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DeCock: For Hurricanes, now it gets real

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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RALEIGH It’s always a dangerous exercise to read too much into preseason results in the NHL, with teams pursuing different objectives and fielding varied lineups. That’s particularly true of the Carolina Hurricanes so far.

The three losses to open the preseason were as deceiving as they were disturbing. The win that followed was encouraging, but equally deceiving. These final two games – at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday and at PNC Arena against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday – will tell the tale.

Even by the standards of a franchise known for starting slowly, this preseason hasn’t exactly gone smoothly for the Hurricanes. The first two games were so-so. The third was a complete disaster. The fourth showed a promising turn in the right direction.

“Perspective is everything,” Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison said. “With the exception of the one, there were some positives in the three games and some things that require attention.”

Part of the damage is self-inflicted in pursuit of a larger goal. In his first actual training camp with the Hurricanes, coach Kirk Muller has placed a heavy emphasis on systems and strategy, teaching the team how he wants it to play from its own net out. By that standard, they have just now reached the other net. Wednesday was the first day the Hurricanes really spent any time on the power play.

“Now, it’s almost like fine-tuning,” Muller said. “We’ve covered the majority of everything.”

Because of that focus, as opposed to skating and sharpness and the other aspects of training camp that are becoming a priority now, it’s difficult to put too much stock in the Hurricanes’ preseason results so far. And that’s not the only reason.

The Hurricanes gave extra playing time to young players early and paid the price on the ice. They used a more veteran lineup against a younger Montreal group on Saturday, and came away with their first win in their fourth game in four days.

They’re not alone, of course. Everyone is mixing and matching in the early games. All that you can really tell, from a Carolina perspective, is that the fringe players competing for jobs on the Hurricanes aren’t as good as the fringe players competing for jobs elsewhere.

Only Drayson Bowman has made a really strong case at forward, which is particularly disappointing given the lineup spots open. It also could be very costly – Jeremy Welsh and Justin Peters are making a combined $1.55 million on one-way contracts, money that could be spent on a veteran addition but would instead be burned in Charlotte. (Peters is already there.) The Hurricanes were also counting on first-round pick Elias Lindholm to contribute, but he has only raised questions about his durability.

The Hurricanes also had several important players with considerable rust to shake off. Mike Komisarek has played 56 competitive games in 24 months and looks the part. Thanks to the lockout and his knee injury, Cam Ward played only 17 games last season. He’s not back to his old form yet, either. Tuomo Ruutu’s hip remains an ongoing concern.

While they may continue to play their way back into shape, for the rest of the team, the other excuses are gone now. Four games into the preseason, it’s time for the veterans to play like veterans and the youngsters to play like they want to play in the NHL. There are jobs open for people like Riley Nash and Bowman and Welsh, not to mention Radek Dvorak, who is fighting for a contract at age 36.

It’s time. If it was tough to read too much into the first four preseason games, these final two will offer the best sense yet of what kind of team the Hurricanes will be this year.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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