Around the NHL: A storm warning

Free agency hits Stanley Cup champion Carolina hard, but the Hurricanes still have enough young firepower to defend their title

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In the era of the salary cap and fluid free agency, it seems more realistic than before to give many, if not most, NHL teams a solid chance of making the playoffs and perhaps contending for the Stanley Cup.

Unless you're the defending champion.

And you've lost several key players to the very system that gives hope at the beginning of each season.

Carolina, which won the title in June by beating Edmonton, could have a difficult time repeating.

No team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since Detroit in 1997 and '98. None has won more than two consecutive titles since the New York Islanders took four in a row from 1980-83.

Making the Hurricanes' chances of building a dynasty tougher is that they skate into 2006-07 without forwards Matt Cullen, Gordie Dwyer, Josef Vasicek, Doug Weight and Mark Recchi, defensemen Chris Hajt and Aaron Ward and goaltender Martin Gerber.

The Carolina cupboard isn't bare, though.

There is a core of good young players headed by center Eric Staal, winger Erik Cole and goaltender Cam Ward, who emerged to win the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP. Two veterans, though, winger Cory Stillman and defenseman Frantisek Kaberle, will miss up to half the season or more after shoulder surgeries.

Returning veterans such as center Rod Brind'Amour and a core of defensemen -- Bret Hedican, Glen Wesley and Mike Commodore -- will be key, as will newcomers such as winger Brad Isbister and goaltender John Grahame.

"I like our group again," said Staal, who, in his second NHL season, led the Hurricanes with 100 points, then became the second-youngest playoff scoring leader in league history with 28 points in 25 games.

"We have a great group of young players and some great guys that have been around a long time that can help us out.

"You know, we feel confident again in our team and in our own room. Doesn't really matter what anyone else has to say, same as last year. We have our own inner confidence and we want to continue to get better as the year starts."

The next eight months or so will tell.

Off the scrap heap
At the other end of the spectrum, the Blues made a lot of changes that could scrape them up off the bottom of the league -- which is where they finished last season after a cleansing to reduce the payroll.

"The first day on the job was July 1, and I showed up in the office at 8 in the morning, and that was the first day of free agency," said team president John Davidson, the former goaltender who was hired out of the national broadcast booth by new St. Louis owner Dave Checketts.

"Thankfully, [general manager] Larry Pleau was there, and the two of us sat down and got on the phone, looked at our roster and just started. We tried to put together a team that's going to compete this season. We think we've accomplished that."

Asking Davidson to put his money where his mouth was wasn't the most surprising aspect in the Blues' front office in the offseason. That was probably the retention of Pleau and coach Mike Kitchen -- perhaps a sign that egos and the need to bring in your own people were superseded by a desire to get the team back into the playoffs.

It would appear St. Louis upgraded its lineup with the addition of goaltender Manny Legace, wingers Martin Rucinsky, Bill Guerin and Radek Dvorak and center Doug Weight, who returned to the Blues after joining Recchi as a rent-a-player who helped Carolina win the Stanley Cup.

They join three of the top five returning scorers -- forwards Petr Cajanek, Keith Tkachuk and Lee Stempniak.

"We've improved ourselves tremendously in all areas of our team," Pleau said. "The depth and the ability not to use the young kids -- overuse them like we had to last year ... we're a better hockey team in every area."

Marking milestones
Penguins winger John LeClair snuck in under the wire late last season to notch his 400th goal and 400th assist. Among those who are almost a lock to reach career milestones this season:

The Rangers' Brendan Shanahan is two goals shy of 600, and teammate Jaromir Jagr is nine shy of 600.

Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour is one assist shy of 600, and Philadelphia's Peter Forsberg has 581 assists.

Brind'Amour also is 19 points shy of 1,000 for his career.

Colorado's Joe Sakic, the all-time points leader among active players, needs 11 to reach 1,500.

Eleven players, including LeClair, are within 60 games of reaching 1,000 in their career.

Rookie watch
Washington winger Alex Ovechkin believes he emerged from Sidney Crosby's shadow to beat out to the Penguins' center to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

"He is a good player. He did a great job last year. He deserved the rookie of the year, too," Ovechkin said. "But I'm glad I win. You know, last year, I just come here, nobody knows me. Everybody knows Crosby -- [from] television, radio. Whole hockey world: Crosby, Crosby. I come here. You know, Russian hockey, 'Ovechkin can play better like Canadian, like Crosby.' "

Now there are a new crop of rookies. Ovechkin called it last season, and he's sticking to his prediction for this season's Calder winner.

"I hope [Penguins center Evgeni] Malkin wins the Calder Trophy, but you never know," he said. "He's big. He's strong. First of all, he's an unbelievable person. Pittsburgh picked themselves a great young guy. [He's] an unbelievable passer. He can score unbelievable. He's a very good player."

Other rookies to watch this season include centers Phil Kessel of Boston, Gilbert Brule of Columbus, Patrick O'Sullivan of Los Angeles and Jiri Hudler of Detroit; wingers Dustin Penner of Anaheim, Alexander Radulov of Nashville and Wojtek Wolski of Colorado and defenseman Matt Carle of San Jose.

By the numbers
Athletes often put a lot of thought into their uniform numbers. Perhaps, they're superstitious or want to honor a childhood hero or covet the number they had in youth sports.

The Penguins' Malkin, for example, wore No. 11 growing up in Russia. When he got to the pro level there, that number was taken. So he switched to No. 71 because that looked the most like 11. He's sticking with No. 71 as an NHL rookie.

Jordin Tootoo, who has worn No. 55 with Nasvhille, pounced on an opportunity to change his number for this season. He's taking over No. 22 now that Greg Johnson is gone. Get it? Two-two.

Drinking buddies
Over the years, defenseman Chris Pronger and Finnish winger Teemu Selanne have had something of a rivalry. Now, they are teammates as Pronger begins his first season with the Anaheim Ducks.

"Maybe we'll have to go out and have some Finlandia vodka and get it all out in the open," Pronger said.


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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