Eyes of a Hurricane

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:48 AM ET

Preparing to board a plane to take him home to Tobacco Row, Jim Rutherford had a big smile on his face.

Before he left, though, the Carolina Hurricanes GM may as well been named an honorary Calgarian.

After all, the reason for Rutherford's grin yesterday is the same as it was for many others who follow hockey in the Stampede City -- Hitmen forward Andrew Ladd.

In town to get a first-hand look at how his team's 2004 first-round draft choice is handling the WHL playoffs, Rutherford left Calgary ecstatic.

"I'm really pleased with what I saw," Rutherford said. "Certainly, anyone can say that when somebody is named first star in both games but what I like is that all the things our scouts talked about, like his determination every shift, came through."

The scoresheets alone told a great tale for Ladd, whom the Hurricanes chose fourth overall in the 2004 draft at their home rink.

Ladd scored three times in two games, helping the Hitmen win twice and open up a 3-1 series lead over Lethbridge in the opening round of the WHL post-season. Calgary has a chance to seal the deal tonight in Lethbridge (7 p.m. Enmax Centre).

The four times he's lit the lamp this young post-season puts him in a tie atop the league lead.

Included in that total is the double-overtime game winner on Wednesday night, when he banged a rebound past Lethbridge goaltender Aaron Sorochan, who had stopped Ryan Getzlaf's initial offering but couldn't contain both star snipers.

"The only thing going through my mind was going to the net and getting that rebound," Ladd said after the game.

"It felt great."

But that's only part of the tale Rutherford was happy to see from his perch in the Saddledome.

The bruising 6-ft. 2-in., 200-lb., winger played with a noticeable moxie, banging Lethbridge skaters at every turn -- especially standout defenceman Brent Seabrook.

Ladd played through agony -- missing only one shift despite a horrific crash into the boards that opened up a nasty gash between his eyes and required an ice pack to the back of his neck to dull the pain.

In short, he was a presence with and without the biscuit.

Everything Carolina was looking for him to be.

"It's hard to find players that compete with him, compete like he does with that edge," Rutherford said. "So many things about his game are hard to find in one player."

In fact, Rutherford walked away having seen something that came as a bit of a surprise.

"He passes the puck better than I thought," Rutherford said. "He sees the ice really well. He plays his position well and battles but I was very, very impressed with how he moves the puck."

Rutherford watched Ladd skate in a couple of games during Canada's run to the gold at the world juniors but had chosen not to see him again until the stakes were high again.

Rutherford made no bones about the fact Ladd isn't just a big part of Carolina's long-term plans but maybe even their short-term ones, too. Of course, he has yet to be signed and the NHL labour dispute is still unresolved.

But Carolina likes what it sees and isn't worried a bit about a subpar regular season, in which Ladd collected just 19 goals, compared to 30 a year ago.

"Provided we get a new CBA done, his future with our club could be very soon," Rutherford said. "He's improving at a really good pace to have a chance to play with our team the next time we play."

Ladd could join a slew of young up-and-comers such as Erik Cole, Eric Staal, Josef Vasicek and Radim Vrbata.

"We are really getting to the point of having not only a lot of good, young players but a lot of good, young, character players," Rutherford enthused, "and Andrew fits into that category."

For proof of that, look at the way Ladd was none too excited about his regular-season performance.

"Now is the time to step up and show the young guys the way to go," Ladd said. "It was a bit disappointing how many points I got this year but I improved in other parts of my game."


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