The condensed NHL season will be an increasingly physical grind, with so many games squeezed into such a tight time frame.
A key question for the Carolina Hurricanes may be: are they physically built to handle it?
More so, how much will they miss Tuomo Ruutu? One of the Canes’ most physical forwards, he’s out indefinitely after undergoing preseason hip surgery.
The Canes face the New York Islanders on Monday in the fifth of six straight road games, and are 2-1-1 on what will be their longest away stretch of the shortened season. Both losses were to the Philadelphia Flyers – the first by a 5-3 margin, then a 4-3 overtime loss Saturday at Wells Fargo Center.
The Hurricanes, 5-4-1 overall, have been outhit 108-77 on the road trip. In the two games against Philadelphia, the Flyers led in hits 57-32.
In Saturday’s game, the Flyers’ physical edge was apparent. Defenseman Luke Schenn, listed at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, had eight hits for Philadelphia, once dislodging Carolina captain Eric Staal from the puck with a hit so forceful it knocked the 6-4, 205-pound Staal to the ice – a rarity.
“Philly’s a good team with size,” Canes coach Kirk Muller said Saturday. “That’s the strength of their hockey club.”
The Hurricanes, through 10 games, are 27th in the NHL in hits with 199. Center Jordan Staal, with 24 hits, is tied for 56th in the NHL and leads the Canes.
But Muller likes to say hockey “toughness” is more than the hit total.
“It’s coming up with the puck,” he said. “Going into the corner, coming out with the puck. Being relentless (on) the forecheck.
“You don’t hit to hurt. You hit for a purpose. It’s all about getting the puck.”
Muller said what he wants most from his players, game to game, is a team that’s “tough to play against.”
“It’s getting in front of shots,” he said. “Winning your battles. Tough in front of the net. Boxing out. All those areas.”
The Hurricanes have excelled in some of those areas. Others remain works in progress.
Losing Ruutu was an unexpected setback. His 151 hits last season topped the Canes. He was a bruiser on the forecheck, often causing havoc in the offensive zone, forcing opponents to cough up pucks.
Ruutu’s absence led to Muller experimenting with his top two lines in the first couple of games, both losses. Muller has settled on Pat Dwyer as his right winger on Jordan Staal’s line with Jeff Skinner. Dwyer is a quick and aggressive player but also undersized at 5-11, 175 pounds.
The Canes also may feel the effects of losing veteran defenseman Bryan Allen, a hulking figure at 6-5 and 230 pounds, to free agency after last season. Allen, who mashed many an opposing player along the boards and blocked a lot of shots, signed with the Anaheim Ducks in July.
Tim Gleason, at 217 pounds, now is the Canes’ heaviest defenseman. Justin Faulk is a solid 6-foot, 215-pounder, and Jay Harrison (6-4, 211) is a rugged type, but there is no Allen.
The Canes have been dressing forwards Kevin Westgarth (6-4, 234) and Tim Wallace (6-1, 207) in recent games, but the two have gotten little ice time as fourth-liners. Wallace received a five-minute major for boarding and a game misconduct Saturday for a first-period hit.
Ruutu said there was no target date for a return, noting he would “take it day by day and see how it goes.”
Barring trades, that probably will be the Canes’ mantra this season, given the physical grind.