Hurricanes coach Muller looking for team that's solid to the core

calexander@newsobserver.comOctober 3, 2013 

  • INSIDE

    Luke DeCock: Justin Faulk’s meteoric rise up the Canes depth chart hasn’t gained much attention around the NHL, but that may change quickly this season. 2CC

    Veteran additions to the team: Two forwards, Radek Dvorak and Nathan Gerbe, find their way onto the roster. 3CC

    Storylines in the NHL: The winter Olympic games, held in Sochi, Russia, in February, will cast a long shadow over the season. 4CC

    • 2013-14 Schedule 2CC

    • 2012-13 Statistics 2CC

    • 2013-14 Roster 3CC

There’s a sense of newness about the Carolina Hurricanes with the hockey season about to begin.

The Hurricanes open play in a new NHL division, the Metropolitan. They’re in a restructured Eastern Conference that now includes the Detroit Red Wings, whom they host Friday night in the season-opener at PNC Arena.

Several new faces are on the roster – rookie center Elias Lindholm, winger Nathan Gerbe, defensemen Andrej Sekera and Ron Hainsey, and goalie Anton Khudobin.

The Hurricanes also will have a different appearance. Their newly styled uniforms have a neat, retro look.

But what hasn’t changed are the team’s mainstays, what Canes coach Kirk Muller likes to call the “core group.”

Eric Staal and Cam Ward are the only holdovers from Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup champions. Jordan Staal also has a Cup ring, but he won his with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk are talented young players perhaps on the brink of NHL stardom. Alexander Semin is an explosive forward, capable of making offensive plays that have fans and players alike smiling and shaking their heads. He’s also deceptively good in the defensive zone.

There’s still a lot of grit left in defenseman Tim Gleason and forward Tuomo Ruutu, although both were injured much of preseason.

A lot of money has been invested in those players – or in Faulk’s case, soon will be. Long-term commitments were made. The Hurricanes, absent from the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2009, need a return on the investment and a return to the playoffs.

“There’s always responsibility,” Jordan Staal said. “When you play in the NHL there’s responsibility and accountability. It doesn’t matter how much you make. Everyone holds himself accountable to contribute every night, whether it’s myself, Eric, ‘Wardo.’ Go through the lineup and there’s the same accountability. That’s what good teams do.”

Leadership

For Muller, a good core group is essential, and it’s about more than producing game-winning goals or making dramatic saves. It’s having a group of players he can talk to, to better gauge the heartbeat, the mood and mindset of the team.

“I think what we’d like to do this year is have a real core leadership team,” Muller said. “I think it’s important we meet every 10 games and really have a relationship of it being a two-way street with your leaders.

“It’s important that the core group know you’re open-minded to talk about anything that can make us better, whether it’s travel or practices or games, anything. I think they’re the glue for the team. There’s a strength there. The players have to have a voice.”

Before a recent practice at PNC Arena, Muller and Eric Staal took the ice together. The coach and captain slowly skated about the rink, chatting, and Staal later laughed when he said it wasn’t about the nice weather.

“Most of the time it’s about where I’m at personally or what I feel like could help us,” Staal said. “Obviously I’m a guy who has been around a long time. I think it’s good for him to talk to me and good for me to talk to him, just about the feel in the room and where we’re headed and what maybe some of the guys in the room think we can work on and get stronger at.

“Those are good conversations because he’s trying to help us get better and I want to help us get better. It’s important for everyone to work together.”

Muller played on a Stanley Cup championship team in Montreal in 1993, and said he was in the Canadiens’ core group with Patrick Roy, Mike Keane, Guy Carbonneau and Brian Bellows. He said they often met with Habs coach Jacques Demers and that Demers would “confront us on everything.”

“But any issues we had, they were addressed and we stayed on course,” he said.

“Staying the course” is a phrase Muller likes to use. And it could be heard again early in the season, with the Canes facing a challenging October schedule.

A tough new division

Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals – those are the first four opponents. The Canes also play the two most recent Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, in October.

To reach the playoffs, the Hurricanes must find a way to compete in a division with the Pens, Flyers, Caps, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets. It may not take career years from all of their big guns, but it likely will take very good years.

“We need those guys to be solid, consistent,” Muller said. “They need to be on-board and believing in what we’re all about.”

Muller expects his top line of Eric Staal, Semin and Jiri Tlusty to again be one of the league’s best. He expects Jordan Staal, who turned 25 last month, to be one of the league’s most effective two-way forwards – a sentiment shared by Jordan’s big brother.

“He looks very confident, looks very strong,” Eric Staal said. “Regardless of offensively of what he does, he’s the kind of player you win games with, just the way he plays the game and how he demands better out of the people he plays with. They have to play strong on both sides of the puck.”

That’s what Muller wants from Skinner. He’s only 21 and is capable of scoring 30 or more goals, but Skinner hasn’t yet shown Muller enough defensive intensity.

“If he can make that commitment, I think his offense just comes natural. He’s a goal-scorer,” Muller said. “I think it’s a big year for him.”

It also could be big one for Ward. The goaltender would like to make the Canadian Olympic team. He’d like to get back in the playoffs again.

Faulk is another potential Olympian for Team USA and will be a restricted free agent after the season. He could be the next to get a long-term contract extension, and he served as an alternate captain during some preseason games with Gleason injured.

Faulk, 21, didn’t know if he should be considered a part of the “core group,” noting, “I’m still pretty young.” But Muller believes he should be one of the leaders.

“We have a core group that should stay together for a long period of time,” general manager Jim Rutherford said. “It’s important they stay healthy and play the way they’re capable of playing, and it’s important for us as a management team to continue to build around them. With this core group we can be a very good team.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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