RALEIGH — Cam Ward is a pretty thankful guy.
Just think, the Carolina Hurricanes goalie no longer has to face Alexander Semin and his sneaky quick, nasty shot in games. He won’t have Jordan Staal towering in front of him, strong and nearly immovable, crashing and crowding the crease.
Semin now plays for the Canes, having signed a one-year, $7 million contract. Staal will be a teammate, quite possibly, for the rest of Ward’s career after coming to Carolina in the trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins and signing a 10-year contract extension.
Ward hated to see center Brandon Sutter traded to the Pens as part of the deal. But the offseason additions, as Ward sees it, could be enough to not only get the Hurricanes back in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009 but – potentially – be a dark-horse championship contender.
"Any time you miss the playoffs you’re anxious to get the season going and try to get off to a fresh start," Ward said Wednesday. "Especially with the changes we made this summer, the commitment the organization made to the players, it’s exciting."
In seven years as a sniper for the Washington Capitals, Semin often tormented Ward and the Canes. Of Semin’s 197 regular-season goals, 27 came against Carolina in 41 career games.
And let’s not forget that Semin will continue to test Ward in net.
"At least now when Semin scores they don’t count – in practice," Ward said, smiling.
"Obviously, he’s a very threatening player. He’s certainly going to bring some offensive punch to our hockey team, and I’m looking forward for him to get here and see him jell with our players."
Ward noted that Semin’s long stick and quick release made him a handful for any goalie. The Russian winger has scored 40 goals in a season and may be capable of doing it again.
"He’s very shifty and he’s bigger than people think, too," Ward said. "He can be physical, too, and play a two-way game."
Few players in the NHL are better at both ends of the ice than Jordan Staal, who has near-linebacker size at 6-4 and 220 pounds and can move. He’s a potential Selke Award winner as the league’s best defensive forward, and he will have an expanded offensive role with the Canes after being the third center – albeit behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – for the Pens.
"We lost a great player in Sutter but we gained a lot with Jordan Staal," Ward said. "He makes our team even more than a threat, adding him to the lineup."
Canes coach Kirk Muller has talked of putting Eric Staal and Jordan Staal together on the same line, likely with Jordan Staal at center. Add in Semin and it could be a "Triple-S" line.
All that sounds good to Eric Staal.
"We’re excited to add another skilled guy to our top six (forwards)," Staal said of the Semin signing. "The lines will get moved around, guys in and out, but regardless, we can put some pretty good players in the top six and that’s exciting for our organization.
"Adding Semin and adding Jordan, that’s two players well-known around the league who have established themselves as elite players."
The Hurricanes on Wednesday announced that forward Patrick Dwyer had been signed to a two-year contract extension that will pay him $900,000 in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Still unsigned is center Jeremy Welsh, who played one game with the Canes last season – the finale against Florida – after ending a standout NCAA career at Union College.
Eric Staal and Ward won a Stanley Cup with the Canes in 2006. They helped the Canes reach the Eastern Conference finals in 2009 – Carolina’s last playoff appearance. They sense this can be a special season, even if there is so much uncertainty surrounding the NHL’s collective bargaining negotiations and a looming lockout of the players.
"Now it’s about performing and making sure everyone is at their best, to get back there," Eric Staal said of the playoffs. "That’s what it’s all about."