Look Ahead — 2023 Team of the Year: Hurricanes closer than ever to Stanley Cup

Carolina has the high-end skill, depth, goaltending and desperation to reach the pinnacle of the NHL

The Hurricanes again look like Stanley Cup contenders but will need to prove they can get it done in the playoffs. (Godofredo A. Vásquez / AP Photo)

The only time the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup was when they were backstopped by a rookie goalie who went from goalie of the future to Conn Smythe winner.

Cam Ward’s 2005-06 regular season was what should be expected of a rookie goalie — he was 14-8-2 with a 3.68 goals-against average and .882 save percentage, numbers that were bloated compared to those put up by No. 1 goalie Martin Gerber.

But when the lights shined brightest, Ward was his best. He took over the net in the playoffs and seized the big-stage opportunity, leading the Hurricanes to the 2006 championship and doing so with a Game 7 save on Edmonton’s Fernando Pisani that helped clinch the Cup and cement his selection as playoff MVP.

The captain of that team, Rod Brind’Amour, is now Carolina’s coach. And he may just have another rookie goalie, Pyotr Kochetkov, who can lead the Hurricanes to the promised land.

Already one of the top teams in the NHL, Carolina is close to full strength with Sebastian Aho, Max Pacioretty, Frederik Andersen and Ondrej Kase either back in the lineup or close to returning. Frankly, it wasn’t hard to predict the Hurricanes as North State Journal’s 2023 Team of the Year.

NSJ has twice selected the pro hockey team, in its 25th season in North Carolina since relocating from Hartford, Connecticut, as the best professional team of the year.

Last December, the Hurricanes were named NSJ’s 2021 Pro Team of the Year, an honor the team also claimed two years prior.

But this honor predicts what’s to come. And there’s a reason for optimism.

Two of the team’s young stars, Martin Necas and Andrei Svechnikov, are having career years. So is veteran Jordan Martinook, who has gone from being placed on waivers before the season for salary cap purposes to being Nino Niederreiter’s replacement on Jordan Staal’s left wing.

Stefan Noesen, a journeyman winger who led the AHL in goals last season, has become a vital part of Carolina’s power play, serving as the net-front presence the team’s top unit has often lacked.

Defenseman Brady Skjei is on pace for his first double-digit goal season, and newcomer Brent Burns — who hasn’t been to the postseason since 2019 with the Sharks — has quickly adjusted to playing with Jaccob Slavin on the team’s top pairing.

And then there’s Kochetkov. The rookie gave observers a taste of his future last season when he was called into action when both Andersen and Antti Raanta were injured. Now this year, with Andersen again sidelined, Kochetkov has emerged as not only the Hurricanes’ best goalie but one of the top netminders in the league at age 23.

If he falters, having Andersen and Raanta — who shared the William M. Jennings Trophy last season as the goaltenders who teamed up to allow the fewest goals — is a solid backup plan.

The Stanley Cup playoffs, however, are grueling, with division winners getting knocked out in the first round and favorites struggling to get over the hump. The Hurricanes took one important step last season, beating the Bruins — who had twice eliminated Carolina in the postseason since Brind’Amour took over as coach — in the first round to exorcise one demon.

This postseason, they will need to prove they can score goals when the games get stingier and opponents grow accustomed to their unique style throughout a seven-game series.

That means solving some of hockey’s best goalies — Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin in the Eastern Conference and perhaps Dallas’ Jake Oettinger or Connor Hellebuyck in a possible Stanley Cup Final.

The team is hoping Pacioretty — a six-time 30-goal scorer who was closing in on making his Hurricanes debut as the calendar flipped to 2023 after injuring his Achilles tendon in August — can add some instant offense to a team that didn’t score more than three goals in their final nine playoffs game a year ago.

But in the end, winning a Stanley Cup comes down to a full team effort, with outstanding goaltending, superb special teams and unlikely heroes coming together for hockey’s ultimate prize.

The Hurricanes have as good of a chance this year as any before.