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Hurricanes open training camp convinced they've improved from last season

RALEIGH, N.C. - Eric Staal charged down the right wing during a drill with only goalie Matt Mahalek, a late-round draft pick, standing between him and the net.

Welcome to the NHL, rookie.

Staal and the Hurricanes opened training camp on Saturday with an emphasis on proving they are a much improved team from the group that missed the playoffs last season after a loss in the home finale.

"It's good to get back on the ice with them. Some of them look a year older. Some of them look bigger and stronger and faster," coach Paul Maurice said. "It seemed in some ways there's a bigger gap between our known NHL players—as there should be—and some of the kids that are coming in and some players that were in the minors. But some of the top-end guys are in very good shape."

Carolina was one of the youngest teams in the league last season, and Staal says the Hurricanes would "like to think we're another year stronger, wiser, and that will make us a better hockey club."

Among those skating during a late-morning session—the roster has been split into three groups—were Finland natives Joni Pitkanen and Jussi Jokinen. Both could have been free agents over the summer but re-signed with Carolina.

"As a hockey player, your goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and I feel that we have a chance to do that here," Jokinen said. "The best players are in their prime, like Staal, (goalie Cam) Ward, Pitkanen and (forward Tuomo) Ruutu. ... I really believe in this organization."

The Hurricanes remain stung by the 6-2 loss to Tampa Bay on April 9 that kept them out of the playoffs. Carolina has made the playoffs only once since the franchise's lone Stanley Cup title in 2006.

That's why they are working toward securing a playoff berth well before the season's last game.

"That goal you work so hard during the year for, and get a chance to win your last game at home, and then you fail, that gives you extra motivation for sure," Jokinen said. "We've missed the playoffs two straight times, so I'm extra hungry, for sure."

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