Relevant again, Hurricanes look to build on deep run

Carolina's trip to the Eastern Conference Final has raised expectations

First-year coach coach Rod Brind'Amour relied on the veteran leadership of captain Justin Williams, a breakout season from Sebastian Aho and the reliability of Jordan Staal to guide the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final. (Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Following Game 1 of the 2018-19 season, Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour — convinced his team had outplayed the Islanders in a 2-1 overtime loss at PNC Arena — apologized to the fans.

“At the end of the day, the unfortunate part is people came here and they wanted to see a win, and I hate it that they have to go home and go, ‘We lost the game,’ Brind’Amour said. “That’s the frustrating part.”

In what felt like a lifetime later — 224 days, if you’re counting — Brind’Amour gave another heartfelt apology to the fans following Carolina’s 4-0 loss to the Bruins last Thursday that completed Boston’s sweep of the Eastern Conference Final and ended the Hurricanes’ season.

“That’s just, that was a dud game for them to come watch,” Brind’Amour said. “I apologize for that, but tremendous support for our team.

“It means a lot to me, but it means a lot to our players and this organization to see the people not just coming back, but the way they do it and the way they get behind our group. It’s a real community feel. There’s something special. And it was great.”

Opening night featured a sellout crowd of 18,680, and seven months and 12 days later a thunderous group of 19,041 — nearly 400 with standing-room-only tickets — saluted a team that at times inspired, at other times frustrated, but from opening night on convinced anyone watching that its fate wouldn’t be dictated by effort.

“Maybe they don’t know any better,” Brind’Amour said after earning his first home win on Oct. 7, an 8-5 victory that saw Carolina score four unanswered goals in the final 15 minutes of the game. “But I just like that they just kept digging in.”

It was effort that helped Carolina out of its decade-long hole and — as both Brind’Amour and captain Justin Williams are fond of saying — back to relevance.

“The goal was to get relevant,” Brind’Amour said after the team clinched its playoff berth. “That was the first thing. I felt like we’d kind of fallen off the map.”

The roadmap back to relevance will face a new task next season: building off of the team’s first successful campaign in a decade. And there are questions to be answered.

Will Williams, a free agent who will be 38 on Oct. 4, be back for another season?

“I haven’t made a decision yet,” Williams said Monday at the team’s end-of-season availability. “You don’t do those things irrationally. You put thought into it. You put perspective. You find out inside whether you have the full capabilities emotionally and physically to do it. … If I have everything again, then I’ll be here. But I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

And who will be in goal next season, with both Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney up for new contracts, and AHL Goaltender of the Year Alex Nedeljkovic with little left to accomplish in the minors? General manager Don Waddell said Tuesday he’d like to re-sign both Mrazek and McElhinney, while having Nedeljkovic available as the No. 3 or an NHL option if one of the other two doesn’t return.

“I would love to stay,” Mrazek said,” while McElhinney added, “I don’t know where they’re at in terms of their depth, so we’ll see. Hopefully, it’ll work out and I’ll be back.”

Then there are the strides needed to rise to the next level. The team is armed with depth — both in the organization and with draft picks — and will have some holes to fill.

Micheal Ferland, acquired last offseason from Calgary in the blockbuster trade that also brought Dougie Hamilton to Raleigh, is a free agent and said again Monday he would like to return, but he will likely be looking for a longer and more lucrative deal than Carolina is willing to offer.

“Certainly like the element, no doubt about it,” Brind’Amour said Tuesday of Ferland’s combination of skill and toughness. “And really what we’re talking about, every team likes. … Sign me up. We’ll take ’em all.

“Having said that, Micheal missed a big portion of the year and the playoffs, and we didn’t really miss a beat. So, it’s an element you want to have on your team, for sure. It’s just tough to play against.”

The Hurricanes have also been trying to add talent to their forward corps all season. The team took a step in the right direction with the trade for Nino Niederreiter in mid-January, but it still wants to add more firepower.

Regardless of how they proceed, the Hurricanes have a tall task to match the chemistry they built as a team and the bond forged with their fans while also improving.

“We have to turn the page and we have to do it again,” Brind’Amour said. “And we have to get even better. We have to get more out of everything.

“That’s the challenge.”