March to Stanley Cup starts for Hurricanes

After reaching the conference final last year, Carolina looks to take the final step

Sebastian Aho, left, and Seth Jarvis, right, make up two-thirds of the Hurricanes’ new top line, which also includes free agent signing Michael Bunting. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — “We talk about it a little, and then we don’t. And then it’s about can’t win the Stanley Cup today.”

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour’s goal has been the same since he took over the bench in 2018 — set the standard of striving to be the best team in the NHL, then pound home the expectation that the best way to reach the pinnacle of the sport is to put in the work one day at a time.

Carolina has done that since Brind’Amour took over, going 226-107-37 in the five seasons being led by the man whose No. 17 hangs from the rafters at PNC Arena. There has been playoff success as well — the Hurricanes have won a postseason round in each of those seasons and reached the Eastern Conference final twice, including last spring.

Click here for the Hurricanes’ opening roster

But a fan base that once only wished for a return to the postseason now has bigger expectations for the franchise in its 26th season in North Carolina. It’s the same expectation Brind’Amour set when he took over a team that spent nine years on the outside looking in come playoff time, a stretch that deprived those same fans of the raucous tailgating that became synonymous with the team during its two runs to the Stanley Cup finals — both in the aughts when Brind’Amour was still a player.

Now, three weeks after camp officially began, the Hurricanes will open their season Wednesday when the Ottawa Senators visit PNC Arena.

“Now, for a while, you kind of have a same plan every year,” Brind’Amour said Sunday of navigating training camp. “You put your tweaks in there, but you don’t want to broke what’s not broken.

“We’ve got a pretty good feel for how training camp goes, and that’s behind us now.”

General manager Don Waddell and his front office kept intact the team that went 52-21-9 last season, finishing behind only Boston with 113 points in the standings. The team’s 14 top scorers from a year ago are back, and the only subtractions are fourth-liners Paul Stastny and Derek Stepan, trade deadline acquisitions Shayne Gostisbehere and Jesse Puljujarvi, playoff scratch Calvin de Haan, and Max Pacioretty and Ondrej Kase — who played a combined 79 minutes last season.

The team re-signed captain Jordan Staal, Jesper Fast, goalies Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, and got star player Sebastian Aho to commit to an eight-year, $78 million contract extension that will kick in next season.

The team then used free agency to make three additions that should bolster an already stacked lineup.

Dmitry Orlov, the top defenseman on the free agent market this summer, joins a blue line that was already considered among the NHL’s best. Michael Bunting brings a net-front presence and scoring, along with being among the league’s peskiest players. And Tony DeAngelo, who resurrected his career two seasons ago in Carolina, is back and starting the season grouped with Orlov for a tandem that could be a top pairing in many cities.

“This team has been very close for the last couple of years, and that’s one of the reasons why I came here,” Bunting, who left another contender in Toronto to sign with the Hurricanes, said at the start of camp. “They reached out in free agency and I had, obviously, a couple other offers. But the second Carolina called I thought, ‘You know, I still want to win. I want to win in this league.’ And I’m looking forward to starting this journey.”

It starts Wednesday with a home game before the Hurricanes head out on a six-game road trip that coincides with the North Carolina State Fair.

By the time they return and play back-to-back home games Oct. 26-27, the Hurricanes will nearly be a tenth of the way through the regular season. It’s a small step forward toward the end of the regular season in mid-April. And then, the playoffs.

But you can’t win the Stanley Cup in October.

“We’re excited. The group is ready to go,” Staal said after the preseason finale last Friday. “We’ve been practicing hard, but it’s hard to replicate a game. So it’s exciting to get into the games and get into the real stuff.”

Bring on the real stuff.