Shortly after the Hurricanes' improbable postseason run had ended
last spring, G.M. Jim Rutherford approached defenseman Bret
Hedican, a midseason acquisition who had become one of the club's
steadiest blueliners, and asked if the free-agent-to-be was
interested in returning to Carolina. "I told Jim, 'If you keep
this team together, I'm willing to stay; if not, I'll look for
other options,'" says Hedican, who subsequently re-signed for $18
million over six years. "I was straight with him, and he was
straight with me. Jim basically signed everybody in this dressing
In a bank-busting display of largesse, Rutherford locked up free
agents Hedican and center Ron Francis (two years, $11 million)
and bestowed substantial raises on wingers Jeff O'Neill (two
years, $7 million) and Sami Kapanen (one year, $3 million), and
defenseman Aaron Ward (four years, $7.5 million). By preserving
the club's nucleus, Rutherford announced to the team's fans and
the rest of the NHL that the Hurricanes, surprise Cup finalists,
would not be one-hit wonders. "Our players were successful, and
they had to be paid accordingly," Rutherford says, in justifying
a payroll that increased from $33.5 million last season to $37.9
million. "This team deserved to stay together."
The 32-year-old Hedican is a nimble skater who fits perfectly
into coach Paul Maurice's neutral-zone trap. Chided throughout
his career for not becoming a stronger offensive player, Hedican
was thrilled to learn, upon his arrival last January, that
Maurice's blueliners are expected only to tend to their own end.
"It was like a weight had been lifted," Hedican says. "I don't
have to force things offensively, just play good, solid D."
The defense's role is made simpler by the balanced scoring from
three lines, anchored by Francis, O'Neill and second-line center
Rod Brind'Amour. The Hurricanes expect improved production from
second-year winger Erik Cole, who scored 16 goals and led the
team with 257 hits, and rookie Jaroslav Svoboda, who has the best
hands on the club.
Having committed to about $45 million in new contracts this
summer, Carolina is in position to make another Cup run. "They
were good contracts for our team," says Maurice. "After you go
to the finals, you've got no choice." --D.G.H.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA (HURRICANES) [Regional Cover Inset] WHY the 'CANES ARE TOUGH AGAIN JEFF O'NEILL
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Erik Cole
Ron Francis begins '02-03 having played in 1,569 games, 46
behind Larry Murphy for second place and 198 behind Gordie Howe.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 13 Forwards are big, fast and creative
DEFENSE 12 Keeping Hedican key; more experienced Tanabe
GOALTENDING 17 Irbe-Weekes solid, if unspectacular, tandem
SPECIAL TEAMS 11 Face-off specialists Francis, Brind'Amour big
MANAGEMENT 10 G.M. Rutherford deserves credit for being patient