After six days off for the NHL All-Star break, the Carolina Hurricanes went back to work Monday.
Some players had new tans as they took the ice for practice. All seemed refreshed, ready for the rest of the season.
Ahead of them: 36 games and a lot of uncertainty.
The Canes, who will face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday at PNC Arena, are 20 points out of a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. For the sixth straight season, Carolina (16-25-5) stands to be an outsider when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. Personnel changes soon could be on the way.
“We’re not going to win 32 of the last 36 or whatever, and so be it,” defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “But what we have to continue to worry about is what we can control, and that’s playing like we’ve been playing for a couple of weeks now and building up some wins.”
The Canes are 6-2-1 in January, winning their final two games on the road before the break. Carolina topped the Ottawa Senators 3-2, then it went into Toronto and beat the Maple Leafs 4-1 for its first back-to-back road wins this season.
“We want to show we’re a better team than our record shows,” center Jay McClement said. “We started to do that and unfortunately the break seemed to come when we were hitting our stride, so we’d like to pick up where we left off.
“For us, it’s just show up every night and not worry about anything else and playing the way we’re expected to play and the way this organization expected us to play right from the start.”
The Canes will go into the final 36 games with a healthy roster. It’s the team Bill Peters expected to have in his first season as an NHL head coach.
Peters said as training camp began in September, he believed the Hurricanes were a playoff-caliber team.
But center Jordan Staal suffered a broken leg during the second exhibition. Jeff Skinner had a concussion in another exhibition, Eric Staal was injured early in the regular season and Alexander Semin has missed games because of injuries and conditioning issues.
Jordan Staal returned Dec. 29 after missing the first 35 games. It’s now the group Peters had hoped to have the first 46 games.
“I like our group,” Peters said. “I know our group a lot better than I did in July. I like our group moving forward and like the pieces we have in place. There’s a lot of things to build upon, and that’s what we’ll do. I don’t think we’re far away.”
Some moves likely will be made before the March 2 trade deadline. General manager Ron Francis has said some players who would become unrestricted free agents in July could be dealt to attain assets – whether players or draft picks.
Need a veteran defenseman who can move the puck and help on the power play? The Canes’ Andrej Sekera could be available.
Need a veteran center who can win faceoffs and kill penalties? McClement might be the one.
So it goes. Forwards Jiri Tlusty and Patrick Dwyer and defensemen Tim Gleason and Brett Bellemore also are pending UFAs.
“That’s just the way the business works,” McClement said. “There’s going to be a lot of speculation, especially with UFAs.”
Sekera said Monday he hoped to stay with Carolina and sign a new contract. Francis has had discussions with Sekera’s agent – as well as Tlusty’s – and that it’s a matter of finding the “right price and right term” for the two players.
Sekera’s contract, which the Canes picked up in the June 2013 trade with Buffalo, paid him $1.75 million in each of the past two seasons. The former Slovakia Olympian might be able to fetch considerably more on the free-agent market but said Monday he’s in no hurry to leave.
“I really like it here,” Sekera said. “Hopefully we’ll get something done.”
Until then, Sekera will play. On Monday, he sat taping the handles of his sticks, his mind on the final 36 games.
“We want to play our best hockey and see where it will take us,” he said. “Just go out, play hard, show character and make sure we feel good about ourselves.”