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Concussions to Skinner, Pitkanen mark latest blows for last-place Hurricanes

RALEIGH, N.C. - Things have gone from bad to worse in a hurry for the slumping Carolina Hurricanes.

Leading scorer Jeff Skinner and key defenceman Joni Pitkanen are out indefinitely with concussions, team officials said Wednesday.

That marks the latest blow to a team that has lost 16 of 20, fired its coach, dumped one of its big off-season acquisitions and dropped to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

New coach Kirk Muller, speaking roughly 45 minutes before the team announced Skinner's diagnosis, promised the Hurricanes would be "extremely careful" in dealing with the injury to the NHL's reigning rookie of the year.

"We're not naïve on the situation as far as how important it is to get these guys healthy before they get back," Muller said. "Whatever that time frame is, we've got to monitor it each day. But he's not going to step back into the lineup until he's ready to go for sure."

Skinner, 19, leads the team with 12 goals and 24 points and last year became the first Hurricanes player to win the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie. He was hit at Edmonton on Dec. 7, then was scratched two nights later at Winnipeg with flu-like symptoms—the first game he missed in his brief NHL career.

Skinner then was held out of Tuesday night's loss at Toronto after the ailment was recharacterized as an undisclosed injury, and general manager Jim Rutherford updated the status of Skinner and Pitkanen in a statement issued roughly an hour after the end of practice Wednesday afternoon.

"He's pretty much been our best player all season," forward Anthony Stewart said of Skinner. "It's tough with him out, but ... we want to see him back as soon as possible."

The injuries to Skinner and Pitkanen—who leads the team's defencemen with 12 points and nine assists—represent the latest things that have gone wrong during a miserable season that has already seen a coaching change and the trade of one of the players Carolina added during the off-season.

The Hurricanes fired Paul Maurice two weeks ago and brought in Muller, a respected 19-year NHL veteran and six-time all-star who was only a few games into his head coaching career with Nashville's AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. He wasn't asked to blow up the depth chart or overload the players with new X-and-O schemes—but to get them to skate with confidence and accountability. Under Muller, they're 1-4-2.

"We've kind of jumped right in, and I think it's more like trial and error, as far as we kind of learn in the games rather than practices," Muller said, pointing to an overtime loss at Toronto on Tuesday night as evidence of improvement. He called that loss "probably our best overall game, that we (had) the most overall consistently for 60 minutes. ... I think they're understanding the identity of what we're looking for, and what we're trying to preach here as a staff."

Then, Carolina unloaded defenceman Tomas Kaberle—and his three-year, US$12.75 million contract—to Montreal last week in a trade for 37-year-old defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, who's in the final year of his contract. The Hurricanes signed Kaberle to the long-term deal in July, hoping a reunion with Maurice—his former coach in Toronto—would rejuvenate his career, but instead the Czech defenceman was a minus-12 with no goals and nine assists.

Still, the Hurricanes insist they're seeing glimmers of hope that they can somehow claw out of the East's cellar.

They entered Wednesday night one point behind the New York Islanders and three behind Southeast Division rival Tampa Bay, and play host to defending Western Conference champion Vancouver on Thursday night.

Rookie Justin Faulk, who was paired with Spacek against Toronto, says he's already picked up some pointers from the veteran defenceman and praised him as an easy fit in the locker room. The effort has been there lately, even if the wins haven't—and the players say that's bound to change sometime.

"Obviously, we're going through a tough stretch, a tough little bit with some trades and coaching changes and personnel," defenceman Jamie McBain said. "It's obviously something that's a little bit of a mind game. But we feel pretty good about where we're at. We've been playing some good hockey, and we haven't been rewarded with bounces this year, it doesn't seem like.

"Maybe our last 8-10 games, as far as playing the way we want to play, we feel pretty confident," he added. "We've had a couple letdowns, maybe, in some thirds (periods) where we had the game in our hands and weren't quite able to close it out. But we feel good—when we play our game, we feel we canplay with anybody, and we've proven that on different nights."

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