Joni Pitkanen, Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu (from left to right) have played host to their teammates since the Hurricanes arrived in Finland, but Thursday's game in the trio's home country — the first of two in Helsinki against the Minnesota Wild — will set the tone for Carolina's start to the season. Photo by LTD
For Jussi Jokinen, Joni Pitkanen and Tuomo Ruutu, Thursday's 2010-11 season opener in their home country is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play an NHL game in front of friends, family and countrymen in Finland. But they're not the only ones who will have an especially memorable moment when the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild christen this year's campaign with the first of two games to be played in Eastern Scandinavia as part of the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere.
For Jeff Skinner and Zac Dalpe, it will be their National Hockey League debuts. For Patrick O`Sullivan, it will be first regular season game wearing the jersey of the team that hails from his childhood state. For Joe Corvo and Anton Babchuk, it's a second and third chance, respectively, to be a Hurricane. For Eric Staal and Cam Ward, it's time to officially imprint the them as the organization’s franchise players. And for the rest — from dark horse Calder Candidate Jamie McBain, to draft day trade acquisiton Bobby Sanguinetti, to 21-year-old star-in-the-making Brandon Sutter, to 2006 Cup winners Chad LaRose and Erik Cole — it's the start of another season: 82 games of goals and assists, fights and flights, bumps and bruises, and — most importantly — win and losses.
After months of waiting, the NHL season is upon them.A new year means new faces, and the Hurricanes have gone from one of NHL's oldest teams at the start of last season to one of the younger ones. Of the 24 players on the active roster for this year's opener, just 11 were on the ledger when the 2009-10 season began Oct. 2 at the RBC Center against the Philadelphia Flyers — 12 if you count Sergei Samsonov, who did not travel to Europe because he is on the team's injured list.
One of the players who was in Carolina's lineup on opening night last season will line up across from the Hurricanes when the puck drops on the 2010-11 season. Matt Cullen, who returned to his home state when he signed a three-year contract with the Wild this offseason, was shipped to Ottawa at last year's trade deadline but is a Hurricane in the eyes of many, having won a Cup with the team in 2006.
On the whole, Minnesota will be trying to bounce back from a disappointing season that saw them finish 13th in the Western Conference, a distant 11 points out of the eighth playoff spot. The Wild are led by captain Mikko Koivu, another Finnish player coming home for NHL Premiere. Koivu led Minnesota in scoring last season with 71 points and the ink is barely dry on his new seven-year, $47.256 million contract.
On top of the addition of Cullen, Minnesota signed three-time Cup winner John Madden to serve as their shutdown center. They also brought in goalie Jose Theodore to backup Finn Niklas Backstrom in net. Theodore was signed after Josh Harding became the latest in a long line of injuries the Wild suffered prior to the season. Harding's season-ending knee injury left a void behind Backstrom, leading to the signing of Theodore.
On top of that, James Sheppard, the ninth overall pick in the 2006 draft, was injured in a September ATV accident that could sideline him into 2011. Pierre-Marc Bouchard will not play the opening series as he tries to bounce back from seemingly endless concussion issues. Veteran Marek Zidlicky is questionable for the opener.
That doesn't mean there isn't talent in the Wild lineup. Forwards Guillaume Latendresse, Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen all scored at least 20 goals last season, and right wing Martin Havlat is a one-time 31-goal scorer. The defense is anchored by Brent Burns, who seemed to lose his way over the past couple seasons, and Nick Schultz, a workhorse who can log big minutes with Burns. Minnesota also added Cam Barker — selected third overall behind Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft held in Raleigh — from Chicago last spring in a pre-emptive cap savings move by the Blackhawks.
But perhaps the most exciting player in the Wild lineup is bodychecking machine Cal Clutterbuck, who has led the NHL in hits in each of his first two full professional seasons. Clutterbuck's offensive contributions have been modest in his first two seasons, but his hat trick in the Wild's final preseason tuneup, a 5-1 exhibition win Monday over Tampere of Finland's SM-liiga, has some predicting a scoring breakthrough from the third-year player. If you are interested in more info about the Wild, check out Hockey Wilderness.
For the Hurricanes, the influx of youth and some new faces has given the Carolina forward lines and defense a totally new look. O'Sullivan will hopefully give the team a legitimate playmaker, a commodity they lost when Ray Whitney left for Phoenix in unrestricted free agency. Skinner, a goal scorer rivaled only by top pick Taylor Hall in this past season's entry draft, could provide the Canes with some much-needed sniping, be it from the wing or at center.
Pitkanen will anchor the blueline and is joined by several offensively gifted defensemen. Babchuk and Corvo — who
is questionable with a lower-body injury Paul Maurice said would play the opener — provide heavy shots from the point, while Sanguinetti (update: will be a healthy scratch) is an elite skater with scoring potential and McBain will look to build on his impressive late-season showing in 2009-10. The main question is whether or not newly anointed alternate captain Tim Gleason will have enough stay-at-home help to keep pucks away from Ward. Brett Carson is an up-and-coming player in his own zone, while Jay Harrison can drop the gloves and get physical with his 6-4 frame.
In net, Ward and Backstrom will be looking to bounce back from disappointing 2009-10 campaigns. Ward's was derailed by injuries, leading to the first losing record (18-23-5) of his career. Backstrom was victimized by Minnesota's coaching change, with newcomer Todd Richards implementing an up-tempo style that varied greatly from the Jacques Lemaire trapping scheme that yielded Backstrom 83 wins from 2006-07 through 2008-09. Last year his save percentage dropped dramatically (.923 to .903) and he gave up nearly half a goal more per game (2.33 to 2.72) from the previous season.
We will update with line combinations if the information is available prior to the game. The game will start at noon Eastern time and will be aired on Versus in HD and 99.9 The Fan. The open game thread will kick off at 11:30.