Canes look to future as regular season comes to a close

As regular season comes to a close, Canes look to the future 

calexander@newsobserver.comApril 9, 2012 

— The Carolina Hurricanes’ players had little to do Monday but undergo final physicals, talk to the media and leisurely enjoy a warm spring day.

That’s not what they wanted. They’d rather have been putting on their gear, going on the ice for practice at PNC Arena and preparing for the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“No one wants to be in this position, no one wants to be out of the playoffs,” Canes captain Eric Staal said Monday. “It’s been a few years and that’s frustrating for everybody.”

Some still have hockey to play. Goaltender Cam Ward and forward Jeff Skinner will compete for Team Canada in the 2012 IIHF World Championship next month. Defenseman Justin Faulk and forward Patrick Dwyer will be on Team USA, and forward Jussi Jokinen and possibly Tuomo Ruutu will play for Finland in the event to be held in Finland and Sweden. Canes coach Kirk Muller is expected to be named an assistant coach for Canada in the World Championship.

“You never want to get used to getting a World Championship phone call,” Ward said. “But it is a good opportunity to go over and get more experience. I’m going because I don’t want to get complacent. I want to continue to try and get better and continue to try to win.”

Ward was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP in 2006 when the Hurricanes made their run to the Stanley Cup. Now 28, he and the Canes have been in the playoffs just once since then, when they reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2009.

Asked what the Canes needed to be a playoff team next season, Ward replied, “That’s a good question and very tough to say.

“When you play an 82-game season, a lot of it is consistency. You can’t afford to have a bad month. It seems like we always have a good second half (to the season) and we have to have that good first half.

“That’s pretty much it. There’s not a whole lot we’re missing to get back to the playoffs. We’ve got the tools here. Maybe a few changes here and there might make us better next season.”

General manager Jim Rutherford said again Monday the Canes would look to acquire a goal-scoring forward who could play on the top line with Staal. Losing winger Erik Cole in free agency to the Montreal Canadiens last July created a void the Canes were not able to fill.

“The biggest thing for us, to take that big step forward, is a top-line player,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford did not mention names, but if Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils is an unrestricted free agent in July, the Canes may be among the bidders. Parise’s asking price may be $6 million or more a year, but Rutherford said the team has the financial resources to pursue top-tier players.

While saying missing the playoffs was a disappointment, Rutherford said the Canes made positive strides under Muller. Named coach on Nov. 28, Muller was 25-20-12 as Carolina closed 33-33-16 and 12th in the NHL Eastern Conference, 10 points out of playoff position.

Carolina finished 19th in the NHL on the power play at 16.7 percent and 22nd on the penalty kill at 80.6 percent. Looking to next season, Muller said he’d like the combined percentage to top 100, calling it a good benchmark for special teams, but noted being in the top 10 in each was a team goal.

Staal, with a strong surge down the stretch, again led the Canes in points with 70. Skinner closed with 20 goals and 44 points after a sensational rookie season in which his 31 goals and 63 points helped earn him the Calder Trophy.

Skinner missed 16 games with a concussion this season. Impatient and frustrated at times after returning Jan. 15, he took a few bad penalties and lost his cool – he was suspended two games for kicking at Scott Nichol of the St. Louis Blues.

“It was little bit frustrating,” Skinner said of the season. “There are some challenges. You expect some challenges but you learn from them. I learned a lot this year.”

Muller said he expected Skinner, who turns 20 next month, to be a more mature player next season.

“I think you’ll see a different Jeff Skinner,” Muller said. “He walked in last year and probably caught some people off-guard. ... He probably walked into this season like most rookies thinking it’s going to be that much easier and he’ll be that much better and he’ll get that many more points. What you forget is your opponent is a little more aware of you and puts a little more attention on you.

“It was a learning year for him. When he reflects on it this summer, I think he’s going to be a better prepared athlete next year.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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