After an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference final, the big question is whether the Carolina Hurricanes’ play from January and beyond was a short-term phenomenon or the beginning of a long-term trend. The Hurricanes return with almost the entire roster that made it through two rounds of the playoffs, fending off an offer sheet for Sebastian Aho and bringing back goalie Petr Mrazek.
Even beyond their celebrations and youthful exuberance – embracing the ‘Bunch of Jerks’ label bestowed on them by Don Cherry and turning it into a marketing coup – it was absolutely essential for Carolina to end its playoff drought. Just as the Canes had gone nine years without a post-season appearance, they have not made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2002. To supplement the roster, GM Don Waddell acquired center Erik Haula, who missed all but 15 games with a knee injury but scored 55 points two seasons ago. Waddell also picked up Ryan Dzingel, a quietly productive left winger.
There’s superstar upside here with Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, and rookie Martin Necas getting another shot after spending most of last season in the AHL. The Hurricanes have plenty of skilled young wingers, playmakers (Teuvo Teravainen) and goal-scorers (Svechnikov). They’re less solid at center, but Jordan Staal is a two-way workhorse, and Haula will help if he returns to pre-injury form.
Nino Niederreiter was an impact addition while Brock McGinn and Warren Foegele showed their usefulness in the playoffs, giving the Canes some wiggle room if Justin Williams decides to retire. There’s also offense from the blueline with Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk.
The Hurricanes are built around their quick, clever defense, which is prototypical for the modern NHL. The unquestioned star is Jaccob Slavin, who finally got some credit in the playoffs for his impeccable all-around game. Slavin isn’t flashy, but he’s impossibly smooth and thrives against top competition.
Rounding out the top-four are the offense-oriented Hamilton and Faulk, while Brett Pesce is a defensive stalwart. The useful Trevor van Riemsdyk anchors the third pair, where the Canes are counting on Haydn Fleury to step up. Gustav Forsling adds depth, but there’s probably room for another young player such as Jake Bean or Jesper Sellgren to make a run at a roster spot.
After rebooting his career with a solid first season in Carolina, Mrazek looked around to see what else was out there – as did the Hurricanes – before quickly re-signing. The challenge for Mrazek is to establish himself as a No. 1 after splitting time with the departed Curtis McElhinney. James Reimer is penciled in as the backup, but the Hurricanes have options in Anton Forsberg and Alex Nedeljkovic, the AHL’s top goaltender.
The Canes became a top PK team when Aho and Teravainen were entrusted with that duty, and with Staal’s prowess in the faceoff circle and capable penalty-killers such as McGinn, Foegele and Jordan Martinook, that figures to again be a strength. As for the power play, it was subpar in the regular season and abysmal in the playoffs – a continuing area of concern, since Rod Brind’Amour was responsible for the malfunctioning power play as an assistant before becoming head coach. This area has the most potential for improvement.
Brind’Amour proved as capable a motivator as a coach as he was as a captain, and he inherited the perfect lieutenant in Williams, his former linemate and close friend. That duo managed to change the culture and mood in the dressing room almost immediately, and the fun bled over onto the ice with the team’s controversial but popular Storm Surge celebrations. There will be a bit of a leadership vacuum if Williams retires.
Necas will get another shot, albeit without the responsibility of playing center, but other rookie forwards will have to make a statement in training camp. There’s more room on defense, where a spot could open for Bean or Sellgren.
Can the Hurricanes recreate the atmosphere that helped bring them so much success, especially if Williams retires? Will their talented young stars take a big leap forward?
Brind’Amour grew into the job and should only improve. Owner Tom Dundon is hands-on and continues to invest in a growing analytics team. Waddell was a finalist for GM of the Year for his success negotiating a few slam-dunk trades (including the Niederreiter-for-Victor-Rask heist).
– Luke DeCock
Stanley Cup Odds: 25/1
Prediction: 2nd in Metro
When your farm team wins the Calder Cup, you can rest easy at night. Expect a couple of Charlotte Checkers to push for NHL jobs in October, with Martin Necas and Morgan Geekie two candidates up front. Ryan Suzuki, the Hurricanes’ 2019 first-rounder, fell from the middle of the first round to the end and has plenty of motivation. One of the top playmaking talents in the entire draft class, Suzuki needs to show more fire and mix in some shots with his passes.
1. Martin Necas, C
Age 20 Team Charlotte (AHL)
Skilled pivot struggled to transition to North America but found his groove in spring.
Acquired 12th overall, 2017 NHL ’19-20
2. Jake Bean, D
Age 21 TeamCharlotte (AHL)
Stacked NHL blueline is pushing him to become better defensively. Skating is an area of worry.
Acquired 13th overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
3. Janne Kuokkanen, LW
Age 21 TeamCharlotte (AHL)
The versatile winger does a lot well in the offensive zone. Effort and defense need to be improved.
Acquired 43rd overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
4. Ryan Suzuki, C
Age 18 TeamBarrie (OHL)
Gifted playmaker working on consistency and becoming more selfish in shot situations.
Acquired 28th overall, 2019 NHL ’22-23
5. Julien Gauthier, RW
Age 21 TeamCharlotte (AHL)
Large-bodied winger with finishing touch still refining pro game. Able to play a heavy style.
Acquired 21st overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
6. Eetu Luostarinen, C
Age 21 TeamKalPa (Fin.)
Productive against men in Finland. His large frame and puck skills are works in progress.
Acquired 42nd overall, 2017 NHL ’21-22
7. Jack Drury, C
Age 19 TeamHarvard (ECAC)
NCAA sophomore has leadership qualities and an offensive bent, but he needs to get bigger, faster.
Acquired 42nd overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23
8. Stelio Mattheos, RW
Age 20 TeamBrandon (WHL)
Back-to-back 90-plus point seasons in junior an eye-opener. Rookie-pro test will be telling.
Acquired 73rd overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
9. Jamieson Rees, C
Age 18 TeamSarnia (OHL)
Strong work ethic and plays an aggressive, physical game. Still needs to pick his spots better.
Acquired 44th overall, 2019 NHL ’23-24
10. Morgan Geekie, C
Age 21 Team Charlotte (AHL)
A competitive player with strong hockey sense. The biggest question mark is his skating.
Acquired 67th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21