Category 5: Hurricanes open season vs. Islanders

Six Hurricanes will make their debut in Thursday's season opener

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, left, is one of six players who will make their Hurricanes debut on Thursday at PNC Arena. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Hurricanes season is upon us. Carolina will open the 2021-22 season Thursday night at PNC Arena against the New York Islanders, the team considered the Hurricanes’ main competition atop the Metropolitan Division.

1. Goalie Frederik Andersen will make his Hurricanes debut 4,128 days after Carolina selected him in the seventh round with the 187th overall pick. Andersen has made a few stops on his way to the home team’s starter’s crease at PNC Arena.

After not coming to terms with Carolina, he reentered the draft in 2012 and was picked by Anaheim in the third round. After a year in the AHL, Andersen started an NHL career that has seen him post a 226-100-48 record with the Ducks and Maple Leafs.

Gone is the pressure-cooker atmosphere of playing in Toronto, but Andersen said Wednesday he doesn’t let what’s going on outside of the team affect him.

“I mean, it’s just a part of it,” he said of the pressure of being a goalie for a Stanley Cup hopeful. “I don’t really think about it too much. I just want to go and try to win. I think that’s the way to handle that stuff. All that other stuff is really just noise. So, focus on what’s important, and that’s doing your best to try to win.

Andersen, by the way, is 7-2-1 against the Islanders in his career.

2. Carolina’s lines at the morning skate were the same as they’ve been in the days leading up to the opener.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour is fond of saying he knows what past combinations work and always has that in his back pocket if needed (think SAT Line or the Jaccob Slavin-Brett Pesce pairing), but the lines and pairings to start the season aren’t very familiar.

Two of the three D pairings are new, and the addition of Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the top six has shuffled the forward lines. One player who could further jumble things in future games is 19-year-old rookie Seth Jarvis, who will not play in Thursday’s opener.

Don’t be surprised if the coach tinkers with his lineup throughout the game and early in the season as he learns what his new players are like in a for-real game.

“I got some questions in my head about the whole group,” Brind’Amour said, “because I’m just not 100% sure how the lines are gonna go, I’m not sure how combinations are going to work because we haven’t really had a chance to really see it go. That’s what the real games are for. We’ll find out.”

3. Carolina had the league’s second-ranked power play (25.6%) last season and returns most of their top unit. The big change is Tony DeAngelo running the point in place of the departed Dougie Hamilton. Can it be as good as last year?

“I think so,” said Vincent Trocheck, who joins Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov on the No. 1 group. “Tony has been great up there. He moves really well on the blue line, he’s got great vision, a good shot. So I think he’ll fit in just nicely. … I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to pick up where we left off.”

Trocheck said Hamilton and DeAngelo have similar abilities running the power play, but he added that DeAngelo “moves along the line a little bit better” and “has some quickness up top” whereas Hamilton has an “elite shot from the point.”

The second unit should be stronger with the addition of Kotkaniemi to a group that includes Jordan Staal, Nino Niederreiter, Martin Necas and Pesce. The coach is certainly counting on it.

“I hope so. That’s the game now,” Brind’Amour said. “Everybody’s 5-on-5 pretty much saw each other off, and then it seems to always come down to special teams. So we know we have to be good at both of those areas, and it should be a strength of our team.”

4. The team announced Wednesday that Aho will be one of the alternate captains this season, joining Slavin and Jordan Martinook with A’s while Staal remains captain.

“Obviously, it’s an honor,” Aho said Wednesday. “We have a great leadership group, and just seeing that the players and coach trust me as a leader. Then again, it doesn’t change what I’m doing. I’m just being myself and doing my job and lead that way.”

Slavin said Aho is a natural fit to wear a letter.

“He understands the culture that we have here — he’s a big part of the culture that we have here,” he said. “Guys look up to him in the room, and then, obviously, his on-ice abilities just help his cause to being a good leader. He’s passionate, he cares about the game, he plays the right way. Guys watch him play the game, it’s contagious, and they want to be able to follow in his footsteps in that way.”

Brind’Amour sees the letter as nothing more than a formality.

“He’s been one of our leaders anyway,” the coach said. “I think it’s more telling everybody, like you guys, ‘OK, he’s an actual captain.’ But he was always has been. He’s always been one of the leaders. … I don’t think it changes anything. We’ve got great leadership in that room, that’s one of the things that stands out, and he’s a big part of that.”

5. A quick note on former Charlotte Checkers play-by-play announcer Jason Shaya. Shaya, who is now announcing for the Utica Comets of the AHL, publicly came out as gay in an article by TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

While the article touches on several reasons why Shaya — who said he knew he was gay since his teenage years — was never out, the biggest was his concern that it would impact his shot at making it to the NHL as a play-by-play announcer.

Shaya did call a handful of games for the Hurricanes as a fill-in in past years, so I talked to him a few times and even sent him some recommendations when he was hired in Utica — the home of my alma mater, Utica College. It’s heartbreaking it took decades for him to be able to outwardly live his true life, but his courageous decision to come out in the public eye will blaze a trail for others who have the same worries and concerns.

Regardless of whether he fulfills his dream of being the voice of an NHL team, Shaya has proven he has the strength to take on anything.