RALEIGH — There were plenty of doubters after the Carolina Hurricanes retooled their roster in the offseason despite being one of the NHL’s top teams the season before.
Now just past the halfway point of the 2021-22 campaign, the critics have been silenced by Carolina’s 31-9-2 record, one that has them atop the Eastern Conference standings and looking like one of a handful of legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
How did we get here? The easy answer is coach Rod Brind’Amour, who has followed up winning the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach with another masterful performance behind the bench. But it also took deft moves that weren’t popular among many observers.
Overhaul the defense
Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have been the cornerstones of the Hurricanes’ defense since they burst on the scene fresh out of college in 2015-16. But the addition of Dougie Hamilton before the 2018-19 season brought the D corps to another level.
Hamilton had 42 goals and 121 points in three seasons in Carolina, but the 7-year, $63 million contract offered by the Devils last offseason was deemed a luxury the Hurricanes couldn’t afford.
Carolina’s front office knew it couldn’t replace Hamilton with one player, so they did it by committee. Ethan Bear was acquired from Edmonton for forward Warren Foegele, and Tony DeAngelo — the mercurial defenseman who was sent home and bought out by the Rangers the previous season — was signed to a one-year bargain contract.
Add in rugged free agent signings Ian Cole and Brendan Smith, and the Hurricanes spent just $6.7 million against the salary cap this season for four blueliners to complement Slavin, Pesce and Brady Skjei.
DeAngelo has been an unequivocal success, registering 33 points in 35 games while avoiding the controversies and misbehavior that had plagued him previously in his junior and pro careers.
Cole and Smith have been as advertised — bottom-pairing defenders who can kill penalties and add veteran guile and snarl to the back end.
Moves to make: The one question mark has been Bear, who has never seemed to bounce back from a 10-day COVID-19 quarantine earlier in the season. If the Hurricanes are going to add a player ahead of the trade deadline, it could be someone that bolsters the right side of their defense.
That Petr Mrazek and James Reimer both left in free agency wasn’t a surprise, but the trade that shipped Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic to Detroit raised plenty of eyebrows — and gave the “never trade with Steve Yzerman” crowd a chance to scream from the rooftops again.
Just over six months later, the Hurricanes look like a front office with a leg up on the rest of the league.
Carolina signed Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta and added veteran journeyman Alex Lyon as the No. 3, and it heads into the All-Star break with the frontrunners for the Jennings Trophy given to the goaltending tandem with the fewest goals allowed.
Andersen in particular has been spectacular, winning 24 of his 30 appearances with a 2.01 goals-against average and .929 save percentage while being mentioned as a Vezina Trophy frontrunner.
Nedeljkovic, for those keeping score, had a .910 save percentage and 2.90 goals-against average for the Red Wings behind a less talented team in Detroit.
Moves to make: Carolina already added depth by signing 2016 third-round pick Jack LaFontaine from the University of Minnesota midseason. The Hurricanes should be good to go in net.
Continued growth at forward
Sebastian Aho should be a dark horse Hart Trophy candidate, and Andrei Svechnikov continues to deliver on his promise by taking another step forward in his fourth NHL season. The success of both those players doesn’t come as a surprise.
The emergence of 19-year-old Seth Jarvis, however, has given the Hurricanes another layer of scoring in their top nine, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi has produced in limited minutes while Brind’Amour and his staff continue to rebuild his game.
Veterans Nino Niederreiter and Vincent Trocheck, both in contract years, continue to produce, and Martin Necas — an RFA after the season — has shown flashes of brilliance though remains inconsistent.
The team’s role players have been good, particularly Derek Stepan, Jesper Fast and Steven Lorentz, who continues to get better by the game.
The one player who has struggled is captain Jordan Staal, who is mired in a 33-game goal drought. Staal isn’t at risk of losing his job — he still anchors the NHL’s best penalty kill and has upped his physicality with his dip in production. But if he can get five or six goals in the season’s second half, it would go a long way in rebuilding his offensive confidence.
Moves to make: You can never have enough scoring, and Carolina could maybe use one more player on the wing for a Stanley Cup push.