RALEIGH — The Hurricanes enter the 2019-20 season with momentum — something that has been lacking for a decade.
Carolina’s run to the Eastern Conference Final affirmed the team’s dedication to analytics-driven team-building, and its crafty offseason moves added even more talent. Toss in that owner Tom Dundon has allowed GM Don Waddell to spend to the cap, and the Hurricanes look like a force to be reckoned with this season and beyond.
Only one everyday player is older than 30, and the team’s top-five returning scorers are 26 or younger. That said, the Hurricanes did lose its inspirational leader, captain Justin Williams, to hockey purgatory — the soon-to-be-38-year-old did not officially retire but has stepped away from the NHL to start the season — and Justin Faulk, an alternate captain last season, was traded during training camp.
So the Hurricanes will need its new leadership group to step up and try to replicate the family atmosphere and fun that helped the 2018-19 team return to the postseason and become a league-wide sensation. They do it with a roster that has seven players who were not in the opening night lineup a year ago.
The puck drops on the 82-game season Thursday when Carolina hosts Montreal at PNC Arena.
Petr Mrazek, James Reimer
Mrazek returns on a new two-year deal after splitting time last season with Curtis McElhinney, who signed with Tampa Bay in the offseason. Mrazek went 23-14-3 with a .914 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average in 40 games for Carolina last season, then helped the Hurricanes reach the Eastern Conference Final with a 5-5 record that included two shutouts.
Reimer struggled in his third season with the Panthers, finishing with a .900 save percentage and 3.09 goals-against average while going 13-12-5. That proved reason enough for Florida to move on from the goalie they had groomed to replace Roberto Luongo, who retired after the 2018-19 season and was instead replaced by big-ticket free agent Sergei Bobrovsky. The Panthers traded Reimer — who still has two years remaining on his contract and carries a $3.4 million cap hit — to Carolina for Scott Darling and subsequently bought out the failed Hurricanes starter.
Reimer, at least for now, won the backup job over Anton Forsberg and Alex Nedeljkovic, but it will be Mrazek who is expected to carry the bulk of the load this season. The 27-year-old Czech played a career-high 49 regular season games in 2015-16 with Detroit, and the Hurricanes will likely need at least that many games from Mrazek to have a successful 2019-20.
Sebastian Aho, Erik Haula, Jordan Staal, Lucas Wallmark
The offseason uncertainty regarding Aho was over quickly — but not without drama. Aho, a restricted free agent, signed a five-year offer sheet with the Canadiens and forced the Hurricanes’ hand. Carolina quickly decided to match and, despite the hefty $8.454 million annual cap hit and more than $21 million in signing bonuses in the first two years, the contract ended up looking very favorable for the Hurricanes when compared to other RFA deals signed leading up to the season. Now Aho will need to build on his breakthrough 83-point season and further grow into the role of No. 1 center.
Carolina knows what it gets in Staal, its new captain and arguably the best shutdown center in the NHL. While Staal’s modest offensive output has kept him from winning a Selke Trophy, there’s no denying the impact the 31-year-old has in all three zones and in all situations.
The Hurricanes added more depth down the middle by acquiring Haula from Vegas. Two seasons ago, Haula scored 29 goals and had 55 points for the upstart Golden Knights, helping them to the Stanley Cup Final. But his 2018-19 season ended after just 15 games due to a horrific knee injury. Haula is back to full power and, Carolina hopes, capable of returning to his form from two seasons ago.
Wallmark, meanwhile, was an invaluable but overlooked part of the Hurricanes’ success last season. Capable of filling in on the power play, as a shutdown defender or as a role player, Wallmark will get easier, albeit fewer, minutes in a fourth-line role thanks to Carolina’s improved depth.
Ryan Dzingel, Warren Foegele, Jordan Martinook, Brock McGinn, Martin Necas, Nino Niederreiter, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen
The Hurricanes are expecting even more out of its group of wingers this season after they helped Carolina boost its scoring by 17 goals over the season before. Teravainen had a career year with 76 points, and his eight power play goals are the most for a returning Hurricanes player. Carolina will also get a full season of Niederreiter, who had 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games after being acquired from Minnesota for Victor Rask.
But there’s probably no one the team is more excited about than Svechnikov, the second-year power forward who scored 20 goals — all at even strength, second only to Aho — in his rookie season. The Russian looks stronger and more confident heading into his second season and will be expected to play an even bigger role, especially on the power play.
The team also added firepower through free agency, signing Dzingel — who scored a combined 49 goals the last two seasons — to a two-year contract worth $3.375 million annually. A lower-body injury suffered in the preseason threatened to keep the 27-year-old out of the lineup to start the season, but he returned to practice Tuesday.
The battle for the final roster spot went to Necas ahead of Julien Gauthier. Both former first-round picks, Necas was penciled into the lineup from the time last season’s playoff run ended. But Gauthier fought his way into the conversation with an impressive preseason that saw him use his size and speed to create chances — though no goals. With Gauthier headed back to Charlotte, Necas is the only right-shooting forward on the roster, and he will be expected to contribute on the power play. His leash could be short, however, if he doesn’t produce early in the season.
Foegele, Martinook and McGinn are all energy wingers who bring physicality and depth scoring. Martinook, a newly minted alternate captain, is the team’s emotional leader and had a career-high 15 goals last season. McGinn has become a top penalty killer and carved himself into Hurricanes lore with his double-overtime winner if Game 7 of Carolina’s first-round series against the Capitals. Foegele — last year’s camp standout — also upped his game in the postseason and finished fourth among Hurricanes wingers in playoff scoring.
Joel Edmundson, Haydn Fleury, Jake Gardiner, Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin, Trevor van Riemsdyk
The Hurricanes defense is admired throughout the league, but that didn’t keep the team from revamping it ahead of this season. Back are Slavin, Pesce and Hamilton, the core of a defense that is both young and reasonably priced. They are led by Slavin, named an alternate captain for this season, who figures to garner even more Norris Trophy votes this season as the hockey world becomes more aware of his skill and worth.
Carolina added even more value with Gardiner, who signed a four-year deal worth a bargain $4.05 million a year on the eve of training camp. His addition made Faulk, a pending free agent, expendable, and the Hurricanes traded their longest-tenured player to St. Louis in exchange for Edmundson and a prospect. Edmundson is expected to add some needed snarl to Carolina’s blue line.
It was a role Fleury seemingly couldn’t fill, as he now looks like the seventh defenseman again once van Riemsdyk — who had shoulder surgery following an injury suffered in the Capitals series — is ready to return to the lineup. Fleury should get an extended chance to prove himself, but good camps from Roland McKeown and Gustav Forsling, the possibility of calling up more experienced Frederik Claesson, and the possibility of bringing up Jake Bean mean the former first-round pick will need to prove himself.