RALEIGH — Well before N.C. State's football tailgaters set up tents and started grilling burgers Saturday outside the RBC Center, the Carolina Hurricanes were putting in some hard hockey work inside it.
The Canes held their first practices of preseason training camp, taking the ice promptly at 8:30 a.m. Forward Chad LaRose was first out, the skating was generally nonstop and everyone was left a little pooped when the day was done.
"We were up and down the ice pretty good," Canes captain Eric Staal said. "It was a good pace."
About the only thing missing Saturday was All-Star goalie Cam Ward. He missed the first practice with "upper-body stiffness" and will not play in today's Red-White scrimmage at noon during the annual Caniac Carnival at the RBC Center.
Canes coach Paul Maurice insisted Ward's injury was a "minor thing" but that it would keep him off the ice a few days. Brian Boucher, slated to be Ward's backup this season, will start the Hurricanes' first preseason exhibition game Monday at Buffalo, but Maurice said that was planned all along.
"If there's one time a year we don't need Cam Ward, it's the first four days of camp and the first exhibition game," Maurice said. "He's off until he can beat me in an arm wrestle and then he gets to go."
What Maurice was looking for the first time out - and will continue to insist on - is full-tilt effort and more aggressive play, especially in the defensive zone. The Hurricanes allowed more shots on goal last season than any team in the NHL (33.2 a game) and finished 21st in goals against per game (2.85).
Carolina hired Dave Lewis as an assistant coach to oversee the defense, and the former NHL defenseman was active Saturday on the ice.
"We did do D-zone coverage on day one, which may be slightly unusual, but we certainly want to make a point that we have to become a better defensive team," Maurice said. "I'd like to see us score more goals but we don't need to score more goals to win consistently. We need to be a better defensive team."
The coaching staff took a first look at defensive pairs Saturday in the three group practices. Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason worked together. So did Tomas Kaberle and Jay Harrison, and Jamie McBain and Justin Faulk - Derek Joslin was sidelined Saturday because of an illness.
In the final practice session, veteran defenseman Bryan Allen was teamed with Ryan Murphy, the Canes' first-round draft pick this year who signed a three-year, entry-level contract Friday with the team. Talk about a contrast: Allen is 6-5 and 226 pounds; Murphy is 5-11 and 174.
"He's a big guy. I was looking up to him most of practice," Murphy said, smiling. "I was a bit nervous. I didn't know what to say to him at first, but he introduced himself to me and from there it was all pointers and tips. It was fun."
Murphy, 18, starred for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League last season, leading OHL defensemen with 26 goals. He has come to camp intent on earning a roster spot with the Canes, and aware it will take more than his skating and offensive skills.
"Obviously there's a question mark (about) my defensive play and I've been working on that a lot both with my Kitchener coaches and Carolina coaches," Murphy said. "My all-around game, I think, is getting better and I'm looking forward to the exhibition games."
Maurice, who said Murphy would play with Allen today and against the Sabres on Monday, insisted Murphy's slight size was not a major concern.
"This guy is a special kind of player and he doesn't fit into a lot of molds, the way he skates and moves the puck," Maurice said. "He's eventually going to put on more mass but I'm not in a hurry for that to happen. He has to keep his uniqueness on the ice more than put weight on."
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