General manager Jim Rutherford must be wondering how dangerous his team, which also boasts offensive threat Alexander Semin and standout sophomore Jeff Skinner, could do with a full 60-minute performance.
Through eight starts, or one-sixth of the lockout-shortened 48-game schedule, Rutherford’s Hurricanes have scored 10 of their 22 goals in the second period.
On Monday, their defence looked vulnerable against the speedy Leafs in the opening 20 minutes before stepping up its game and helping erase a 1-0 deficit, with the Staals, Semin and the Carolina power play leading the charge in a 4-1 victory.
“We have a lot of new faces and I think we wait to see how the other team is going to play the game instead of taking over the game from the start. But once we get into a groove we’ve been pretty strong,” said Rutherford, whose 4-4-0 club moved to ninth spot in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Rutherford, who is travelling with the team during its six-game road swing that concludes Feb. 12 in New Jersey, talked with CBCSports.ca about the Staal brothers, Semin, goaltender Cam Ward’s bounce-back effort and what the future might hold for second-year defenceman Justin Faulk.
1. CBCSports.ca: Centre Eric Staal struggled to start the 2011-12 season with 12 points in his first 26 games. He already has seven goals and 10 points in eight games this season. How has he been a different player to start this season?
Rutherford: I think it’s a lot of things. He was prepared [to play after the lockout], he’s determined and he likes our team. He deserves all the credit. His linemates [Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty] have been a good complement. He gets them the puck more now than he did at this time last year.
And I’m sure there’s a special comfort level now with his brother on the team. It boils down to Eric doing the job and he’s definitely doing it. He’s the leader of this team.
2. Eric’s younger brother Jordan, who was acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh last June 22 and signed a 10-year, $60-million US contract extension, scored his first goal of the season Monday. How has he been a breath of fresh air for your team?
When we’re playing some of these bigger, stronger teams we usually have trouble with, his presence makes a difference. Having two [centres] like Eric and Jordan coming back-to-back [on line changes] really gives us a better chance to win every night. Jordan [scored Monday] night and that will relieve a little pressure for him because I’m sure that mounts. He’ll get his goals in due time.
I really didn’t think that much about [his troubles scoring]. It’s a guy with a new team, he just signed a long-term contract. He was involved in a big trade. There are so many factors about what goes through people’s minds. We know how good he is and we know he’ll be a very good player [in Carolina] for a long time.
3. You signed free-agent forward Alexander Semin to a one-year deal last July with hopes he would play alongside Eric Staal. So far, Semin has played well offensively (one goal, six points) and been responsible defensively (plus-7). Do you consider him your best $7-million investment in recent memory?
“Yeah. I don’t want to discount other guys but both Alex and the Hurricanes entered this as, let’s do this [deal] just one year and see if it fits for both sides. Boy, he’s been a very good player for us. He could have five, six goals by now, he’s hit so many goal posts. But it’s not even the fact he has one goal. He’s played the game at both ends of the rink. Players have to focus on him all the time.
They’re watching Semin, which opens [the ice] up a little more for Eric. He’s such a talented player, he can do whatever he wants, quite frankly. If he’s determined to score a goal, he’s gonna get his chances. If he’s going to play a two-way game, he can play it. He can kill penalties, play the power play. He’s been every bit as good as I hoped he’d be.
4. Goaltender Cam Ward struggled mightily in his first two starts this season but has stopped 115 of the last 124 shots for a .927 save percentage. From a technical perspective, what did Ward do against Toronto that had escaped him in the first two games of the season?
Cam was very special last night. His movement and focus was so good. What you saw last night is what Cam Ward is. I certainly wasn’t in any panic mode early on [this season]. What would it be like if you started a football season and the quarterback didn’t have a game to get warmed up?
There’s a few goalies who jumped right in [after the lockout without pre-season games] and got it going. They may drop off at some point [or] they may not, but for Cam, he needed a couple of games [to find his way].
5. Justin Faulk, the Hurricanes’ impressive 20-year-old defenceman, did more than score a goal, deliver two hits, block a shot and play a game-high 29:04 on Monday. He displayed a heavy one-time shot from the point and down low that could spell trouble for opposing goalies. What has he meant to your team?
This is a guy that has a chance to be a franchise defenceman, and those are hard to come by. Our scouting staff did a great job, we got him in the second round [37th overall in 2010]. He kills penalties, plays the power play, plays 25, 30 minutes a game, and he’s got that good shot. I would suspect with the guys that we have on our power play that he’s going to have the chance to score a lot of goals.
I thought he would have got a little more recognition in the [top rookie voting] last year, but he got off to a slow start the first six games. We sent him down to Charlotte [of the American Hockey League] to get his confidence back and once he came back he was as good as any first-year defenceman that I’ve seen in a long time.