NSJ 2021 Pro Team of the Year: Hurricanes fall short of ultimate goal, still remain NC’s gold standard

While the Panthers and Hornets try to return to the postseason, Carolina’s hockey team has become one of the NHL’s elite

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour reshaped a franchise that just a few years ago simply clamored for a playoff berth and has made the expectations much higher — Stanley Cup or bust. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

It’s not even worth asking coach Rod Brind’Amour if he is satisfied that North State Journal named his team, the Carolina Hurricanes, the 2021 Pro Team of the Year. His answer would be a resounding no.

And that’s not because he’s unhappy with what his team accomplished in the last calendar year. The Hurricanes finished third in the NHL in points last season and are atop the NHL standings heading into Christmas.

In 85 total games so far in 2021, they are a combined 57-19-9 — a 121-point pace for an 82-game campaign that only two teams in league history have accomplished in a season.

None of that, however, matters to Brind’Amour.

The coach, who has paired with a collaborative front office to save a franchise on the brink of irrelevance, has one goal.

“It’s an all-or-nothing type thing, and I think we all we all appreciate that,” Brind’Amour said in January at the start of last season.

So while Carolina came up with a big “nothing” last season, losing in five games to eventual champion Tampa Bay in the second round of the postseason, the team came back with renewed resolve — and a lot of new faces.

The Hurricanes made the biggest move of the NHL offseason by executing an offer sheet for Montreal center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, both nabbing a talented 21-year-old and twisting the knife into the Canadiens after they had unsuccessfully tried to do the same to Carolina in the summer of 2019 with an offer sheet to Sebastian Aho.

The team also moved on from all its goalies, most notably trading away homegrown Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic, and hit the free agent market to sign Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta.

Dougie Hamilton’s asking price was also deemed too steep by GM Don Waddell and the front office, so Carolina kept its defensive core of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei and rebuilt the rest.

Forward Warren Foegele was traded for blueliner Ethan Bear, Ian Cole and Brendan Smith were signed to provide more grit and experience on the back end, and the Hurricanes rolled the dice on Tony DeAngelo.

The Hurricanes also secured part of their future by inking Andrei Svechnikov to an eight-year extension worth a franchise-record $62 million.

All of it done with one goal in mind — winning a Stanley Cup.

“If you’re not playing to win Stanley Cups. I’m not really sure why you’re playing,” Cole, a two‑time champion in Pittsburgh, said before the season. “So that is the end goal, bar none. That’s it. Hard stop.”

And nothing has been able to stop the Hurricanes so far this season.

Carolina began the season with nine wins, led by Andersen’s perfect October. The Hurricanes have since faced their biggest adversary: wave after wave of positive COVID-19 tests.

It started with Bear, who was stuck in San Jose to quarantine for 10 days after being put in the league’s protocol on Nov. 22. Then Pesce and DeAngelo joined him a week later, leaving Carolina without all three of its regular right-handed defenseman.

Bear returned only to see Aho and star rookie Seth Jarvis test positive in Vancouver. The team was forced to leave them behind so it could finish its road trip in Minnesota with both Pesce and DeAngelo finally able to rejoin the lineup. That’s when four more players — Cole, Svechnikov, Jordan Staal and Steven Lorentz — also entered the protocol, postponing that night’s game.

While the front office was working to get all six players back to Raleigh for Christmas so they could quarantine in their homes, the team played on.

The Hurricanes beat the Red Wings 5-3 on Dec. 16 despite playing with just 16 skaters — two fewer than normal. Two nights later, Carolina coasted to a 5-1 win over the Kings with five AHL call-ups in the lineup.

It was another challenge the Hurricanes met head-on and overcame.

“Have we accomplished what we want to do yet? No,” Brind’Amour said Monday. “We want to be that last team standing. Until that happens, we’re not gonna rest.”

And if his team does reach the pinnacle, you can bet Brind’Amour will scream from the highest mountain how satisfied he is.