Carolina Hurricanes head coach Kirk Muller speaks to players during the first day of NHL hockey training camp in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
RALEIGH, N.C. - The Carolina Hurricanes opened preseason camp by filling their hole on the blue line.
General manager Jim Rutherford said Thursday that free-agent defenceman Ron Hainsey has agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract.
The Hurricanes are counting on Hainsey to help replace injured defenceman Joni Pitkanen. He's out for the season with a broken heel that has been slow to heal.
Rutherford says Hainsey "was patient as we waited for updated information about (Pitkanen's) injury" and says the team wanted to "solidify our defence with a player of this calibre."
This marks the 10th NHL season for Hainsey, who had 13 assists in 47 games with Winnipeg last year.
The first day of practice game one day after the team learned just how serious Pitkanen's injury wound up being. He broke his left heel in a game against Washington in which he raced down the ice while trying to beat an icing call.
He missed the final 13 games, and Rutherford said last week that the veteran defenceman might not be ready to start the season.
Now the Hurricanes hope Hainsey can help fill Pitkanen's spot after he ranked second among the team's defencemen with an average of nearly 23 minutes of ice time.
"Obviously, it's pretty disappointing that he's out for the whole year," defenceman Justin Faulk said. "He's a great player and obviously we wish he could be here. He does a lot for us. But I think someone's going to have to step up. There's a whole there for someone to fill."
One of Carolina's new faces—defenceman Andrej Sekera, who was acquired from Buffalo in a draft-day trade—also hopes he can help fill the void.
"I will try to do my best and try to play my game and see how it is and how it goes, and if the coaches want to give me a new opportunity to prove something, I'm happy with it," Sekera said.
The Hurricanes have plenty to prove as a team, too.
The realigned NHL has eliminated the Southeast Division and placed Carolina in a much more difficult division with both New York teams, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington and New Jersey.
On paper, that appears to make it tough for the Hurricanes to claim their first playoff spot since 2009. Among Eastern Conference teams, only the Atlanta-Winnipeg franchise has not made the post-season in that span.
Carolina went from leading the division last year to near the bottom of the conference following a brutal three-points-in-five-weeks stretch.
"It's not a good feeling, not making the playoffs," Faulk said. "I don't think that sits well with anyone if you don't make the playoffs and you're not winning games. But it's a new year and we're pretty confident with the team we have in here and the 48 guys that are in camp to put together a good run."
One key will be toughness, and it's partly why the first practice session ended with the players forming a ring around the centre line.
They skated into the circle two at a time and went one-on-one for pucks in what's essentially hockey's version of the Oklahoma drill.
The message was clear: If the Hurricanes are going to finally get back to the playoffs, they need to get tougher.
"A huge part of the game is winning those one-on-one battles," captain Eric Staal said.
Follow Joedy McCreary on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/joedyap
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