Despite the frigid temperatures inside of Raleigh Center Ice, the Carolina Hurricanes' practice facility, you couldn't help but have a warm feeling Friday as the return NHL hockey was within sight. Jiri Tlusty and Andreas Nodl were back in red, black and white from stints playing overseas, and Jeff Skinner was smiling up a, well, storm.
The group of players prepping for the looming brief training camp was small — just seven players hit the ice Friday, with newcomer Jordan Staal strolling through the locker room afterward having opted for an off-ice workout — but the tape-to-tape passes and sound of pucks hitting the glass helped somewhat ease the pain following nine months without Hurricanes hockey.
""It feels like I haven’t been here in about two years," Nodl said following the workout. "It’s a long layoff."
The faces on the ice Friday were familiar, but the players know the team has a new — and more high-powered — look heading into the upcoming truncated schedule.
"Getting Jordan and Alex [Semin] here is going to help our offense a lot," Jussi Jokinen said.
Jokinen knows Semin particularly well, having faced him in the Southeast Division for more than four seasons.
"Semin has been so deadly against us," Jokinen said. "He’s scored some big goals playing for the Caps, and I think he can help us on the shootout, too."
Not many know more about the shootout than Jokinen — only Pavel Datsyuk (31) has scored more shootout goals than Jokinen's 30 since the tiebreaker was instituted following the last lockout. Semin's 15 shootout goals (scored on 43 opportunities during his time in Washington) rank tied for 41st.
The younger Staal's game is different, but no less dangerous.
"Obviously, Jordan is just one of the best all-around players in the whole league, and he’s just so good in every aspect of the game," Jokinen said.
Nodl, whose fiancee had a baby on Christmas Eve during the work stoppage, concurs on his two new teammates.
"It’s no secret that Semin and Staalsy are two excellent players," Nodl said. "Last year we relied too much on [Eric Staal] and Skinner and now we got a couple new guys, and it’s going to be helpful."
Nodl seemed particularly happy to have Jordan Staal on his side going forward.
"He’s one of the strongest guys down low," Nodl said of the new alternate captain. "He uses his body so well, and he’s a really smart player. He can play 20 minutes and he doesn’t even sweat. He’s pretty much a beast. It’s tough to get the puck from him. He’s kind of like a Jagr down low."
Speaking of Jagr, Tlusty spent the lockout playing with the man he called his childhood hero.
"One of my dreams came to because I was looking up to him as a young player," Tlusty said of playing on a line with Jagr, along with long-time friend Tomas Plekanec, for Kladno in the Czech league. "He’s from my hometown, and he’s the hero back home. That is priceless"
But while Tlusty was grateful to play with a friend and a legend back home, he knows playing 26 games overseas can't fully prepare one for the rigors of the NHL.
"The game is so different over here. It’s a physical game over here," Tlusty said. "It’s not physical back home like here. So there’s going to be a difference. You can say you’re in game shape, but this game is way faster and way quicker. It’s going to be definitely hard, but I think I’m one step ahead of the guys who have just been practicing."
Tim Brent was delayed in getting back on the ice, having had double hernia surgery in the fall.
"I had surgery the start of October, so I missed a good chunk of being able to skate," Brent said. "I’ve been skating for the last month or so with a junior team at home and trying to get ready. It’ll be a challenge, but I think everybody’s kind of in the same boat."
Brian Burke's sudden dismissal from the Maple Leafs was a shock to many, including Brent, who played his first full NHL season under the Cup-winning GM in Toronto.
"Yeah, it was shocking to me. I didn’t see that one coming at all," Brent said. "I don’t think, by the sounds of it, he did or any Toronto fans did. I like Brian Burke a lot. He was very good to me and I obviously wish him the best with whatever he does next."
Tlusty, who was drafted by John Ferguson Jr. with the Leafs and later dealt to Carolina by Burke, doesn't have as many fond memories of his time in Toronto.
"I don’t really follow Toronto anymore. I got over that," Tlusty said. "I was asked in an interview if I wanted to be back in Toronto now that Burke isn’t there anymore, and I was like, ‘You know what, actually I don’t want to be there anymore.’ I really like it over here."
Tlusty was quick to stamp out the concept that every NHLer wants to be in Toronto.
"[Those] who haven’t been there want to play there," Tlusty said. "Whoever goes there, then after that it’s the opposite.
"The fans are amazing there. If you’re doing well, they support you, they are on your side and are always there. But the media there, they just get under your skin and it’s not sometimes fun. Most of the time it should be fun, and you usually don’t have much fun over there if you’re not winning as many games as you should."
Ward's stay was the shortest of all, with equipment manager Jorge Alves relieving him in net for the remainder of the drills.
• It's easy to see how Brent has clawed his way to become a full-time NHLer: his on-the-ice effort is matched by his off-ice intensity. When asked about the chance to perhaps fll lthe third-line center role, Brent didn't hesitate in saying he had his eye on it.
"That was my thought process going in to the summer," Brent said. "Once Sutter got traded, we were lucky enough to get Jordan in return. They started talking about playing [the Staal brothers] together and that left a spot open in the middle. I think if you’re not trying to fill that and get better as a player, you’re career is probably over."
• Semin has reportedly arrived in Raleigh and expected at Saturday's noon skate at RCI.
• The NHL schedule could be out as early as Saturday morning, but it has already leaked out that Carolina will open the season at Florida next Saturday (Jan. 19). The Panthers will raise their 2011-12 Southeast Division banner prior to the game.The Hurricanes' rumored home opener is Tuesday, Jan. 22.
• The Checkers made their last collective pitch to be among those given a shot to earn a roster spot, clobbering Oklahoma City 7-0 Friday night. Justin Peters — who will battle Dan Ellis and Brian Boucher for the chance to back up Ward this season — had a 24-save shutout, while Tim Wallace led the way with a goal and three assists. Likely camp invitees Zac Dalpe and Bobby Sanguinetti each had a goal and an assist, and Zach Boychuk scored his team-leading 16th goal. Chris Terry, Jeremy Welsh and Sean Dolan also scored against the Barons, who were without all their Edmonton-bound stars now that the lockout is over.