The Hurricanes may have migrated south from Hartford in 1997,
but hockey didn't really arrive in Tobacco Country until last
spring. Now, after three years of drawing the some of the
smallest crowds in the league (average attendance: 11,315), the
Hurricanes' season-ticket base has doubled, to more than 12,000.
Fans who once referred to the ice-maintenance vehicle as a
Zamboozi are discussing the finer points of the neutral-zone trap.
Down three games to none to the heavily favored Devils in Round
1, Carolina rallied to force a Game 6 in Raleigh. Although
Carolina lost that game, it received a two-minute standing
ovation from a sellout crowd of 18,730. "It was like we had
turned a corner," says 38-year-old center Ron Francis. "If we had
crowds like that every game, every free agent would want to sign
Following a tumultuous off-season in 2000, marked by wholesale
roster changes, the Hurricanes coalesced late last year and
finished with a respectable 38-32-9-3 record. The Carolina core
is a youthful brigade led by rightwingers Jeff O'Neill, 25, and
Shane Willis, 24; center Josef Vasicek, 21; and defenseman David
Tanabe, 21. "I think the fans appreciate the young players
blossoming," says 34-year-old coach Paul Maurice. "They see a
commitment to the future."
During an otherwise quiet summer, the Hurricanes acquired veteran
defenseman Aaron Ward from Detroit and signed free-agent goalie
Tom Barrasso to back up the indefatigable Arturs Irbe (214 games
played over the last three seasons). There are other holes that
still require spackling. The need for a scorer to complement
O'Neill, who had a team-high 41 goals, went unmet, as did an
infusion of toughness to the defense. Carolina also has to figure
how to get better play from blueliner Sandis Ozolinsh, who was
acquired in June 2000. Last season Ozolinsh committed scads of
errors and had a miserable -25 rating.
If the franchise improves its record for a fourth straight
season, that will be no small achievement. "Washington now has
Jagr, Florida has both Bures, Tampa Bay improved," says Maurice
of the division rivals. "If we can take the spirit from the
playoffs and build on it, there's no reason not to think Cup." As
for that goal, the Canes won't be able, but the winds are blowing
in the right direction.
Ron Francis needs 33 assists to overtake Raymond Bourque (1,169)
for second place on the alltime list. Wayne Gretzky is No. 1,
with 1,963 assists.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 20 Vasicek must take some pressure off aging
DEFENSE 18 Needs physical presence; Tanabe can break out
GOALTENDING 12 Irbe finally gets relief with addition of
SPECIAL TEAMS 14 Francis, Brind'Amour, Kapanen key fine PK unit
MANAGEMENT 17 Prospects have developed nicely under Maurice