NSJ Pro Team of the Year 2019: Hurricanes’ deep run revitalizes hockey in NC

Carolina’s rebirth included an end to a long playoff drought and spot in the conference final

The Hurricanes celebrate Brock McGinn’s series-winning goal in double-overtime of Game 7 against the Washington Capitals on April 24, giving Carolina a 4-3 win. (Nick Wass / AP Photo)

Too many times to count over the past over 19 months, Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour has talked about relevance.

First, it was about getting the team he’s been a part of in one way or another since January 2000 back to a level of respectability around the NHL and, more importantly, in the market.

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

Now, it’s about staying relevant.

Brind’Amour would never say last year’s team reached its goals. Yes, the Hurricanes returned to the postseason after a nine-season absence. Yes, Carolina stunned the hockey world by knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals in double overtime of Game 7 in the first round. And yes, Brind’Amour’s troops reached the NHL’s final four before being ousted by the more battle-tested Bruins.

But don’t confuse those accomplishments with a sense of accomplishment. Brind’Amour’s end goal is the same it was back in 2006 — bring a Stanley Cup to Raleigh.

So while the Hurricanes have reached the relevance Brind’Amour craved — no team’s attendance has climbed more than Carolina’s this season — they have not yet done all they’ve set out to do.

That doesn’t mean they’re any less worthy of being North State Journal’s North Carolina Pro Team of the Year for 2019.

While the team’s renaissance starts and ends with Brind’Amour, there were plenty of other factors that got the Hurricanes back to respectability.

Owner Tom Dundon, who took a chance on Brind’Amour despite the former Hurricanes captain having no head coaching experience, has infused both accountability and his bank account into a team that often lacked both. Nearly two years since he took over, the 47-year-old Dundon — who was often criticized by the hockey establishment for his unique approach to a sport that has long recycled ideas, coaches and executives — has turned over nearly everyone from the previous regime.

That includes many of the players, including longtime star winger Jeff Skinner, former fifth overall picks Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm, and Cam Ward, who holds most of Carolina’s goaltender records.

The addition of defenseman Dougie Hamilton — who is an early-season Norris Trophy candidate as the league’s top defenseman — has taken arguably the league’s best defense to another level, while swapping out Ward and Scott Darling for Petr Mrazek and, first, Curtis McElhinney last season and James Reimer this year has given the Hurricanes stability in net.

The team did keep Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, who have become some of the best point-producing forwards in the NHL. Aho was 21st in the NHL in scoring last season with 83 points, while Teravainen’s 55 assists were tied 18th in the league, and the tandem continues to produce at or close to a point-per-game pace this season.

And then there’s 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov, who scored 20 even-strength goals last season as a rookie and has paced the team thus far this campaign. The Russian’s emergence as a power forward — a breed that isn’t as prevalent these days as it was in past years — gives the Hurricanes yet another puzzle piece as they try to solve the Stanley Cup puzzle.

Could 2020 bring even bigger and better things? One question is the hole left by semi-retired captain Justin Williams, who has not played this season but hasn’t officially hung up his skates.

The 38-year-old with the “Mr. Game 7” moniker — it was, after all, Williams who set up Brock McGinn for that overtime winner in D.C. — captained last year’s team under his former linemate Brind’Amour, and the rumors of the three-time Cup winner’s potential return could provide a further spark to Carolina’s lineup.

“When you have guys that have gone through the wars to win the Stanley Cup, they get it,” Brind’Amour said ahead of this season. “You don’t even have to wonder where their mindset is — they know what it takes to win.”

For now, the Hurricanes will have to be satisfied with a 2019 that saw them serve notice to the league that they’re back. Brind’Amour & Co. will now have to maintain that level while taking another step to reach their ultimate goal.