Category 5: Hurricanes open season at home vs. Senators

RALEIGH — The Hurricanes open the 2023-24 NHL season Wednesday at home against the Senators. Carolina enters the year as one of the Stanley Cup favorites, while Ottawa is hoping to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 season.

1. Coach Rod Brind’Amour wouldn’t tip his hand following the morning skate as to whether he’ll play the traditional 12 forwards with six defensemen or opt to dress Jalen Chatfield as a seventh defenseman as he did in the preseason finale.

The Senators, meanwhile, will apparently open the season playing one player short because of cap constraints.

Ottawa is also woefully thin at center because of the injury to Josh Norris and the contract stalemate with Shane Pinto. Ridly Greig, Rourke Chartier and Mark Kastelic line up down the middle for the Sens behind Tim Stutzle. The trio has 130 games of NHL experience between them, most by Kastelic (81). Greig and Kastelic are both sons of former Whalers players.

2. Ottawa certainly seems to know what they’re stepping into in facing the Hurricanes on opening night.

“They’re as good as anybody at home,” Senators coach D.J. Smith said after the morning skate. “They come in waves, they play real fast. It’s gonna make you be on your game right away. … They’re gonna try and grind you and push you out of the game in the first 10 minutes. We’ve got to be willing to push back.”

Captain Brady Tkachuk added: “It’s definitely gonna be a great atmosphere tonight. I expect the fans to be in it like they usually are, so you can’t ask for a better start to a season.”

3. The sentiment in the Hurricanes locker room was predictable: Everyone is just ready to start the season.

“It’s exciting just to play for real,” Brind’amour said. “Preseason is what it is, and everybody — coaches, players — they all want to get to this point where all the work now, it counts. So we put in a lot of work, everyone has. It’s kinda time to take the test.”

Newcomer Michael Bunting will get to play a familiar foe in his Carolina debut.

“A team, obviously, the last couple of years were rivals, the Battle of Ontario, and I was a part of that,” the former Maple Leafs winger said of playing Ottawa. “So they’ve got a lot of familiar faces over there, and, obviously, I’m in a different uniform. Should be a fun night.”

4. Hurricanes GM Don Waddell met with the media after the morning skate and touched on a few topics of interest. For one, Carolina starts this season more than $2.7 million under the cap — only eight teams have more space, and Seattle is the only team among them that made the playoffs last year.

“If you look right now, we’re accruing cap space every day,” Waddell said. “You take that all the way out to the deadline, it’s about $13 million of cap space. So things are gonna happen and it’s going to change during the year, but certainly that’s part of the plan.”

That played into the decision to place Pyotr Kochetkov in the minors — he’s been loaned to the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch — along with the need for him to play games and the difficulties of carrying three goalies on the NHL roster.

“The explanation to him and to his agent (Dan Milstein), who was very supportive, was you need to play right now,” Waddell said. “And you know, three guys aren’t going to share the net. Go play. We’re gonna see how things start here for us. … At some point we know we’re gonna need another goalie, so it’s more important to have Kochetkov playing someplace than sitting around here just practicing.”

5. Waddell also discussed the team not having an AHL affiliate for the season. The Chicago Wolves, who served as the team’s top affiliate the past three seasons, decided to become an unaffiliated independent team for 2023-24, disrupting the synergy of having 32 AHL teams to coincide with 32 NHL teams.

Carolina has reportedly had talks with the AHL about adding a 33rd team to the league, and former AHL cities like Portland, Maine, and Manchester, New Hampshire, are among the options, along with Indianapolis. Some of the independently owned teams are leery of an NHL franchise bringing in a surplus team and further disrupting the current situation in the AHL.

“We’ve had multiple discussions with both the AHL, the NHL, and they’re ongoing,” Waddell said. “There’s 32 NHL teams, 32 American League teams, and when you have a team that wants to go independent, it just makes for an unfair situation. So everybody knows this can’t continue on forward. We’re just all working toward what the solution will be.”

Longtime Wolves GM Wendell Young gave a scathing interview with in late August during which he accused the Hurricanes of not having a commitment to win at the AHL level. The Wolves missed the playoffs by one point last season, but Carolina’s top affiliate had won the Calder Cup the previous two times it was awarded, in 2019 with Charlotte and 2022 in Chicago. There were no Calder Cup playoffs in 2020 or 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I haven’t gotten into too much of the comments about what’s happened in Chicago,” Waddell said. “Obviously, we’re disappointed about the situation and disappointed how it’s been handled from them speaking out as much, but we’ve just gotta move on.”

Waddell said the Hurricanes could look to players who are on AHL contracts as depth options should the team need to bring in reinforcements.

“Our depth is the American Hockey League,” Waddell said. “We looked at all the players that are on AHL contracts that can be signed to NHL contracts, and there’s probably 20 players that if we needed a player we wouldn’t have any problem putting in our lineup.

“So instead of having one team as your American League (affiliate), right now we have the whole league — any players on an American League contract we could sign at any point and bring them to our team.”