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I like what I’m seeing from the Carolina Hurricanes this year. Not so much in the short-term on-ice sense - the team has been quite average and has an odd proclivity of either blowing out or getting blown out by opponents - but rather the direction they’re heading.

GM Jim Rutherford has a difficult job in that he does not have a contender on his hands, but he does have some intriguing parts. But given the market conditions in Raleigh, it doesn’t serve the Canes well to rebuild for more than a season or two. So it’s a balancing act. In the past eight seasons, Carolina has made the Stanley Cup’s final four three times (winning it all in 2006) and missed the playoffs entirely otherwise.

Attendance in the seasons following that ’06 Cup has slowly dwindled, from nearly 93 percent capacity at the RBC Center in 2006-07 to 81.4 percent last season. This year, the team is up slightly to 82 percent, but it goes without saying the market would prefer a winner.

Does that mean Rutherford should go out and swing a blockbuster trade? It’s tempting, but wrong. The veteran GM has shown both patience and deftness in the prospect field lately and the tinkering he has done early on proves he wants to ice a competitive team now without sacrificing the future.

For example, the team grabbed crash-and-banger Troy Bodie off waivers from Anaheim last week, then followed it up by acquiring center Ryan Carter from those same Ducks in exchange for a couple depth prospects. Bodie and Carter are both suited for the third or fourth lines and give coach Paul Maurice options if he doesn’t like the look he’s getting on the roster from a player such as Jiri Tlusty. If neither works out, the Canes haven’t really lost anything. Plus, they’re not damaging any upper-line chemistry or taking spots away from top prospects, which brings me to the second deft strategy by Rutherford.

Carolina ended the summer with young forwards such as Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman and Zac Dalpe poised to take positions with the big squad. But the kids were surpassed by 2010 first-rounder Jeff Skinner, who is the early Calder Trophy favorite with 17 points through 21 games.

Boychuk didn’t make the Canes out of camp. He was sent to the American League, where he now leads the Charlotte Checkers in scoring with 23 points in 22 games. Bowman and Dalpe played for Carolina at the start of the season, but were sent down in favor of slightly older pros Tlusty and Jonathan Matsumoto. Bowman and Dalpe have also thrived in Charlotte, with Dalpe contributing more than a point per game and Bowman just under the mark. Time is on their side.

With Cam Ward in net and players such as Eric Staal, Brandon Sutter and Skinner up front, the near-future is practically set in Carolina. Really, the only soft spot is on defense where, with the exception of Jamie McBain, any blue-chip prospects are several years from even competing for a roster spot. And after an excellent 14-game tryout at the end of last season with the Canes, McBain himself has trailed off, with just five assists and no goals through 21 games.

But that’s where Rutherford can concentrate his efforts between now and next season. Acquiring Ian White from Calgary was an upgrade from the up-and-down Anton Babchuk (who went the other way in the multi-player deal), but more is needed. Draft-wise, blueliners such as Duncan Siemens, Dougie Hamilton and Scott Mayfield all provide size and skill and at least one will be available no matter when Carolina picks - assuming this team either misses or just squeaks into the playoffs. It’s likely too much to expect an 18-year-old defenseman to jump right into the NHL, so another top-four blueliner should be the No. 1 priority for the Canes brain trust from here on out.

With that accomplished, there’s no reason Carolina can’t be back contending for a Cup sooner than later.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

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