Winnipeg Jets\' goalie David Aebischer (1) watches a shot by Carolina Hurricanes\' Jussi Jokinen (36) slide past the net during the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Rick Havner)
RALEIGH, N.C. - Eric Staal figures the Carolina Hurricanes will be better this season—if only because they're older.
One of the NHL's youngest teams last year allowed a playoff berth to slip through its fingers on the final day of the season. Now they've matured, and they don't want their post-season fate to once again come down to one last game.
They'd rather take care of that well ahead of time this year, starting Oct. 7 with the home opener against the same Tampa Bay team that kept them out of the playoffs last season.
"We're another year older. I think that you need to take that into account," Staal said. "We changed from an older team to a younger team last year, and we had new faces—a lot of guys that hadn't played many games in the NHL at all. Now we're another year in, and guys like (Brandon Sutter), Skinner ... we'd like to think we're another year stronger, wiser, and that will make us a better hockey club."
A year after opening a rebuilding season with only four players in their 30s, the Hurricanes hope they've assembled a team with the right blend of young, fresh legs and experienced veterans who are accustomed to the night-in, night-out grind of the NHL.
They're counting on reigning rookie of the year Jeff Skinner, who led all rookies with 63 points last year as the league's youngest player, to avoid a sophomore slump after turning the ripe old age of 19 over the summer.
Two other teenagers—defencemen Justin Faulk (19) and Ryan Murphy (18), their first-round pick in June—were still on the roster a week before the start of the regular season.
They could complement a handful of off-season acquisitions and a returning cast of veterans that includes franchise cornerstones Staal and goalie Cam Ward, top-line defenceman Tim Gleason and a trio of Finnish players in forwards Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu and defenceman Joni Pitkanen.
Among the most notable moves of the off-season were the additions of veteran defenceman Tomas Kaberle from Boston and physical forward Alexei Ponikarovsky from Los Angeles, a a six-foot-four, 226-pound bruiser that Staal said "makes us definitely bigger and stronger up front."
Carolina also brought in Tim Brent as their fourth-line centre and signed veteran goalie Brian Boucher to back up Ward and allow Justin Peters to develop in the minor leagues.
A pair of fan favourites are no longer around, with Erik Cole signing a four-year deal with Montreal and Joe Corvo following him out of Raleigh when he was traded to Boston. Among the Hurricanes whoyour goal is to win the Stanley cup and I feel that we have a chance to do that here.
"The best players are in their prime ... and then we've got 2-3 really young players coming up like Skinner and (centre Brandon) Sutter and (defenceman Jamie) McBain," Jokinen said. "I really believe in this organization. ... I felt that I played two and a half (years) of my best hockey here."
The Hurricanes have made the playoffs only once since they won their only Stanley Cup in 2006, advancing to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009 in Jokinen's first season with them.
Those memories made last year's shortcoming even more agonizing—and motivational—for Jokinen.
"Especially remembering playing in the playoffs in '09, making a huge run here," Jokinen said. "It was such a great time, and now we've missed the playoffs two straight times, so I'm extra hungry, for sure