RALEIGH — Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller hasn’t forgotten the way last season ended, or the words he used in addressing his team after the final game.
The Canes were beaten 4-1 by the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Fla. The Panthers, the Southeast Division champions, were excited, on their way to the playoffs. The Hurricanes were done, facing another uncertain, uneasy offseason.
“We took a moment and we talked after that game,” Muller said Thursday. “We said, ‘Listen, we’re not practicing tomorrow because we missed the playoffs. Just think of the feeling, of how you feel right now. It’s not a good feeling.’
“Despite the fact we felt we had a good second half (to the season) and a lot of good things, when you don’t wake up and get into the playoff race, it’s not a good feeling. We said, ‘Next year, let’s start off the right way and let’s fight to get into those playoffs.’ ”
Muller, like every other NHL coach, was hoping for an October start to the season. Hired to replace the fired Paul Maurice in late November 2011, he longed for a full training camp, a normal 82-game season.
Little did Muller know it would take nine months to play another NHL game – and, in a touch of irony, that the new season would begin in the same building against the Panthers.
Much has changed since that April night – for the Canes, for the NHL. A bitter labor fight led to a lockout and ended with a 48-game regular season, with a Jan. 19 start.
As for the Canes, eight of the players in the lineup against Florida last season will not be with the team Saturday. One is forward Tuomo Ruutu, out following hip surgery. Gone are forwards Brandon Sutter, Jeremy Welsh, Anthony Stewart, Andreas Nodl and Derek Joslin; defenseman Bryan Allen and goalie Brian Boucher, the starter that night.
It’s a Canes team with a different sheen. It has Alexander Semin as a top-line winger. It has Jordan Staal centering a line. It’s team that should have better balance among the top three lines. It has defenseman Joe Corvo back and has added a veteran backup goalie in Dan Ellis.
“Obviously we’re pretty optimistic,” center Jussi Jokinen said. “We’ve got some skill and size up front, and some grit, too. Getting (Corvo) back for the defense is huge.”
Jokinen noted defenseman Joni Pitkanen played just 30 games last season because of a concussion and then knee surgery, saying, “Getting him back and healthy is huge for us, too.”
Muller said Thursday some decisions on lines and defensive pairs still needed to be made. Zach Boychuk continued to work on the top line with Eric Staal and Semin, and Zac Dalpe on Jordan Staal’s line with Jeff Skinner.
Boychuk and Dalpe started the season with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL and could be thrust into high-pressure roles. So could defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, another Charlotte call-up who again was paired with Jay Harrison on Thursday and could be in the lineup Saturday.
“What you see today is not necessarily going to be what you see start on Saturday night,” Muller said of Boychuk and Dalpe. “I did want to see a few days of them playing with certain players, if there’s chemistry. ... It’s a matter of who wants it.”
The Canes on Thursday placed forward Tim Wallace on waivers with the purpose of reassigning him to Charlotte. Nodl and Brett Sutter, put on waivers Wednesday, were not claimed and were sent Thursday to the Checkers.
Carolina now has a 23-man roster, the NHL limit, and general manager Jim Rutherford said Thursday the plan was to take 23 players to Florida.
“This team is better than the one we ended last season with,” Rutherford said. “We have a better chance to win games with the changes we made.”
Skinner said he’s ready to drop the puck.
“I think we’ve got a mixture of everything,” he said. “We’ve got some size, got some skill, and we’ve definitely got some speed. I think we’re ready. Tighten up a couple of things (Friday) and we’ll be ready to go.”
Note: The Canes are selling standing-room tickets for Tuesday’s home opener against Tampa Bay. For ticket information, go to carolinahurricanes.com.