanen was a proven player in the league but has surprised Pothier with his stamina and his skating ability.
"He has no heartbeat," Pothier said, smiling. "He's just so calm, and he's amazing at times.
"The other night, he took three strides and went from our goal line to their goal line. Everybody on the bench was like, 'Oh, my God, that was unbelievable.' He's so explosive and powerful, and he's got some stuff you can't teach."
But just as impressive, Pothier said, has been the willingness of such younger players as McBain and Carson to listen and learn from the veterans.
"The best thing the young guys have, I sense, is the ability and the humility to sit back and just observe the older guys in how to be a professional," Pothier said. "I've never been around a group with so many consummate professionals, and I think the young guys have done a really good job of trying to adopt some of that and use it in adapting to this league. On the ice, I think it's translating because they've performed really well."
With first Gleason and then defenseman Alex Picard recently going out with injuries, McBain and Rodney were brought in from the Rats. McBain, 22, has displayed a big shot in his first seven NHL games, and Pothier said the rookie also has some pluck with the puck.
"A lot of guys can pass the puck and shoot the puck well, but he does it with authority," Pothier said. "He'll try a move a lot of young guys wouldn't because they don't have that confidence yet. He seems like that is built into him."
Carson, 24, has played 47 games for the Canes this season and become a solid, reliable regular.
"I think the biggest thing for a young defenseman is just to get games in and learn the league," Carson said. "People have said defensemen really don't know the league until about 300 games in, so I'm still about 250 away. You learn about the skill guys, their moves, and the different systems of different teams."
Pothier like the way Carson uses his rangy 6-foot-4, 210-pound body and how he keeps things simple on the ice.
"He's smart with the puck," Pothier said. "As he adapts to the league and gets more confidence, you'll see his offensive side more, and his passing ability has sort of blossomed."
Canes coach Paul Maurice said the new group of defensemen has had "peaks and valleys" - the Canes' 4-0 loss to the Thrashers on Saturday being one of the lows. But he said the franchise has a better feel for their abilities and more options for next season.
"We've had some defensemen come in, and now we know they can play here," Maurice said. "Whether they can play for 82 [games], some of these guys, those are questions that will be answered [in the offseason]. We have four young guys on our back end right now and two guys out [Gleason and Picard] that we think can play here.
"We move the puck better from our back end than we did earlier in the year and they do it with their head up. That's a real positive sign."
And, no doubt, a reassuring one for Ward.
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