Canes are able

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:54 AM ET

Jim Rutherford, in Florida for a road game with the Panthers, took time out to see if the recent hurricanes caused any damage to a house he's building there.

"It's being built, so if it wasn't OK I'm not responsible for it,'' he said. "But from what they've told me, everything is all right.''

Why shouldn't it be? The only hurricane damage Rutherford's seen this year is the swath his own team is cutting through the NHL. The best-kept secret in the NHL, Carolina is off to its best start in 20 years, fighting for first overall with nine straight wins and an Art Ross contender in Eric Staal.

"Going into the season we felt comfortable that we had a good team that could compete, but to project streaks and having a record like this at this point, that would be a little bit of a stretch,'' admitted the Canes GM, who practically rebuilt his team from scratch over the last 18 months.

"We went from going to the Finals in 2002 to having a couple of really off years (missing the playoffs), so we decided on an overhaul - it's about a 55% new team compared to when we last played.''

After missing the playoffs by 15 points in 2003-04, and losing leading scorer Jeff O'Neill to Toronto, the Canes weren't on anybody's radar in the summer. But Rutherford quietly added a handful of key players who've helped turn that 2002 flash in the pan into a legitimate front-runner.

Newcomers Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen up front and Frantisek Kaberle and power-play specialist Oleg Tverdovsky on the point are all in the top eight in team scoring. Goalies Martin Gerber and Sherwood Park rookie Cam Ward, both new, have Carolina in the top 10 in goals against.

Behind the bench, Rutherford landed another gem in U.S. Olympic coach Peter Laviolette, fired by the Isles despite leading them to back-to-back playoff berths after an eight-year drought. And Staal has been out of this world, on pace for over 150 points.

"If there's any positive to the lockout, it helped some of those younger guys to play against guys their own age in the American league,'' he said.

"I think it really helped his confidence and his skill level. The same as it did with (Jarret) Stoll and (Raffi) Torres over there in Edmonton.''

Raleigh isn't a very good market, and critics said they'd be one of the first teams to vanish after the lockout, but the Hurricanes' success is slowly winning fans over.

They had their best October attendance since they moved to Raleigh eight years ago (14,626). It's not great, but it's progress.

"What we have now we deserve, but at the same time we're early in the season,'' said Rutherford.

"The real test is when you get into the spring. We have a long way to go, but we feel comfortable with our team. We don't see this as being a fluke.''

Like the 2002 Cup run. Even when they were celebrating their Eastern Conference championship, Rutherford knew they weren't the real thing.

"It was a wonderful ride, but we were on the bubble of even making the playoffs. I wasn't fooled into thinking we had the core of a team that could do this for a long time.''

Now he's certain that they do.

"The team we have now is better than the team that went to the Final. And also younger to the point that it will have a chance to maintain being good as we move forward, it shouldn't have to be a

roller-coaster ride.''

- - -

TEE'S TOP FIVE

Top five reasons the NHL shouldn't be so quick to beat its chest over record October attendance figures:

1. Buffalo drew 13,106 to see Eric Staal and the Hurricanes.

2. In Chicago, 12,000 came to see Gretzky and the Coyotes.

3. The St. Louis Blues drew 13,211 for rival Detroit.

4. The New York Islanders are averaging 12,928 per game.

5. Washington, even with Ovechkin, is averaging 12,000

- - -

TEE'S TEAM OF THE WEEK

C - JASON SPEZZA (SENATORS): Ho-hum, nine points in four games as Ottawa continues to light it up.

LW - SIMON GAGNE (FLYERS): Plus 12 with seven points in Philly's four game win streak.

RW - JEFF O'NEILL (MAPLE LEAFS): A three point night and a pair of two point nights in three games.

LD - JONI PITKANEN (FLYERS): Plus 10 with seven points in Philly's four game win streak.

RD - SERGEI ZUBOV (STARS): Oiler killer is finding his form, with four points and a plus four rating in four games.

G - MIKKA KIPRUSOFF (FLAMES): Goes 4-0 with a 1.18 GAA and two shutouts in his last four starts to spark Calgary's revival.

- - -

TEE'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"They gave me five games. I've done my time.''

- Ottawa's Martin Havlat, on why he has no plans to apologize to Boston's Hal Gill for kicking him in the groin.


Videos

Photos