Canes making a Raleigh

, Last Updated: 6:39 PM ET

Three years ago when an upstart Carolina Hurricanes squad emerged from nowhere to make it to the Stanley Cup finals, the franchise was hailed as a model for a more cost-efficient NHL.

If the Canes could do it without a superstar in their lineup, then so could others.

Carolina's blueprint was more or less adopted and adapted by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Calgary Flames in their Cinderella-like runs to the finals in the next two proceeding years. Ultimately those underdogs were beaten by the star-laden lineups of the Red Wings, Devils and Lightning, but the greater point was they made it.

However the Canes' rapid demise after their Cup berth, exposed their success as a fluke and seemed to reinforce the notion that small-market teams cannot compete every year. Ultimately they will lose what few stars they have to richer teams and then fall back into NHL obscurity.

Gary Bettman needed no better example than the rise and fall of the Hurricanes, to convince him a salary cap was the only way to truly establish parity and profitability across the NHL spectrum. Surely the commish cringed to see all those new Carolinian hockey fans, who flocked from NASCAR speedways to celebrate the Canes' playoff success, disappear right back into the woodwork.

After all Bettman brought the Canes to Raleigh. He even went so far as to redistribute power among NHL board members, to give the hammer to bottom-line owners like Carolina's Peter Karmanos, who naturally favoured a salary cap as the only way to make it in a market where hockey is what you watch after bowling is over.

Now with a cap won, Bettman desperately needs hockey to Raleigh in Carolina. So the commish must like what he sees so far.

Apart from their opener against the champion Lightning, the Canes have been competitive and have done so with a payroll of less than $28 million US. That figure is important since it's believed to be the NHL poverty line that determines which teams will qualify for revenue-sharing proceeds.

Under the line and you get a handout that, in the Hurricanes case, will likely help turn a profit. Over and you're on your own.

While he has denied it, Karmanos's strategy was to keep his payroll below the poverty line and hope the Canes' impressive stable of draft picks begins to bear fruit.

It's curious then why he didn't opt to buy out 35-year-old captain Rod Brind'Amour's $3.8 million contract, nor Bret Hedican's $2.4 million salary, but they may just be the only names left to put on the back of a Canes' jersey. After losing Ron Francis, Jeff O'Neill, Sean Hill, Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes since the last time hockey was played at the RBC Center, fans likely have little connection to this year's team.

Karmanos's fiscally-conservative approach has handicapped general manager Jim Rutherford, who was forced to watch as other teams gobbled up the prime free agents this summer. He made a solid bid to land Paul Kariya, offering the offensive wizard a four-year $16 million deal, but watched him sign with Nashville.

Before training camp began Karmanos slammed other owners for overspending.

"Names don't score goals," he told the Raleigh News & Observer. "Just because somebody gets paid a lot of money, that doesn't make them really great. Has everybody lost their hockey mind? Some of the GMs have a short attention span.

"We just were smarter about doing it than some of the other teams. Some of the other general managers don't realize they don't get mulligans anymore. Philadelphia and Detroit and Toronto, before if they made a $10 million mistake, they'd go out and get another player. Those days are gone. We're going to see in the long run how it works out."

Rutherford was able to recover to snag Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney with below-market offers. He then overpaid - three years, $7.5 million - to lure 29-year-old defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky back from Russia, but by that time all the power-play specialists were gone.

Karmanos defended the Tverdovsky signing, telling the News & Observer:

"In Aucoin's case, this is a dangerous thing to say, but who ... is he? Is he one of the top defenceman in the league? I don't remember that. Given a choice between Tverdovsky and Aucoin, I'll take Tverdovsky every day, especially with the new rules. He's a great passer, and he's going to be great on the power play."

Hmmm and you wonder why owners don't make good general managers.

The Canes also signed defencemen Frantisek Kaberle and Glen Wesley and forward Matt Cullen in the summer of 2004. In addition to his signings, Rutherford made a couple shrewd deals to land young scorers Justin Williams and Radim Vrbata for Danny Markov and Bates Battaglia.

Unlike the Leafs, nearly a third of the Canes' 25-man roster is comprised of draft picks. Niklas Nordgren, Josek Vasicek, Erik Cole, Niclas Wallin, Kevin Nastiuk, Mike Zigomanis, Cam Ward, Danny Richmond and Eric Staal are all currently playing. After his four-point effort last night, Staal is tied with Thrashers Marc Savard for the scoring lead with eight points.

Ward has been a pleasant surprise filling in for injured goaltender Martin Gerber, posting a 2-1, with a 2.36 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. He was especially sharp in a 3-2 victory against the Penguins, stopping Mario Lemieux, Ziggy Palffy and rookie phenom Sidney Crosby in the overtime shootout.

The Canes failed to sign 2005 third-overall pick Jack Johnson, but the big defenceman is a lock to star at the NHL level and a year of seasoning at the University of Michigan can't hurt. Look for him to crack the club's blueline next season.

Realizing he was short on talent, head coach Peter Laviolette spent the preseason teaching the team to play an aggressive, attacking style that focuses on getting the puck and hanging onto it.

Prior to last night's 7-2 rout of the Capitals, the Canes had scored just seven times in three games, mostly because they started the season 0-for-15 on the power play. However they have yielded just 12 goals, including two by their own defencemen (Tverdovsky and Wallin) and have outshot their opponent in three of their four games. They also had a total of 40 shots blocked by the Lightning and Pens defence in their first two games and missed the net 18 times.

But perhaps the happiest site for Karmanos and Bettman, was the over-capacity crowd of 18,787 that attended the Canes' home opener against the Penguins. The figure was likely inflated by the tantalizing prospect of watching Lemieux, Crosby and the high-flying Pens attack, as their game against Washington attracted under 11,000. But you can't knock a sellout.

It was the first oversold crowd since the Canes magical playoff run and just the seventh since they moved to the RBC Center in 1999.

All in all a very promising start for the Canes in the new salary-cap era.

ICE SHAVINGS: Most NHL prognosticators had the Pittsburgh Penguins making the playoffs, but so far they have looked anything like a top 16 team. They have yet to win in four games, have scored just 11 times and yielded 18. They have not outshot any opponent and were outshot 82-57 in their last two games against Boston and Buffalo - both overtime losses. The same lineup that boasts 18-year-old Sidney Crosby, has 12 thirty-something players: Mario Lemieux (40), Lyle Odelein (37), John LeClair (37), Mark Recchi (37), Steve Poapst (36), Ziggy Palffy (33), Ryan Vandenbussche (32), Sergei Gonchar (31), Lasse Pirjeta (31), Andre Roy (30), Jocelyn Thibault (30) and Dick Tarnstrom (30). Maybe they're just too old to keep up in the new faster-paced NHL?... It doesn't get any easier for the Pens, as they face Peter Forsberg and the Flyers on Friday in Philly. Former Flyers LeClair and Recchi will also have to contend with Derian Hatcher, as the physical defenceman makes his season debut following a three-game suspension. Hatcher's presence should also boost the Flyers' penalty kill, which will be tested against a strong Penguins power play. The Flyers have allowed five shorthanded goals and rank 28th in the league in penalty killing. "We've had to use people killing penalties who normally are on the power play, so we've not been able to win the one-on-ones in the areas we have to," Flyers' head coach Ken Hitchcock told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "But the reality is he hasn't played very much and it's going to take some time. On some shifts, he's going to be looking like a guy that's taking tickets, because there's a tempo out there and he's just getting into it." Hatcher could also help the Flyers' power play, which has gone 1 for 19 (second worst) so far... Patrick Sharp's face shield may have saved him from a serious eye injury when he was cut on the left cheek by the skate of Toronto's Ken Klee. "There was a cut on the shield near my eye, so I think it saved me," Sharp told the Inquirer, after taking 12 stitches to close the gash and returned to play... Defenceman Dennis Seidenberg, who missed the fist week with a concussion, has been cleared to return to practice... New Jersey coach Larry Robinson plans to rest goaltender Martin Brodeur more than in previous seasons. Brodeur is coming off the 2003-04 campaign when he led all netminders with a career-high 4,555 minutes played. Robinson didn't say how many games Brodeur would play, but plans to use backup Scott Clemmensen more often in the tail end of back-to-back games. "We'll see how Marty is. If he's looking tired, then you have to give him a rest," Robinson told the New York Daily News. "Marty's been out of the net more than I've seen him (in it), all the goalies have. They react a little bit earlier now, because they know they have to get (the puck) out in front of the goal line." Brodeur told the Daily News the games are more physically demanding on goalies. "We're a lot more exposed right now than we've ever been," Brodeur said. "You face power play after power play and you get tired, and if you do something when you're tired you could get hurt. We are more vulnerable."... New York Rangers' coach Tom Renney has shuffled his lines after a lacklustre effort against the Capitals on Monday. Renney scratched Jamie Lundmark for the second time this season and promoted rookie left winger Petr Prucha from the fourth line to the top unit alongside Michael Nylander and Jaromir Jagr. "I think we've just got to give Petr a try here and let him play with some people that might be able to get him the puck and help to enhance what he has instinctively been able to show us from deeper in the lineup," Renney told the New York Daily News. "So we're going to give him a try up there and see how that looks." Prucha was the Rangers' eighth-round pick in the 2002 draft and used his speed to pressure the puck and create turnovers during his NHL debut in New Jersey last Saturday. "He's a good competitor," Renney said of the 6-foot, 170-pounder from the Czech Republic. "He's a resilient little guy and he plays hard. He plays much bigger than he is. He's a very courageous player."... Goaltender Kevin Weekes strained his groin in practice on Wednesday and is doubtful for the Rangers rematch against the Devils tonight at MSG. Henrik Lundqvist will make his second career NHL start and coincidentally second of the season against the Devils. Al Montoya was called up from Hartford to back up Lundqvist.... The New York Islanders also have shaken up their top line, reuniting Arron Asham on the left with Alexei Yashin and Miro Satan... Defenceman Radek Martinek may see his first action of the season after sitting out the Isles' first three... Isles head coach Steve Stirling plans to include more players on the penalty kill this season than he did in 2003-04, when he used Michael Peca and Jason Blake almost exclusively on the top unit. In addition to Blake and Shawn Bates, Asham, Trent Hunter, Mark Parrish, Mike York, and Oleg Kvasha have all seen significant PK time. Youngsters Mattias Weinhandl and Petteri Nokelainen will also be phased in over the season. Stirling is using it as insurance in case one of his top killers takes a penalty in the more whistle-happy NHL. "If one of those guys take penalties, all of a sudden I can't rely on four or five," Stirling told the New York Post. "You're going to have to have six or seven ready."...


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