RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes — notoriously slow starters in recent seasons — started the 2018-19 campaign with a 3-0-1 record after Tuesday’s night’s 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks.
The new coaching staff — led by Rod Brind’Amour — and an overhauled roster that features five rookie forwards, new defensemen Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan, and two additions to the goaltending mix have given the Hurricanes a new look. But what has been the difference in Carolina’s start this year and years past?
Much has been made of Sebastian Aho’s struggles at the start of his first two seasons — it took Aho 14 games to get his first NHL goal in 2016-17, and last season he didn’t score until Game 16. Aho, who started the season at center, got his first goal in Columbus on Friday in Carolina’s second game, scored again Tuesday, and has points in all four games so far.
The Hurricanes couldn’t afford another slow start from Aho, especially with him playing center on the top line, and the 21-year-old responded with six points in the first four games.
Unsurprisingly, Aho is not yet satisfied.
“We want to be even better,” he said after Tuesday’s win. “We want to keep building something here.”
Depth creates competition
Depth breeds competition for roster spots, and the team has already shuffled Valentin Zykov — who played the first two games — out of the lineup for Phil Di Giuseppe. Haydn Fleury, a healthy scratch in the first three games despite having a strong camp and preseason, played in his first game Tuesday in place of Trevor van Riemsdyk.
Even beyond the Hurricanes’ NHL roster, Carolina boasts a wealth of talent in the American Hockey League. Checkers center Nicolas Roy made an early case for a look in Raleigh after he opened the season with back-to-back two-goal, one-assist efforts and was named AHL Player of the Week on Tuesday. Hurricanes rookie Lucas Wallmark, currently centering a line with Jordan Martinook and fellow rookie Andrei Svechnikov, had his best game in Sunday’s 8-5 win over the Rangers — a performance that may have been needed to keep Roy in Charlotte for the time being.
Learn from your mistakes
Brind’Amour has preached patience, and the biggest part of that has been allowing his young player to make mistakes without fear of repercussions.
“We play with a confidence out there,” Wallmark said. “Sometimes we’re going to do a mistake, but they always support us, the coaches, and give us feedback and still allow us to try out there. It’s really fun to play.”
Brind’Amour has also made it a point to pair veterans forwards with the young players to help provide stability on each line.
“It’s a huge part of our group that we have veteran leaders that get it, and they’re quality people,” Brind’Amour said. “So they reach out to the young guys and they help them along.
“I just go back to my experiences when I came in the league. It’s the same thing,” Brind’Amour added, recalling his start with the St. Louis Blues. “They stuck me with Adam Oates and Paul MacLean, and it was an easy transition for me.”
It’s paid off, with rookies Warren Foegele and Svechnikov combining for five goals through four games to lead the rookies.
Options in goal
Scott Darling’s injury in the preseason finale threw a wrench in the team’s plans: The presumed starter, who is starting to skate, is still week-to-week with a hamstring injury, Brind’Amour said. But waiver claim Curtis McElhinney performed exceptionally well in his first start, a 35-save effort in Carolina’s 3-1 win in Columbus, and won again Tuesday, while Petr Mrazek is 1-0-1 despite being subjected to the 13-goal affair with the Rangers.
McElhinney could make Carolina’s decision difficult once Darling is ready to return from injury if he continues to perform well, especially if Mrazek can’t match his play.
Brind’Amour lamented the opening night overtime loss to Islanders — not because of how his team played, but rather due to the fact the fans went home unhappy.
“At the end of the day, the unfortunate part is people came here and they wanted to see a win, the coach said after last Thursday’s 2-1 loss, “and I hate it that they have to go home and go, ‘We lost the game,’ That’s the frustrating part.”
But the Hurricanes rewarded their fans Sunday with not only a thrilling 8-5 win — one that featured Carolina coming back from a deficit four times — but a post-victory celebration that made waves around the league.
After collectively saluting the fans at the blue line, the team, led by captain Justin Williams, sprinted to the far boards and leaped into the glass.
“It’s not hotdogging or anything,” Williams said. “We wanted something so we can get together with the fans a little bit after the game with them cheering and us playing and just a nice little send-off.”
The fans got to see it again Tuesday. While it has proven to be a work in progress, the Hurricanes’ celebration is letting the fans in on the fun — and what could be more fun than seven of eight points to start the season.