RALEIGH — A few tanned, all rested (except for All-Star invitee Justin Faulk), the Carolina Hurricanes returned from far, wide and Ottawa on Monday to begin the final stretch of the season.
The team that finishes the schedule in April might look very different from the one on the ice tonight against the New York Islanders, although Monday's unprecedented midseason agreement with Tim Gleason on a four-year contract extension removed one of the largest areas of uncertainty.
Not only might some of the players be different - with Gleason signed, Tuomo Ruutu jumps to the top of the trade-rumor queue - but new coach Kirk Muller is expecting the team to build upon its recent good play.
"I want to see a team that looks like it's capable of winning every night," Muller said. "I think the system's in place. The coaching staff knows the players better. ... It's important that we come down with a good competitive stretch from here to the end. We can't do anything about the other teams and their wins and losses and all that, but I want our team to find ways to pick up points game in and game out."
The Hurricanes might not be a contender at this point, 10 points out of a playoff spot with seven teams to pass, but as far as Muller is concerned, they better continue to play like one. They went 4-1-2 heading into the break despite facing the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals (twice).
"I'm not saying we're out of it yet," forward Jeff Skinner said. "Hopefully we can make a push here and get back into the hunt."
Skinner's commendable optimism aside, the focus now is on the future: Continuing to show improvement on the ice under Muller, and making the most of a seller's market at the trade deadline, an equation that changed when Gleason re-signed.
Gleason's extension contradicts a "team policy" that the Hurricanes would not negotiate contracts during the season. Until Monday, the closest they came was an extension with Arturs Irbe sealed in the hours before the first game of the 2001-02 season. Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford expressed a willingness to extend Mike Commodore's contract during the 2007-08 season, but those talks never went anywhere and Commodore was traded at the deadline.
For Gleason, the Hurricanes made an exception, in part because he was willing to take four years at an average of $4 million per, helping both the bottom line and blue line. Securing Gleason provides some much-needed balance to a defense that leans heavily to the offensive side among its young players - Faulk, Jamie McBain and 2011 first-round pick Ryan Murphy.
There's no guarantee that impending free agents Bryan Allen and Jaroslav Spacek are traded either - Allen has a no-trade clause, and both are excellent mentors for Carolina's younger defensemen - but along with Ruutu, they're attractive to contending teams ahead of the deadline. Everyone, young and old, knows how the game works.
"Lately, everyone's felt a little bit better," Skinner said. "Obviously we didn't start the season the way we would have wanted to and a lot of stuff has gone on. As a player, those kind of things, you can't control them, so you don't want to spend too much time worrying about them. We do have a good core group of guys and guys are playing for each other right now."
Whether it's potential trades or how the team plays, what happens over the next two months might not matter much this season, but it certainly will matter down the road. No matter who stays and who goes, or how the standings shake out, there's still plenty at stake.