Cam Ward was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes, won a Stanley Cup in 2006 and was a big part of the Canes reaching the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals in 2009.
But the veteran goalie now finds himself something of a sole survivor. Seven years later, no other player on the Canes’ roster was on the 2009 team, the last to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Rod Brind’Amour, the captain in ’09, is a Canes assistant coach. Ray Whitney retired and is scouting for the Canes. One by one, they’ve left. Eric Staal, who succeeded Brind’Amour as Canes captain, is playing for another team, the Minnesota Wild.
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But the Canes’ playoff drought, Ward believes, is about to end. He thinks back to the days of sunny tailgates and exciting playoff finishes, when the fans in the arena were electric, and Raleigh was alive.
“The players on this team have not seen the city buzzing the way it is in the playoffs,” Ward said. “I would love nothing more than to see that again.
“I believe this is a year we will be able to see that again. We definitely have that feeling in the locker room, that we’re real confident in the group we have. Obviously, we have to take care of business.”
To do that, there are those in the Canes room that must be the leaders. Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk all could wear letters on their jerseys this season as captain or alternate captains, and each has the ability to make a difference – Staal with his strength, Skinner his scoring and Faulk his savvy on defense.
“There’s no question what we want to accomplish this season, and it’s the playoffs,” Staal said. “It’s been on our minds for a few years now. For myself, there’s no question, I’m very confident with the group we have. It gives me some chills. I’m excited.”
Time to deliver
The seven years without playoff hockey have had a draining effect. Some fans lost interest or were badly disappointed. Some stopped coming to games.
Having worked so long to build the Hurricanes brand in the community, the organization found itself dealing with questions about ownership and rumors about a possible franchise relocation while it strove to win back ticket holders and corporate sponsors with the promise of a young, exciting team on the cusp of being a playoff contender in their third season under Canes coach Bill Peters.
The Hurricanes have preached patience to their fans these past seven years, promising a better tomorrow. Most would agree it’s time to deliver.
“To me, this is a pretty critical year for us because coming into the last couple of summers nobody felt this optimistic about the team,” Hurricanes president Don Waddell said. “Now we have to go out and do it.”
The Hurricanes were 35-31-16 last season, finishing with 86 points. The Detroit Red Wings, third in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division, qualifed for the playoffs with 93 points but the Canes, in the Metropolitan Division, were 10 points out of wild-card position.
Can they do it this season, take that next step?
“That’s what we’re hoping,” general manager Ron Francis said. “We certainly feel with where we were two years ago to where we are now, we’re dramatically better as a team. We believe we have a lot of good pieces in our lineup.
“We do have young guys, and it’s still a little bit where you hope they’ve taken the next step, hope they’re ready to take on more of a role. We think we have those kinds of guys in our locker room, and we hope that’s the case. But with young guys they haven’t been through certain situations, there are times in the season there’s some adversity they haven’t faced before and have to learn to deal with that. So it is a bit of process.”
It’s been been a long time since we’ve had a buzz about a player like this. That’s a positive.
Canes general manager Ron Francis on Sebastian Aho
Francis has not gone out and made big money free-agent signings to help speed up the process. He has taken more of a practical, cost-effective approach, bringing in such veterans this year as forwards Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg, and making a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks that brought Finnish forward Teuvo Teravainen, a former Blackhawks first-round pick, to the Canes.
Forward Sebastian Aho, a second-round draft choice of the Canes in 2015, and Teravainen competed for Finland in the recent World Cup in Toronto. Aho, 19, has been an emerging star in Finland, both in the elite Finnish league and in international competition, but has not played an NHL game. Still, he has a lot of Canes fans enthused by his skill, his potential.
“It’s been been a long time since we’ve had a buzz about a player like this. That’s a positive,” Francis said.
Faster start needed
The Canes have marketed the two Finns, as they should. They’ve also marketed the three defensemen, all U.S. born, who made such an impact last season as rookies – Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. That was easy to do.
But there is much that needs to go right for the Canes to get back into the playoffs. Everyone understands that.
Carolina began last season with an 8-13-4 record in the first 25 games. The year before, it was an 8-14-3 beginning.
“We can’t do this thing where we aren’t good in October, November and part of December, then we become a good team,” said Faulk, an NHL All-Star defenseman the past two seasons. “It’s so hard to come back from.”
Faulk noted the Pittsburgh Penguins had a stumbling start last season and ended up lifting the Stanley Cup.
“But it’s rare to see a team that far down turn it on like that,” Faulk said. “If we can get off to a good start, there’s no worries that we can’t make the playoffs. I think we should able to. Consistency is the key. The best players bring it every night.”
The Canes need more scoring, finishing 27th in the league last season. They need a better power play.
“We’ve got a deeper team, a more skilled team,” Peters said. “We know what our challenges are and we have to address them.”
The Canes lost 16 games in overtimes or shootouts. That issue has to be addressed.
“If seven of those go your way, you’re a playoff team,” defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “It’s a thin line. That’s how close it is.”
Hainsey has played 835 games in the NHL and never been in the playoffs. But that, he said, could end if the Canes can follow up their strong finish after last year’s poor start.
“If we can play the way we played basically from December, when we really hit our stride, the playoffs will be the first step for us,” Hainsey said. “From that stretch on, we played with everybody, and we beat everybody. We might be talking about how far we’re going in the playoffs if we play that way this season.”