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Hobbled Carolina Hurricanes hope to stay healthy

RALEIGH, N.C. - Perhaps the biggest reason for the Carolina Hurricanes' latest late-season collapse was that Rod Brind'Amour was relegated to being an observer.

The hobbled Hurricanes captain couldn't lead his team on the ice and instead was stuck looking on from the press box along with Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen and Justin Williams - all impact players who missed time down the stretch due to injuries.

Those ailments - and some players possibly rushing to recover from them too quickly - helped precipitate Carolina's slide from the Southeast Division lead and out of the playoffs entirely.

As they look forward, they insist they've learned the importance of taking care of their future well in advance, starting with Friday night's opener against Florida.

"You've got so many games, you can't leave it up to those last games, because you never know what can happen," Brind'Amour said. "You've got 82 games for a reason. You better make your hay early on so you don't have to stress over one game at the end."

Mounting injuries largely are why Carolina has endured two years of post-Stanley Cup struggles, and why this season has been threatened before it even begins. With key forwards Williams and Scott Walker starting this year on the injured list, the Hurricanes' season might depend on how quickly they can get healthy - and if they can stay that way - while avoiding the lulls that plagued this team since it won its only title in '06.

"You've got to have that consistency," center Eric Staal said. "You want to make sure you start off well, get ahead and then stay up front the whole time."

The Hurricanes hope they've addressed their nagging depth questions with a few new additions to their younger blue line.

"We needed something else," Brind'Amour said. "We've got tons of great forwards. We needed a defenceman."

They picked up Joni Pitkanen from Edmonton for fan favourite Erik Cole to add another offensive-minded threat on the blue-line and further strengthen a power-play unit that last year ranked eighth in the NHL. Pitkanen, a first-round draft pick in 2004, scored at least 40 points in two straight years with Philadelphia before joining the Oilers.

Carolina also brought back defenceman Anton Babchuk, who spent last season in Russia, and signed bruising defender Josef Melichar, a former Penguin. They replace aging veterans Glen Wesley, who retired, and Bret Hedican, who did not return but has not signed with anyone.

"The moves that were made were to try to fill those (questionable) positions and maybe bring in a bit of a different look with Pitkanen, who hopefully can get back to his point numbers - or better - when he was with Philadelphia," coach Peter Laviolette said. "Not only did we help to fill some of those voids, but (the team) got a different look as well."

The Hurricanes could make those moves because of the plethora of forwards on their top three lines; six players had 48 or more points last season. Mid-season pickup Sergei Samsonov revived his career in Laviolette's forward-friendly system with 36 points on the No. 2 line and parlayed that into a three-year contract.

Yet that depth will be tested right away - Walker will miss six weeks after having hand surgery, and Williams is out at least three more months after tearing his Achilles' tendon during an off-ice workout three days before camp started.

With only two home games in October and an early six-game road swing, the Hurricanes can't afford another dismal early stretch like they had last season to raise questions about Laviolette's job security. They went 5-10 from Nov. 14-Dec. 14, and lost 10 of 14 games from Dec. 20-Jan. 17.

But after the way 2007-08 ended - they approached a franchise record with 43 victories, yet needed only one more to make the playoffs - Carolina's players and coaches insist they have something to prove.

"The way it ended last year was one of the most difficult things that you can swallow," Laviolette said. "When you're in first until the last day of the year and you (need to) win one game, and you do a lot of things right in that last game of the year, and you can't get the win and put it away, and to have it end certainly leaves a pit in your stomach that, one, you've got to get over, and two, you've got to get ready to move forward on it. So I think it's good to take the time to heal up, to put that behind you and focus in on what you have to do this year."



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