Young Canes playing for next season's spots

As season wraps, team notes progress, scouts for potential

calexander@newsobserver.comApril 3, 2012 

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— Jiri Tlusty did it by proving he could score goals and be a playmaker, that he belonged on Eric Staal’s line and among the Carolina Hurricanes’ top forwards.

Tim Brent did it by doing whatever was asked of him.

Drayson Bowman did it after being called up from the minors, responding to the urgency he felt to prove he belongs at the NHL level.

As the Hurricanes’ season winds down this week, there are players who have taken steps forward in their careers – arguably none more than rookie defenseman Justin Faulk. They’ve earned the trust of first-year coach Kirk Muller and positioned themselves for next season.

As Muller said Monday, “We’re being judged every day in this business.”

When Muller was named coach Nov. 28, he said each player would start with a clean slate. Everyone would be judged on performance, work ethic, attitude and accountability, he said.

Tlusty’s chance

Tlusty, 24, had bounced between lines but has flourished the last few months, getting a chance to play the left wing on Staal’s line. His 17 goals and 36 points are easily career highs – he had six goals last year – and Muller said Tlusty has done enough to ensure a spot among the top six forwards for next season.

“You don’t know how the personnel will change over the summer,” Muller said. “But as far as do I feel comfortable with him staying there? I definitely do.”

Tlusty was a first-round draft pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2006, coming to Carolina in a December 2009 trade, only to have knee and shoulder injuries slow his progress.

“I always knew I could put the puck in the net,” Tlusty said. “The last couple of years, I struggled and had tough luck with injuries and stuff, and I had a lot going through my head, wondering why I was getting hurt. This season I’ve felt great and healthy and it has been a good season for myself.”

Tlusty said he had an early meeting with Muller, asking the coach to be honest with him about the things he was doing well and not so well. He said Muller mostly has stressed the positives in his game.

“He’s helped me a lot, and I play a lot, so it’s been great,” Tlusty said.

A new start for Brent

Brent, 28, was a free-agent signee in July, coming to the Canes from the Maple Leafs. It’s never easy leaving one team and establishing yourself with another, but he has paid some dues as the fourth-line center while earning some special teams duty.

“Some guys can make a living and stay in the league by being versatile and being flexible, and Tim I think has learned that,” Muller said.

Brent is a heady, aggressive penalty killer – a big reason the Canes signed him. He has quarterbacked a power-play unit, played on other lines during games and also has career highs in goals (12) and points (24). The Canes are 16-4-2 when Brent has had a point in a game.

“It’s about being confident and being comfortable,” Brent said. “For me, since the (coaching) change, my minutes have gone up and I’ve had more responsibility. As a hockey player that’s what you want. You want to be out there at crucial times of the games and make a difference.”

Reviewing Charlotte

The Hurricanes have more or less auditioned a group of forwards from the Charlotte Checkers, the club’s AHL affiliate. Zac Dalpe, Riley Nash, Zach Boychuk, Jerome Samson, Brett Sutter all have spent time with the Canes, but Bowman, who turned 23 last month, is the call-up forward who stuck the longest, playing in 36 games.

Used primarily on Brandon Sutter’s checking line down the stretch of the season, Bowman has been solid defensively. He had two goals and an assist March 17 in a 5-3 road win over the Minnesota Wild. Earlier this season, he had eight shots and scored twice against Vancouver.

“I’m starting to produce more and feel really comfortable with who I’m playing with and what I’m able to do out there,” said Bowman, a 2007 third-round draft pick by the Canes. “Hopefully it only gets better and I can build on it.”

Bowman played 23 games for the Canes last season, including the last 15 as Carolina tried to claw into the playoffs. But he began this season in Charlotte. His days of being considered a “prospect” were nearing an end, and he knew it was important for him to prove himself at the NHL level.

“It’s crucial for anyone my age to try and establish themselves,” Bowman said. “You don’t want to be going up and down (to the AHL) too much longer. It’s all about being here, establishing your role and getting some confidence.”

And, of course, gaining the confidence of the coaching staff.

“I think he’s understanding his identity a little bit better (and) what’s expected of him,” Muller said.

So are a lot of others.

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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