Young talent highlights Canes new season

Staff writerOctober 7, 2010 

  • Hurricanes vs. Wild

    When: Noon

    Where: Helsinki, Finland

    TV: Versus Radio: WCMC-99.9

    Inside

    On to Finland: The Canes start with a long road trip. 2CC

    DeCock: Based on Maurice's coaching record, expect about 90 points. 2CC

    All-Stars: The Canes will host the NHL All-Star Game. 3CC

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Hei Pelataan!

That's Finnish for "Game On!" and seems apropos to sound the start of a hockey season unlike any other for the Carolina Hurricanes.

It's a season that begins today in Helsinki, Finland, in the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere. The Hurricanes face the Minnesota Wild at Hartwall Arena and play the Wild again Friday in their first "home" game of the year.

The Hurricanes played a preseason exhibition game Monday in St. Petersburg, Russia, before moving on to Finland. They will host the NHL All-Star Game in January and hope to end the season in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Part of the team is up for sale. The lineup is younger, the payroll lower.

"Last year we were one of the most experienced and oldest teams and now we may be the youngest," forward Jussi Jokinen says. "It's totally different."

But in a season of change, of passports and visas, of events large and small, one thing remains the same: Eric Staal and Cam Ward are the bellwethers of the Hurricanes, a link to the past and future of the franchise.

"They are our best players," general manager Jim Rutherford says. "They are guys who can make a difference in any given game, in any given year. That's what we expect of them."

The Hurricanes once depended so much on Ron Francis. Then it was Francis and Rod Brind'Amour. Now, it's Staal and Ward, front and center, in the franchise's continuum of stars.

Francis, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, was the Hurricanes captain before passing the "C" to Brind'Amour. It was Brind'Amour whose grit and leadership helped Carolina win the 2006 Stanley Cup, and it was Brind'Amour who last season passed the "C" on to Staal.

"To be as young as he is, Eric has accomplished a lot in his young career, yet he's very humble and very down-to-earth." says Francis, the Canes' associate head coach and director of player personnel. "He shows strong character in a lot of the decisions he makes.

"I think it makes it easy for the guys in the locker room to look to somebody like that and say, 'He's our guy.' That's what you want from your top-end guys and he's been great."

Staal, who turns 26 this month, won the '06 Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes. The center from Thunder Bay, Ontario, has been the MVP of an NHL All-Star Game and won a Olympic gold medal for Canada in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.

"But I think what makes him special, first and foremost, is the kind of person he is," Ward says. "Hockey aside, he's a good guy who has a good head on his shoulders. He's mature beyond his years and a guy you want to have to lead your team."

Ward, 26, was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP in 2006, as a rookie, and is every bit as valuable to the Hurricanes as Staal.

"He's a backbone type of player," Staal says. "Your goaltender is in the most important position on the ice and he's an elite goalie. He's a huge piece to our puzzle.

"I also think his leadership has grown as he matured as a player. He's starting to feel more confident and comfortable in that role."

While Ward is expected to stop pucks, Staal not only is expected to lead but to score. He has twice scored more than 40 goals in a season but was slowed by injuries and had 29 last year, the fewest since his rookie season.

"He has the pressure that comes with being the dominant guy, the offensive guy," Canes coach Paul Maurice said. "He has to put the numbers up. He knows that."

That's a lot to bear, but Staal can handle it, Francis says.

"He's got some big shoulders," he says. "He's won a Stanley Cup, a gold medal and played in very intense games. You come through those and you get that belief that you're capable of doing that. The challenge is getting to that level each and every night."

Especially on a team Maurice joked is so young, "We'll save a thousand dollars on razor blades this year." Staal will need to come up big night after night.

For Ward, last season was nightmarish. He was accidentally slashed near a knee by the skate of the Columbus Blue Jackets' Rick Nash in November, later sidelined for a month by a bum back, and closed with a losing record (18-23-5) for the first time in his career as the Canes failed to reach the playoffs.

"He's one of the best goaltenders in the league - when he's healthy," team owner Peter Karmanos says.

Ward would like to think he will rebound strongly and that he will play one extra game this season: the All-Star Game at the RBC Center.

"No question it's a goal of mine," Ward says. "That would be a thrill for myself, if I had the opportunity to play in an All-Star Game before the home fans. I also know that if I make that team, chances are the Hurricanes are doing well, too."

Brind'Amour, who retired this year and has become director of forwards development for the Canes, recently talked about the upcoming season. He spoke of Staal and special teams and all the young players fighting for roster spots.

"But young team or old team it comes down to Cam Ward being the difference," Brind'Amour says. "If he's the Cam Ward we know, the team's going to be in every game."

Staal and Ward are the team's highest-paid players - Staal receiving $7.5 million this season and Ward $5 million - and have long-term contracts. They carry themselves like stars and have become sports celebrities in the area.

But to see them in the Canes' locker room, smiling, talking, it's often hard to believe they seemingly have been around for so long and yet are in their mid-20s, with so much still ahead of them.

"We've laughed at the fact time has gone by so fast," Staal says. "It seems like yesterday we were in the minor leagues together in the [2004-2005] lockout year. Now we're at a point where we have kind of been around the longest.

"It's great that we both feel like we're still young and can be big pieces for this team. We're excited about getting this season started."

Rutherford says the Hurricanes approached the league last year and asked to be considered for the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere in Finland. With three Finns in the lineup - Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen and Tuomo Ruutu - it seemed fitting.

The Canes will return to North America to play another five road games. Their first appearance at home won't be until Oct. 27 against the Washington Capitals.

And so what could be a unique season begins in a scenic but distant location - Helsinki, Finland.

Hei Pelataan!

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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