Now nine years removed from their last trip to the playoffs, the Hurricanes will again embark on an attempt to right the ship, rise up and return to the playoffs.
If/when the Hurricanes rebound, Jordan Staal will likely play a role as a core veteran in the middle of the lineup. Especially if he is named captain (and to some degree even if he is not), Justin Williams could also play a significant role resetting the locker, leadership and attitude of the team. And if history is considered, a rebound seems unlikely without the team getting at least league average goaltending from Scott Darling, Petr Mrazek or someone else.
The history of Hurricanes hockey from a young leaders perspective
A short history of Hurricanes’ leadership is both relevant to this article and also a great way to fill up another likely quiet day in mid-August.
Upon arrival, the Hurricanes were led by Kevin Dineen and then Keith Primeau with a decent mix of veterans around both.
The the first pillar of Canes hockey was really built when Ron Francis was signed as a free agent, named the captain and then led the team to its first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2002. Unfortunately, the playoff run was more a case of lightning in a bottle with a series of miraculous wins to tilt series than a sign that the team had built a long-term winner.
Unable to build on the 2002 playoff success and with Francis’ career winding down, the baton was passed to Rod Brind’Amour. Despite the recent success, the team was largely a reclamation project by the time Brind’Amour settled into his leadership role. But in an odd case of fortuitous negatives, the lockout and missed 2004-05 offered a reset for the Hurricanes. The combination of two offseasons to revamp the lineup and a buyers’ market for good players because of the newly-implemented salary cap enabled the Hurricanes to retool quickly. Rod Brind’Amour receives and deserves the credit that he gets for leading the 2005-06 team to a Stanley Cup championship, but what is sometimes missed by many is how deep that team was leadership-wise. In addition to having three veteran alternate captains in Kevyn Adams, Cory Stillman and Glen Wesley, the team also had backup in veterans Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen, Bret Hedican and Aaron Ward. The 2005-06 team was talented, but maybe more significantly, the team was the richest in team history in terms of leadership depth.
The Stanley Cup win charted a logical course to a next generation of leaders in Cam Ward and Eric Staal. After another post-Cup implosion, the team again rebounded. Following two playoff misses, what was arguably a career best year for Cam Ward and a strong season from Eric Staal pushed the team back into the playoffs again in 2008-09. And just like with previous trips to the playoffs, the team made the most of it once it was there. Though the run ended with a thud in a four-game sweep to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals, two magical seven game series wins generated a ton of optimism for the near-term future. But be it because Staal and Ward just never could play quite to that pinnacle again or because they just did not have enough talent surrounding them, the rally back to the playoffs fizzled again.
Since then, the team has been on a 3-4-year cycle trying to find the next generation of stars who can give the team the depth it had in 2005-07.
First came Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk. Both players rose up ahead of schedule but seemed to plateau early and never quite reach another level. Skinner became a scorer but never truly a good all-around player. And Faulk’s odd development path saw him emerge early as a solid defensive defenseman only to gradually give that up as the offensive part of his game bloomed. Skinner is now elsewhere, and Faulk is oddly slotted for a third pairing role with power play ice time.
The next wave of potential help came in the form of high-pedigree draft picks who all had the potential to be the kind of difference-makers that the team needed more of to reach the next level and return to the playoffs. With Elias Lindholm selected fifth in 2013, Haydn Fleury seventh in 2014 and Noah Hanifin fifth in 2015, the team had a small group of players who had the potential to be the next wave of difference-makers. But as I write this, Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm are still working to become true difference-makers but in a different uniform. And Fleury slots as a #6 or #7 defenseman for the Hurricanes.
The next try
Right now, the team is turning the page to the next try to find the next wave of both high-end players and leadership from within. The volume of players with potential is probably at an all-time high for the team. But those who believe that success is a foregone conclusion for players like Martin Necas, Andrei Svechnikov and others have conveniently ignored the recent history of Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm who are still working to become NHL difference-makers in years four and six of their NHL careers but now in another uniform. And those who assume a couple young players with star potential like Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and others assure success have conveniently erased the painful history of Eric Staal and Cam Ward.
But the volume of players with potential to rise up right now is unmistakable. Aho has another step up to make before he is truly elite, but it is definitely possible and could also see Teuvo Teravainen right there with him. Martin Necas and his skating and playmaking ability clearly have point per game potential even if still raw and unrealized. And by all accounts Andrei Svechnikov similarly has first line scoring potential. On the back end, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are already good young defendeers, but the potential is there for them to find a higher gear in terms of driving offense. And behind them is a strong group of prospects like Warren Foegele, Valentin Zykov and others.
As the 2018-19 season gets underway, I will be watching closely to see how NHL-ready some of the younger players are, but equally importantly, I will be watching for the swagger, attitude, mentality, character, etc. that suggest at least a few of these players will also fast track to leadership roles. One of both of Aho or Slavin could garner a captain’s ‘A’, and Svechnikov and Necas will likely see a chance to show that they can become difference-makers ahead of any step-wise schedule. The key is for a couple of these players to quickly become elite players with well-rounded games instead of kids with potential who are still just learning.
What say you Canes fans?
1) From this next wave, which players do you see as leaders both in terms of production but also in terms of driving a new attitude through the entire roster?
2) In a league where young stars rise up ahead of schedule fairly regularly, where do you strike the balance between patience versus expecting them to just seize opportunities with regard to Martin Necas and Andrei Svechnikov?
3) Is this next group the one that finally pushes the team back up into the playoffs? If so, do you think it happens in 2018-19 or later?