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Hurricanes hope roster tweaks help return to playoffs

Needing one win to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, the Carolina Hurricanes were unable to get it done on home ice in their regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

While that was certainly a disappointment for owner Peter Karmanos Jr., he enters the 2011-12 campaign feeling confident the club can take it one step further following a busy off-season of maneuvering and managerial tinkering.

"I really don't think we're that far away from being a Stanley Cup winner again," Karmanos told Chip Alexander of The News & Observer. "It's not like we don't have any star players or a good supporting cast. We have a great goalie. We have good forwards. We've strengthened our defense."

Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford was certainly hard at work this summer, revamping his roster with the hope of snapping a two-year playoff hiatus. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, Carolina has missed the playoffs in four of the last five seasons.

"That loss to Tampa Bay at the end of the season was not one of my brightest moments," Karmanos said. "But we played a lot of meaningful games at the end of the season, and at least we got to the last game with a chance. If we had gotten in the playoffs, I really think we'd have fared as well as Tampa."

Rutherford wasted little time in taking care of some general housekeeping in early June, naming Rod Brind'Amour development coach and assistant to coach Paul Maurice. Additionally, Hockey Hall of Fame member Ron Francis was moved back in the front office as Director of Hockey Operations, while former NHL defenseman and coach Dave Lewis was added as an assistant coach and Tom Rowe as a professional scout.

Carolina lost a bidding war for forward Erik Cole, who signed a four-year, $18 million deal with the Montreal Canadiens. The 32-year-old scored 26 goals last season and played all 82 games for the first time in his career -- he played 81 games as a rookie in 2001-02.

While the Hurricanes will miss Cole's relentless work ethic and drive along right wing, Rutherford did more than enough to help fill the void on the depth chart.

The other big loss comes along the blue line in defenseman Joe Corvo, who was dealt to the Boston Bruins in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft. Corvo also played all 82 games for the Hurricanes and reached the 40-point plateau for the first time since 2005-06 with the Los Angeles Kings.

The Hurricanes also lost free-agent defenseman Bryan Rodney to the Anaheim Ducks.

Defenseman Tomas Kaberle will be playing for his third team in two seasons in 2011-12. He began last season in Toronto before being traded to the Bruins in February. The Hurricanes signed the 33-year-old to a three-year, $12.75 million contract, and the move prompted the Corvo trade later in the day.

Kaberle will be counted on as a puck-mover off the transition and will be utilized on the power-play quite often. He produced 4 goals and 47 points while averaging 22:06 of ice time in a combined 82 regular-season games with the Maple Leafs and Bruins last season. In the postseason, Kaberle played in all 25 of Boston's games en route to the Stanley Cup, and ranked fifth among League defensemen with 5 power-play assists. His plus-8 rating in the playoffs was fifth highest among all defensemen.

In the days following Cole's departure to Montreal, Rutherford signed free-agent forwards Alexei Ponikarovsky, Anthony Stewart and Tim Brent; he also added 34-year-old goaltender Brian Boucher to back up All-Star Cam Ward.

Stewart, 26, posted career highs in goals (14), assists (25), points (39) and games played (80) with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010-11. Boucher played in 34 regular-season games with Philadelphia in 2010-11 and produced an 18-10-4 record, 2.42 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. He also appeared in nine of the Flyers' 11 playoff games, going 4-4 with a 3.13 GAA and .904 save percentage.

Of all the moves Rutherford made this off-season, perhaps his best was making certain 22-year-old center Brandon Sutter was locked up for another three years, signing him to a deal worth $6.2 million.

Sutter isn't exactly a scoring machine, but Rutherford considers him one of the NHL's best young two-way forwards. He led team forwards in shorthanded ice time per game (2:21) and blocked shots (73), while pacing the entire team with a plus-13 rating.

Over the course of a week, Rutherford also re-signed three of Carolina's four prominent unrestricted free agents -- forwards Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose and defenseman Joni Pitkanen.

Pitkanen plays a lot of minutes and is also one of the premier transitional defensemen in the League. He led all Hurricanes' defenseman in assists (30) and was second in points (35) skating in 72 games in 2010-11.

The Hurricanes didn't really make a significant change to their lineup this offseason, but that doesn't necessarily mean the club won't be better. Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner returns for his sophomore season, while forwards Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman, Riley Nash and Zach Boychuk and defensemen Bobby Sanguinetti and Justin Faulk will battle for roster spots.

Skinner stunned the hockey world last season when he earned a roster spot out of training camp and became an instant star in the League. The odds of that happening for Carolina's first-round draft pick this year, defenseman Ryan Murphy of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers, is unlikely, particularly since the Hurricanes have a stable of quality prospects on defense.

With captain Eric Staal firmly entrenched as the leader of the group and Ward making certain every game remains within reach, the Hurricanes should again be a team to be reckon with this season.