RALEIGH — A year ago, Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen and Joni Pitkanen were excited about playing the Carolina Hurricanes' opener in Finland, their home country.
And after the season? The three had to wonder if they'd ever play together again as a group.
Pitkanen and Jokinen were due to become unrestricted free agents on July 1. The belief was that both might be able to receive richer proposals from other teams than the Hurricanes might be willing to offer.
But Pitkanen and Jokinen both re-signed with Carolina just before free agency began. The Finns stayed put.
"Obviously it's nice to have some Finnish teammates off the ice, but at the same time they are both great players," Ruutu said Monday at the RBC Center. "Joni has been wonderful the three years he's been here, and Jussi can be used in any situation and he always does his job and is such a professional."
Pitkanen signed a three-year contract that will pay the smooth-skating defenseman $4.5 million a year. Jokinen, one of the Canes' most versatile forwards, agreed to a three-year deal worth $3 million a season.
"I feel I have played 2 1/2 years of my best hockey here, and that's one of the biggest reasons I wanted to sign," Jokinen said Monday. "I believe in this organization. I like how this team is being built and believe we're ready to take the next step and play for the Stanley Cup."
Jokinen said he was told two teams were prepared to make him interesting offers on July 1 had he not re-signed.
"I think some teams really liked me and some of those deals that were signed showed there was big money out there," he said. "But as I've said, money is not the No. 1 to me. This place feels right to me. Me and my wife love living here and how this organization treats its players."
Ruutu, who was married in July, said the pain of missing the playoffs last season, of losing the last game to the Tampa Bay Lightning with so much at stake, did not linger very long.
"Obviously it was really disappointing," he said. "At the same time I'm the sort of person that once it's over and everything is done, it's over and that's it. Just go forward and try to win next season."
Ruutu spent much of last season at center, which he considers his natural position. He played all 82 games and was the Canes' third-leading scorer behind Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner, finishing with 19 goals and 38 assists.
"I felt very comfortable at center," Ruutu said, smiling. "That's the way I started playing hockey. But as long as I'm out there and playing it doesn't really matter."
Ruutu and Skinner were an aggressive, productive pair last season. At times the line also included Jokinen for the "The Finns & Skins" line.
Asked if he hoped to keep the 2011 Calder Trophy winner Skinner on his left wing, Ruutu again beamed.
"Of course," he said. "He's an easy guy to play with. I thought we had some chemistry."
But as Ruutu well knows, Canes coach Paul Maurice likes to tinker and change up lines during the season, looking for effective combinations.
The Hurricanes will have new faces at forward this season -Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart and Tim Brent all signed free-agent deals with Carolina. Ponikarovsky, who was at the RBC Center on Monday, is 6 feet 4 and 226 pounds, and Stewart is listed at 6-3 and 230.
"We added some big guys up front, which should help us a lot," Ruutu said. "It will let the opposition know they've got some big guys coming after them."
And Ruutu. He'll still be coming hard, too.