SPORTS

With Faulk, Lindholm and Khudobin, Hurricanes have building blocks to contend

01/20/2015 04:25 EST | Updated 03/22/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Eric Staal and Cam Ward are the last holdovers from the 2006 Stanley Cup-champion Carolina Hurricanes. It's possible neither player will be around the next time the team makes the playoffs.

Since that title, Carolina has more coaches (three) than playoff appearances (one), and the post-season drought will hit six in a few months. But the Hurricanes' past champions can look around the locker-room and see the building blocks are in place for a future contender.

Carolina boasts a lineup that includes all-star defenceman Justin Faulk, centre Elias Lindholm, forward Jeff Skinner and goaltender Anton Khudobin.

"There definitely are some good pieces, some good young players that are going to get better," Staal said Monday. "With Justin, Elias, Skinns, these guys are still young players ... I think (coach Bill Peters has) done a good job of putting people in the right situations to improve in those areas, and I'd like to see it continue to take steps in the right direction."

Those steps are happening right now. The Hurricanes are 6-3-1 since Jordan Staal made his season debut in late December after suffering a broken leg in the pre-season.

Some of the progress can be credited to health, something Carolina didn't have when Eric Staal also missed time earlier in the season and Skinner was dealing with concussion problems. Without the depth to overcome injuries, the Hurricanes were only slightly ahead of the last-place Edmonton Oilers by the time Jordan Staal was ready.

All the while, the Hurricanes were trying to change on the fly from the system used by former coach Kirk Muller.

"It's tough to gain that confidence when you're missing key pieces and you're trying to learn some new things," Eric Staal said. "It was definitely a tough start. Credit Bill for continuing on with the process. And instilling what he wants. Now it's just about taking steps, and building blocks to where we want to be."

Peters, a former assistant to Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, said the Hurricanes are about two months behind where he wanted them to be.

"Defensively, through the neutral zone I think we're still trying to get more comfortable," Peters said. "It's coming, it's getting better. (There are) good people in that room and they try and they want to do what we're asking. It's a good group to work with, and I think we have a pretty high ceiling with the group that we do have."

That high ceiling has to do with some of the top-end talent already in Raleigh, N.C. Faulk, the team's second-leading scorer behind Eric Staal, is going to his first all-star game this weekend at age 22, Lindholm is growing into a top-six NHL player at 20 and Khudobin looks like the heir apparent to Ward as an upper-echelon starting goaltender.

"It's definitely encouraging, Ward said. "You see a guy like Justin Faulk making the all-star game this year only at age 22, he's obviously developed very quickly and has proven himself to be an elite defenceman and he's only going to get better.

"It goes the same with Lindholm. You see the turnover, what a rookie season can do for development. He came in a lot stronger this year and (was) playing up on the top line for the majority of the season. It just goes to show that he can play with the best in this league too. I think all signs are encouraging, but obviously you'd like to win sooner than later, and that's what we're striving for."

While brother Jordan is signed through 2023, Eric Staal's contract is up after next season, and so is Ward's. Staal, who replaced Cup-winning captain Rod Brind'Amour and is the face of the franchise, said Monday he hadn't been asked to waive his no-movement clause.

At some point before the March 2 trade deadline or perhaps a year from now, general manager Ron Francis may ask Staal to do that.

"If I have those conversations, then you talk about it, you think about it, but as of now I've never had to have those conversations," Staal said. "I've been there a long time and it's a place I definitely hold deep in my heart. But wherever life takes you, you figure it out. For me, I haven't had those conversations, so my focus is on this group."

This is a group that needs some time to figure out how to play the Peters brand of hockey properly. Another draft, potentially with a top-five pick who could help right away, could speed up the development curve.

Current players can't worry about hoping to land a Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or Noah Hanifin. But with a roster that includes 21-year-old Victor Rask, 25-year-old Riley Nash and still 26-year-old Jordan Staal, there's reason for hope.

"There's definitely guys in the room that are good fits for (contending)," Faulk said. "That's why they're here, right, because you hope that this is a team that you can turn into a playoff team. Obviously it hasn't really gone our way the last few years and whatnot.

"But we are pretty young and we do have guys that are learning and getting better every day. I don't think anyone would complain too much about having guys that are getting better."

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