Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at key points on the path to where the Hurricanes are right now which is in playoff position with only 13 games remaining.
The management/leadership shake up
The start of building the 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes actually started at almost exactly this time last year. With the local media mostly away for the ACC basketball tourney. the Hurricanes announced that Ron Francis had been relieved of his role as general manager of the team. The team eventually transitioned to Don Waddell and/or GM by committee. That decision played a huge role in shaping the current roster.
Then shortly after the end of the 2017-18 season, the team played a game of chicken with Head Coach Bill Peters who ultimately left on his own. Shortly thereafter, Rod Brind’Amour was named the head coach. No doubt, Brind’Amour’s leadership has played a huge role in changing the attitude of the team.
Finally and to no one’s surprise, the team named Justin Williams as the new captain. As a first lieutenant to Brind’Amour, Justin Williams has similarly played a key role in changing the culture and attitude of the team.
The end result was that the vast majority of the group managing the team at all levels changed over.
The summer work building the roster
Before the off-season was underway, the Hurricanes won the second pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and the right to select Andrei Svechnikov. Svechnikov gave the team another top 9 forward with scoring potential without giving anything up in trade.
After hoping for but not yet realizing the emergence of a young blue line that was a strength, Don Waddell significantly revamped the blue line with consecutive mid-summer moves. First, the team swapped Noah Hanifin for Dougie Hamilton in a trade that also saw Micheal Ferland and Elias Lindholm subtracted. Then the team added Calvin de Haan as a free agent signee. The addition of not one but two higher-end defenseman reshaped the roster maybe more than many realized.
The other big move was one that provoked much grumbling. Jeff Skinner was traded for only a collection of mid-tier prospects. As I said at the time, I think this was a Brind’Amour-driven move aiming to shake up the leadership, locker room and culture.
Finally, the team decided to part ways with Cam Ward, give Scott Darling another year to try to sort things out and shop from the low-end of the price range in the goalie market in adding Petr Mrazek to the mix.
The upshot was a significant change in direction on the blue line, the elimination of one leader and half of a new goalie tandem.
In-season personnel changes
The team also benefited from a number of in-season personnel changes.
Of all of the moves that have occurred during the season, I think one can make a strong case that the most notable was the waiver wire addition of Curtis McElhinney. With Darling injured and Petr Mrazek off to a bit of a slow start, I am not sure the Hurricanes would still be in the mix had McElhinney not parachuted in from Toronto and held the fort in net until the team could get its feet under it and until Mrazek could settle in and find a higher gear.
The beginning of the season also saw Sebastian Aho move back to his natural center position seemingly on a trial basis and with some skepticism from Brind’Amour. But the trial run launched successfully and has been on an upward trajectory from there. Aho at the center position has boosted the offense in two ways. First, he is producing more offense himself with the puck on his stick. Maybe even more significantly, Aho is better able to dictate the game and increase production for his line mates in his new role that sees him front and center as a playmaker.
The other headline move was the huge trade to send an underperforming Victor Rask away and somehow in return net Nino Niederreiter. Niederreiter excelled from day one on a top line with Sebastian Aho and made the team one deeper in terms of legitimate scoring forwards. Niederreiter has contributed to both the depth and the top of the Canes roster.
Also on the depth note and underappreciated and under the radar was the move to recall Greg McKegg and Saku Maenalanen. When Martin Necas did not work out at the NHL level, the team became shallower at forward, especially the center position. And then the December injury of Jordan Staal removed another center from the mix. After a revolving door that included Phil Di Giuseppe, Nicolas Roy, Janne Kuokkanen, Clark Bishop and Valentin Zykov see stints in depth forward roles, the started anew at the beginning of 2019 with McKegg and Maenalanen. In a fit of improbable irony, it was under these circumstances that the Hurricanes transitioned from being a team challenged to find three lines to having a balanced set of four that Brind’Amour trusted. Coinciding almost exactly with the start of the Canes winning run, McKegg and Maenalanen formed two-thirds of a newly-created fourth line that could not only be trusted defensively but could also chip in offensively. The result was a transition to four line hockey and more balance in terms of ice time.
Be it fortuitous luck with McElhinney, a coach’s decision to move Aho to center, a marquee deal to land Niederreiter or sorting out the forward depth with AHL call ups in McKegg and Maenalanen, the management team has pushed all the right buttons personnel-wise during the 2018-19 season.
Netting it out
If I had to pick the most significant items from above, my version goes like this:
1) The establishment of Brind’Amour and Williams as the new leadership charted a course to try to change the team’s attitude and culture. As much as anything, that change is central to the team’s success thus far in 2018-19.
2) The move to revamp the blue line completely changed the structure of the team from being a team that hoped to have the blue line as a driver for success to one that actually realized that possibility.
3) The luck of landing Curtis McElhinney was arguably the team’s biggest in-season addition. I think it is highly possible that the team would just have imploded from October to December if not for McElhinney stepping in to add early season stability in net.
What say you Canes fans?
1) If forced to pick only one item from each category (changing leadership/management, off-season moves and in-season moves) which do you think is most significant from each category?
2) What other key points on the path to the Hurricanes’ success thus far should be included?