Canes Name Paul Maurice Head Coach

December 3, 2008

From the official announcement…

MO COMES BACK, RON FRANCIS NAMED ASSOCIATE COACH

RALEIGH, NC—Jim Rutherford, President and General Manager of the National Hockey League’s Carolina Hurricanes, announced today the team has relieved Peter Laviolette of his coaching duties and that Paul Maurice will assume the role of head coach. Rutherford also announced that Ron Francis has been named the team’s associate coach, and that the remainder of the team’s coaching staff will remain in place.

“This is a real strong addition with Paul and Ronnie leading our coaching staff,” said Rutherford. “As we go into a very tough group of games in December, my hope is that the coaches make minor adjustments to the system and the players regain their confidence.

“We would like to thank Peter for his years of service to the Hurricanes organization, and we wish him and his family the best moving forward.”

Maurice, 41, returns to Carolina as the winningest coach in franchise history, having scored 268 wins in his 674 regular-season games coached during his eight-plus seasons with the team, from Nov. 6, 1995, until Dec. 15, 2003. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native has amassed a coaching record of 344-357-137 record in 11 NHL seasons with the Carolina franchise and the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he coached in 2006-07 and 2007-08. Maurice guided the Hurricanes to the 2002 Eastern Conference title and two Southeast Division crowns during his first stint as the team’s head coach.

This marks Francis’ first coaching assignment since his retirement as a player in 2005. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2007 as the NHL’s second all-time assists leader (1,249), third all-time games-played leader (1,731) and fourth all-time scoring leader (1,798 points). He played 16 of his 23 NHL seasons with the Carolina franchise and is the team’s all-time leader in nearly every statistical category. Francis, 45, has served as the Hurricanes’ director of player development since November 2006, and was named the assistant general manager on Oct. 4, 2007. Jason Karmanos will reassume the role of vice president and assistant general manager which he held from 1998-2007, before rejoining the team this year as executive director of hockey operations.

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Hockey Stuff: A Rare ‘Own Goal’

November 25, 2008

You rarely see this in hockey…

The Montreal Canadiens’ Ryan O’Byrne puts the puck in his own net after the team’s goaltender, Carey Price, leaves the ice for an extra attacker on a delayed penalty. The goal, credited to Bill Guerin, enabled the New York Islanders to tie the game at 3. New York went on to win the game in a shootout.


Canes’ Footing Getting More Firm

November 20, 2008

BEHIND THE GLASS | In Friday’s Herald

It’s not much of a streak, but with wins in their last two games – and solid outings in three in a row, dating to a loss to Atlanta a week ago today – the Carolina Hurricanes seem to be finally gaining some firm purchase on the young NHL season.

If so, it’s been awhile coming.

The team’s record – 10-7-2 at this point, good for sixth in the Eastern Conference – belies the fact that Carolina has been plagued with the kind of inconsistency and stretches of less-than-mediocre play that characterized the last two years.

Even when winning games earlier this season, the Hurricanes did so in something of an ugly manner. They won by having to come from behind and lost by giving up goals in bunches. They got by for a time with defensive lapses, mental breakdowns, shaky goaltending and a roster smarting from a variety of injuries before losing three straight, and four of five, until Sunday’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The team’s not totally on the right track. Eric Staal is still slumping, with just a single goal (an empty-netter at that) in his last 12 games, and the Hurricanes remain without the services of injured defenseman Frantisek Kaberle and winger Justin Williams. But as a unit, the Hurricanes may be starting to gel. Head coach Peter Laviolette is doing less toying with his line combinations, chemistry seems to be working for the team instead of against it and, to everyone’s relief, goalie Cam Ward is starting to play like…well, Cam Ward.

It’s Ward who holds one key to the rest of the team’s confidence. He’s been in net for the last three games, including Sunday’s win and Tuesday’s battle against the Montreal Canadiens, and for the first time since late winter he’s put together impressive back-to-back-to-back performances. He stopped both shooters he faced in the shootout victory against Tampa – good news, because he’s been notoriously weak in shootouts – and was very strong against a talented Montreal lineup.

In these last three games, Ward’s goals-against average was a shade over 2.00, a full goal below his season’s average, and he stopped 76 of 82 shots, a .926 save percentage that’s also far better than his save percentage to date.

The wins evened the team’s record to 4-4 at home, and with home games tonight (Phoenix Coyotes, 7 p.m.) and Sunday (Nashville Predators, 3 p.m.) there’s a chance to gain ground on division-leading Washington.

Ward’s resurgence has been good to see, but the largest sigh of relief Tuesday came from winger Sergei Samsonov. You’ll remember that Samsonov didn’t score a goal in 23 games with the Chicago Blackhawks last season and was subsequently placed on waivers. After the Canes picked him up, he notched 14 in 38 games. Tuesday’s goal against Montreal was his first in 19 games this season and seemed to give the entire team a lift.

Maybe Staal is next on the lift line…

Hurricanes notes:
Captain Rod Brind’Amour moved into sole possession of 50th place on the NHL’s all-time points list with his goal against Tampa Bay Nov. 16. It was Brind’Amour’s 1,127th career point, moving him past Hall-of-Famer Mike Bossy and Hall-of-Famer to-be Joe Nieuwendyk. The goal also tied him with former Hurricane Jeff O’Neill for third place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list, behind only Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen… Winger Justin Williams, who had surgery to repair a torn right Achilles tendon two months ago, is back skating and may return to the lineup well before the 4-to-6 month period he was expected to miss… Carolina’s defensive corps scored all of 133 points (20 goals, 113 assists) in 82 games last season, an average of 1.62 points per game. So far this season, defensemen have racked up 45 points (8 goals, 37 assists) in 19 games – an average of 2.37 points per game, and increase of 46 percent.


Another Hit From Behind

November 14, 2008

KOSTOPOULOS GETS THE GATE | Habs forward suspended after hit on Van Ryn

Another hit from behind, another injury, another suspension…here’s the latest from the NHL…

The National Hockey League on Monday suspended Montreal Canadiens forward Tom Kostopoulos for 3 games for a hit from behind on Toronto defenseman Mike Van Ryn in a game Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Seven minutes into the game, Van Ryn chased a puck into his end, with Kostopoulos trailing. When he caught Van Ryn, Kostopoulos cross-checked him and drove him face-first into the end boards. Van Ryn suffered a concussion, a broken nose and a broken hand on the play. He had to be taken from the ice on a stretcher, and is expected to miss a month.

Kostopoulos was assessed a roughing minor, a boarding major and a game misconduct.


Capital Punishment

November 13, 2008

FROM THE ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU…

In the wake of last night’s disaster at the RBC Center comes this tidbit…

Last night four Washington Capitals accounted for all 14 of the team’s scoring points: Alexander Semin (2 goals, 3 assists = 5 points), Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 3 assists), Alex Ovechkin (1 goal, 2 assists) and Mike Green (1 goal, 1 assist). It was only the second time since 1987 that an NHL team had 14 or more scoring points in one game with no more than four players responsible for them.

The previous instance was by the Canadiens on Oct. 21, 2000, and the Hurricanes were the opponent in that game as well. Montreal beat Carolina, 5-2, that night with its 14 points garnered by just three players: Brian Savage (3 goals, 2 assists), Martin Rucinsky (1 goal, 4 assists) and Trevor Linden (1 goal, 3 assists).


30 Years Ago…

November 7, 2008

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NUMBER 4 | Bobby Orr

He’s the greatest hockey player ever. Wayne Gretzky may have scored more points, Maurice Richard may have won more Stanley Cups, and Gordie Howe may have done more to popularize the game, but hands down, Number 4 was the best.

On Nov. 8, 1978, bad knees forced him to retire at the age of 31.

Here’s a tribute from the NHL.com website’s Shawn Roarke…

Orr at peace with leaving the game at 31

Knee injuries may have robbed Bobby Orr of the flawless skating stride that changed the very face of hockey, but they haven’t had any impact on the Boston Bruin legend’s heart.

“I hope that I am remembered as a player that brought it every night,” Orr told NHL.com. “As hockey players, we are performers and we putting on a show. I want to be remembered as a player that came every night.”

That legacy will never be threatened. Orr is still celebrated throughout the hockey world as the best defenseman to ever lace on a pair of skates, even 30 years after he played his final NHL game.

Orr, then in his third injury-ravaged season with Chicago, walked away from the game he loved on Nov. 8, 1978 at the age of 31. In a perfect world, Orr would have had at least another 5 years to weave his magic, but his body would not cooperate.

After a dozen knee surgeries, Orr could no longer play in a manner that befitted his greatness. To continue, he felt, would be a crime against the game he loved. So, he walked away, clutching a haul of impressive hardware and mind-boggling offensive numbers, headlined by 915 points in 657 games.

“It’s been so long now,” Orr said. “I’m not frustrated (about leaving the game). When you love to do something, and I loved to play hockey, it wasn’t a job for me. I was one of the lucky ones that got to play this great game and I’m thankful for that.

“Did I want to play more, of course I did. But those things happen.”

Those who saw the Hockey Hall of Famer play during his peak with Boston — from winning the Calder Trophy in the 1966-67 season to scoring 135 points in 1974-75 — are thankful for Orr’s too-brief presence.

Simply put, Orr redefined the game, paving the way for offensive defenseman like Paul Coffey, Denis Potvin, Al MacInnis and Scott Niedermayer.

Upon his NHL arrival, no defenseman had come close to scoring 100 points in a season. Orr did it 6-straight seasons, beginning with a 120-point season in 1969-70, the season Orr won his first of 2 Stanley Cups with the Bruins.

That season, Orr was the game’s most dominant player. In fact, he won 4 of the League’s major awards — his third Norris Trophy for best defenseman, the Art Ross Trophy for highest scorer, the Hart Trophy as the League’s regular-season MVP and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Playoff MVP — that magical season. He remains the only player in League history to win 4 major trophies in a season, a feat that neither Mario Lemieux nor Wayne Gretzky ever accomplished.

Orr followed that breakout season with 5 more Norris Trophy wins, giving him an 8-year stranglehold on the best defenseman award. He also won took the Hart Trophy in each of the next 2 seasons and led the League in scoring again in 1974-75 with 135 points. He remains the only defenseman in the history of the game to finish as the League’s top scorer.

Orr also won another Stanley Cup in 1972, once again winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and becoming the first player to become a 2-time playoff MVP in League history. Boston has not won another Stanley Cup since.

Those accomplishments, however, are just a sampling of the numbers that leave historians agog when they look back upon Orr’s brilliant, but too-short, career, a body of work that saw him inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979, becoming the Hall’s youngest inductee at 31.

“The awards are nice,” Orr said, “but I played the game I loved. I’m one of the privileged one.

“With what this game has given me, I felt I had to give something back. I had to go out every night and give my best, nothing less. That was my job.”

He clearly succeeded in that mission as the true measure of this man can most accurately be measured in the reverence with which he is held in Boston, a notoriously tough sports town. Orr remains atop the pantheon of sports legends in that sport-rich city. At the time of his retirement, he was voted the best Boston athlete by the Boston Globe, edging out luminaries like baseball’s Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski and basketball’s Bill Russell and Bob Cousy.

But all the praise rolls off Orr’s back as easily as he shook off defenders trying to stop his progress toward the opposing net.

“It’s nice when people talk about you,” Orr said. “When you are a part of conversations like that, it is wonderful. But I just played the game I loved to play. I wish I could have played more, of course. But, the time I had in the game provided me with some of the best times of my life.”

Now a player agent with the Orr Hockey Group, Orr still loves the sport and follows the NHL game closely.

On a nightly basis he sees so many things he likes.

“We have so many good young players in this game,” he says. “It’s an exciting time for the sport.”

But he also sees things at odds with his beliefs about how the game should be treated. He doesn’t begrudge today’s players the money currently on offer, unheard of sums to his generation, but he does bemoan the lack of passion that sometimes tries to infiltrate its way into the game.

“The money doesn’t bother me; that’s the way it is,” Orr said. “What bothers me is when you see a player play great one night and then you have to wait a week or more to see the player play at that level again. That’s the thing with great players, they never disappoint you.”

Don’t get Orr wrong. He doesn’t expect everybody to play the game at the same level he did during his career, or even at the level of today’s young stars like Sidney Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf. He just wants every NHL player to reach his potential every night, which was the same unwavering standard he demanded of himself.

“I don’t expect everyone to play at Sidney Crosby’s level,” Orr said, “but to play at their level all time. This is the professional level here and you expect that from the players every night. You are going to have little dips; you just don’t want those big dips.”

When those big dips in effort happen and stretch for an extended period of time, Orr says it is disrespectful

“Those players that have the chance to play in the NHL have got to respect this game and keep that love and passion for the game,” he says.

That simple love and passion for the game has fueled Orr for each day in the 30 years since he last played in the NHL and it remains the bedrock of the greatness Orr continues to display to this day.


Hockey Stuff: Hurricanes Preview

October 9, 2008

Most teams begin a season with a certain level of optimism, but even before the puck drops on the Carolina Hurricanes’ upcoming campaign there’s plenty of room for concern.

Injury-riddled since 2006-07, Carolina lost a whopping 337 man-games to injury last season. When they open up the 2008-09 campaign Friday at home against the Florida Panthers (7 p.m., RBC Center in Raleigh), the storylines will be very familiar: the Hurricanes will be without two of their top six forwards, with two others barely healed.

Justin Williams, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, tore his Achilles tendon during a pre-season workout and may not play until the spring. Scott Walker had surgery Monday to repair a ligament in his left hand and is out six weeks. And even though Rod Brind’Amour, sidelined the latter half of last season after surgery to repair an ACL tear, and Tuomo Ruutu will be in the lineup Friday, both are recovering from pre-season injuries.

It’s an ominous start for the Hurricanes.

The 2006 Stanley Cup champions missed the playoffs in 2007 and again last season and come into Friday’s opener with a re-tooled defensive corps and without veteran forward Erik Cole. It’s a younger team – first-round Entry Draft picks Brandon Sutter (11th overall, 2007) and Zach Boychuk (14th overall, 2008) are on the opening-day roster, also featuring three others who played outside the NHL last season. So even with the bulk of the lineup which finished 5th in the NHL in scoring in 2007-08, that combination of inexperience and last season’s maddening inconsistencies cast doubts on how well the Hurricanes will weather the injury storms.

Here’s a preview by position…

Goaltending: Cam Ward won 37 games in net for Carolina last year, 5th in the league, but his goals-against average (2.75) and save percentage (.904) were, like the season before, outside the top 30 in the NHL.

He’ll have to be much better this year.

After a hot start that seemed to signal a return to the confidence level he displayed in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, Ward was only mediocre from mid-November until early February, concurring with a stretch of poor play that doomed the team. Ward helped rally Carolina with better performances down the stretch, but he lost four of his last six games to end the season as the Hurricanes were passed in the standings by the streaking Washington Capitals. Already prone to a lack of confidence, Ward’s pre-season hasn’t been stellar; aside from a 31-save shutout in Sunday’s win over Nashville, he’s been shaky.

As was the case last year, the Hurricanes’ performance as a team will reflect Ward’s as an individual. He’s proven himself to be a capable netminder, but Ward has to be able to carry the team on his shoulders from time to time – something we saw flashes of last season between his bouts of doubt and the team’s struggling defense.

Backing Ward up will be Michael Leighton, who was 28-25 at Albany in the American Hockey League last season while being recognized as the league’s most valuable goaltender; he had an impressive GAA of 2.10 and a .931 save percentage. At 27, Leighton has played only 50 NHL games, winning just 11. But he should be an upgrade to the unsteady John Grahame, who won only five games last season and is playing this season in Russia.

Defense: By design, Carolina’s blue line has a decidedly younger flavor this season. Gone are stalwarts Glen Wesley (retired; his #2 jersey will be hung in the rafters by the team on Feb. 17) and Bret Hedican, who moved with his wife – figure-skater turned “Dancing with the Stars” winner Kristi Yamaguchi – to the West Coast and is still looking for a team.

Joining the club are Joni Pitkanen, 25, coming off a disappointing season with the Edmonton Oilers, and two players who spent last season in Europe: Josef Melichar, 30, who played in Sweden, and a familiar name, former Cane Anton Babchuk, 24, who played in Russia.

Babchuk’s maturity and his play in Russia last season (9 goals, 17 assists in 57 games) led Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford to take a gamble on him a second time. It’ll likely pay off. But Pitkanen and Melichar are bigger gambles: Pitkanen, a Finn, is a highly-skilled puck mover but his bad habits on the ice (turnovers, lackadaisical play) have unnerved coaches and teammates. He’ll have to do a lot to earn his three-year, $12 million contract and to convince fans that it was worth trading the popular Cole to get him. As curious a move was the addition of Melichar, who patrolled the ice for six seasons in Pittsburgh before last year. This summer’s free agent crop was full of defensemen, including former Hurricanes Mike Commodore, Aaron Ward and Marek Malik, but Rutherford thought Melichar, at 29, seemed to fit the hole created by Wesley’s retirement.

That trio will join a defensive corps anchored by Tim Gleason, Joe Corvo, Dennis Seidenberg and the two “old men” amongst the blue liners, veterans Niclas Wallin and Frantisek Kaberle.

There’s depth and some skill at defense, and upside potential, but not much offense. The key will be chemistry, especially with the leadership of alternate captains Wesley and Hedican now absent. If Corvo stays healthy and Pitkanen fits in, the defense could be fine.

Forwards: The only major change in the team’s lineup of centers and wingers is the loss of Cole, who scored 51 points (22g, 29a) in 73 games. What the team will miss even more than his scoring will be the intangibles Cole brought to the ice – feisty play, hustle, grit and a penchant for drawing lots of penalties.

So once again Carolina will count on centers Eric Staal (38g, 44a) and Rod Brind’Amour (19g, 32a in only 59 games) and winger Ray Whitney (25g, 36a) for offense, along with last year’s additions: Patrick Eaves (1g, 4a in 11 games after being acquired in February from Ottawa) and Sergei Samsonov (14g, 18a in 38 games after being claimed off waivers in January). They’ll make up the top two lines until Williams and Walker are back. Matt Cullen (13g, 36a), Chad LaRose (11g, 12a) and Ryan Bayda (3g, 3a in 31 games) will make up the third line, with Sutter, free agent Dan LaCouture and Wade Brookbank – a combined 32 NHL games between them, all by Brookbank, last season – as a fourth line, with Boychuk as a spare.

Bottom line: Washington is strongly favored to with the Southeast Division, and a reconstructed Tampa Bay Lightning will also be tough. The Hurricanes will be on the bubble for the playoffs – likely on the “burst” side. Prediction: 2nd in the Southeast, 9th in the Eastern Conference.