RALEIGH — Coming into every season — be it college, pros, high school or beer league; baseball, basketball, football or hockey — there’s always a prevailing theme for a team.
Maybe there’s a hotshot newcomer that will put the team over the top. Perhaps a new coach or strategy will improve the overall results. Or it’s a rebuilding year that will eventually lead to bigger and better things.
Heading into the 2020-21 NHL season, the Carolina Hurricanes’ theme is clear: The gang is back and ready to take the next step forward.
There are some changes to the Hurricanes’ roster — most notably, the retirement of Justin Williams — but the team’s young forwards on the cusp of superstardom and a defense that matches up favorably with any other in the league have Carolina in a position to compete for a Stanley Cup.
“I think for the last couple of years we’ve been trying to build the consistency of a winner,” alternate captain Jordan Martinook said last week at the start of training camp. “And I think we’ve accomplished that to a point, but obviously we haven’t gotten to the end goal which is winning a Stanley Cup. … It’s all about us going out and proving that they made the right decision keeping this group together.”
With consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since the turn of the century, the Hurricanes, led by third-year coach Rod Brind’Amour, are banking on the team’s familiarity paying off in a shortened season where a slow start or prolonged slump could spell doom for a team’s playoff chances.
“It’s nice to have a group that you’re familiar with,” Brind’Amour said last Wednesday, “and there’s not a lot of new faces. … There’s that common familiarity with the group, and so we’re very businesslike, which is good.”
While there is familiarity, there are still players who have played fewer than 20 games with their new team like center Vincent Trocheck and defenseman Brady Skjei, along with winger Jesper Fast — the team’s most notable offseason addition.
“(Skjei and Trocheck), who are fairly new guys, I like where they’re at. Skjei especially — I think he looks really comfortable.”
Skjei has seen time in training camp alongside Brett Pesce, who is back from a shoulder injury suffered Feb. 22 and surgery that cost him the balance of the 2019-20 season. If the Pesce-Skjei pairing can click, Carolina’s stout defense will be even more formidable.
“We played some events in the past together,” Pesce said of the two playing together in the USA Hockey system as teenagers. “He’s just such a dynamic skater. That’s his best asset, and his gaps are so good. And when you have a D-man like that, it kind of makes everything easier for you.”
And then there’s Trocheck, the former 30-goal center who has scored just 21 in his past 117 regular season games with Florida and Carolina. If he can regain his scoring touch, the Hurricanes will have a potent 1-2 punch down the middle along with him and Sebastian Aho.
“I thought Trocheck looked really good this year,” defenseman Jake Gardiner said when asked who has stood out in camp. “(He) just looks fast looks confident, and I think he’s gonna have a big year for us.”
While Carolina is looking for Trocheck and Skjei to deliver on their promise and Fast to seamlessly fit in the top nine, it’s the growth of the team’s emerging stars like Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas coupled with the consistent play of Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton that will most likely determine how far the Hurricanes can go.
Svechnikov is a favorite of pundits around the league to emerge as a bona fide star this season after he scored 44 goals in his first two seasons — including two lacrosse goals that punctuated his status as one of the top young players in hockey.
“His willingness to get better is why he’s gonna continue to keep getting better,” Brind’Amour said of the 20-year-old winger. “This guy’s working out, getting stronger. All his skills are there, and then now you add the strength and, to me, the confidence that he’s gained, he’s just gonna continue to grow.”
Both Aho and Teravainen should be point-per-game players, while Slavin will continue to be the defense’s foundation and Necas has the potential to be a 20-goal scorer this year even in a 56-game season — especially if partnering with Svechnikov on the second line works.
“If we can get those guys together and it works, it’s huge,” Brind’Amour said.
As for Hamilton, he’s in the final year of his contract and coming off a season that, if not for injury, would have had him in consideration for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman.
There is mutual interest in the sides agreeing on an extension, but the salary cap crunch and falling revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic further complicates an already pivotal negotiation.
If those talks should break down, Hamilton’s status could be a distraction ahead of the April 12 trade deadline.
And then there’s goaltending. Carolina returns both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, a tandem that helped the Hurricanes allow 2.84 goals per game a year ago, good for 11th in the NHL. Still, many called for Carolina to upgrade its goaltending during the offseason.
With each in the final year of their respective contracts, Mrazek and Reimer will get one more opportunity to show one or both of them can lead Carolina to the top of the NHL.
If the Hurricanes can take advantage of their familiarity, see further growth from their young stars and get serviceable goaltending, the “end goal” of a Stanley Cup is near.
“I think it’s right now,” Pesce said. “And I think we’ve proven the past few years that we’re a threat to any team in the league, and we’re only getting better. … I think it’s no secret anymore that we’re a good team.”