Take Three...Canes are back

RALEIGH In, are the new guys. Not just new either - new and young and hungry. Or in the case of fellas like Dan LaCouture - not so young, but very hungry. While young guys are generally students rather than teachers - hopefully their verve will give the elder statesman of the team a little shot in the arm.

So what's to be excited about? Eric Staal for one. The guy was an absolute horse down the stretch last season. With a fat new contract in his pocket - he's got $60M reasons to keep it up. Rod Brind'Amour is the locker-room leader of this team, but it's Eric's club once they hit the ice. There's a reason he's on the video game boxes and in the GQ spreads and with the injuries to Justin Williams and Scott Walker, it's imperative he comes out flying. I'm personally pumped to get a look at Zach Boychuk. He's yet to be hit since a wrist surgery, but when a Canes spokesman uses the term "ridiculously awesome" to describe a player, you know he's got some flash. Whether that 19 year old zip can translate to the grown man's game remains to be seen. Cam Ward should continue to improve - but he's got to cut out the soft goals that crippled him and the team every so often.

There are obviously question marks too. The defense needs to be better - especially out of the gate. More often than not last year, the Canes were down a goal before the fans were even down in their seats. The penalty kill needs to be dramatically better. Joni Pitkanen will have big expectations. He's yet to fulfill them at any previous stop. Everyone knows he's got the game - he needs to prove he's got the noggin to be a dominator. Faces like Anton Babchuk/Josef Melichar are enigmas - who knows? If Frank Kaberle comes back from the dead, that'll be a bonus and hopefully Joe Corvo continues his strong play from last year. Maybe most amazing about the defense - not a single Canadian. Not one Canuck. I hate to go all Don Cherry here - but this is the NHL isn't it??

One glorious summer has been followed by two glum winters. When the Canes reached the NHL's Mt. Olympus in 2006, they seemed situated to stay there - or at least make a good climb at it for the next several years. You know what's happened instead: 2006-07 was a hangover plain and simple. 2007-08 was lost in the middle months, a dreary stretch when no one seemed interested from the top on down.

It's one thing to think you've got the pieces for another Cup run - as the Canes do. It's another altogether to have the desire to go make it happen. Hockey is just as much about will as it is skill. That's the message this team needs to remember entering a new year. Winning the Stanley Cup was fantastic - but hopefully it didn't sap the desire of this team to get it done again. Once again - no one expects this team to do much. That's usually when they do their best work.

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