RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes will begin the 2021-22 season Thursday when they host the New York Islanders at PNC Arena.
It will be the first of three meetings between the two teams many believe will battle for first place in the Metropolitan Division, and the other two games won’t happen until April, the season’s final month.
Starting the season against arguably the league’s most sound defensive team might seem like a tall task for the Hurricanes, who will dress at least seven new players for the opener and are still building chemistry in the new group, but coach Rod Brind’Amour doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s the NHL, so everybody’s good and you know what you’re getting out of those guys every night,” he said following Monday’s practice at Wake Competition Center. “You got to play them at some point, so I don’t think that really matters.”
What will matter is how the Hurricanes answer these crucial questions.
Did Carolina improve in net?
The Hurricanes turned over their entire goalie room in the offseason, allowing Petr Mrazek and James Reimer to leave in free agency and trading Alex Nedeljkovic to Detroit. In their place are Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta in Raleigh, and Alex Lyon as the No. 3 with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.
Carolina is banking on both Andersen and Raanta having bounce-back seasons after disappointing years in Toronto and Arizona, respectively.
“Every day I say I can’t get over how big Freddie is,” alternate captain Jordan Martinook said last Friday. “Like, his upper body is just massive. … He’s got that quiet little swagger confidence to him, which is nice to have. I like that in a goalie.”
He won’t be confused for Raanta, who is smaller and more outgoing — a yin and yang tandem.
“Rants is a gamer too,” Martinook said. “When it comes down to it, he battles so hard.”
Carolina will need both to rebound for the team to have success.
Is the overhauled defense better?
The Hurricanes couldn’t replace Dougie Hamilton — who left Carolina as a free agent for a seven-year, $63 million contract with New Jersey — with one player. And they didn’t try.
Ethan Bear, acquired in a trade from Edmonton for Warren Foegele, will get first crack at playing alongside Jaccob Slavin on the top pairing. He’s one of four new faces on defense: Tony DeAngelo and Ian Cole will team up on the third pairing, while Brendan Smith starts the season as the team’s seventh defenseman.
“They’re learning every day,” said Tim Gleason, who was elevated to assistant coach this year and will run the defense. “They’re trying to take it in and we’re just trying to grind away at it.”
If Bear and Cole can be reliable defenders and DeAngelo can produce offensively, Carolina will be even deeper on defense than in recent years.
How will contracts impact players?
Andrei Svechnikov struggled a bit in his third season, but his underlying numbers still showed a player who creates as many scoring chances as nearly anyone in the NHL. Now armed with the security of an eight-year contract extension worth $62 million, the 21-year-old needs to show he can fulfill all his promise.
Captain Jordan Staal isn’t worried about Svechnikov getting complacent with his newfound wealth.
“I’m sure you guys have seen him before and the way he works and what he wants, and that’s to be the best,” Staal said. “There’s a reason why our team is where we’re at with guys like that. What he does on a day-to-day basis is special. He’s a player that’s going to be really good for this group for a long time.”
The team will also see whether its gamble on Jesperi Kotkaniemi — landed via a hefty $6.1 million offer sheet — will pay off.
Then there’s Martin Necas, who enters the final year of his entry-level contract and wants to prove that he too is worthy of being part of the team’s long-term core.
“He’s always had that kind of ‘wow’ factor, I think even from the first time I saw him, he can really skate,” Brind’Amour said. “I think he’s just really blossoming with his confidence.”
Necas said he’s grown more comfortable with each passing season. What’s on tap for 2021-22?
“We’ll see on Thursday,” he said.
Will youth be served?
The Hurricanes added some veterans to the bottom of their lineup, but the story of training camp was two other newcomers. Jack Drury, a second-round pick by Carolina in 2018, beat out a couple veterans to make the season-opening roster, though his waiver-exempt status means he’ll spend some time with the Chicago Wolves this season, including the start of the year after he was sent down to the AHL before Thursday’s opener.
That won’t be true for 2020 first-round pick Seth Jarvis, who either needs to stay with the Hurricanes or go back to his junior team in the WHL. To start, he’ll be in Raleigh.
“Well, he deserved it. Pretty much that simple,” Brind’Amour said of the decision to keep Jarvis to begin the season.
The speedy forward plays much bigger than his 5-foot-10, 175-pound frame, and his skill set, according to Brind’Amour, is on a level “you can’t teach.”
Jarvis knows he can be sent back to junior any time before he plays 10 NHL games, so he’s just trying to be prepared if he gets his chance.
“Just being ready for someone gets hurt, unfortunately, I got to step in there,” he said Tuesday. “Or if they do give me a shot, just be ready and be able to step in and not miss a beat.”