It has been less than four months since the Carolina Hurricanes’ season came to a precipitous end at the hands of the eventual champions, and yet still four months of almost constant upheaval and change, a roster retooled in acknowledgment that for all the promise and positive reviews and pats on the head, this incarnation of the franchise believes its best days still lie ahead.
It has to.
“There’s still unfinished business here,” captain Jordan Staal said Thursday, this new group’s first day on the ice together in earnest, and that mantra is so deeply woven into the fabric of this upcoming season that it’s as much an aura as it is a mission.
The returnees, like Staal, know that this is a franchise potentially on the verge of accomplishing so much more. The newcomers, a full third of the roster, are aware that their arrival is designed to facilitate that — in goal, most notably, but other places too.
This is a deeper, more experienced team, with more skill at forward with the late and dramatic acquisition of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, with more options on defense despite the departure of Dougie Hamilton, with a complete change of scenery in net. There’s a lot that comes with that, from higher expectations from the fans to more national TV appearances — be careful what you wish for: everyone who complained about that in years past now has to fork out for ESPN+ to see a half-dozen games — but internally it manifests as a mix of confidence and grumpy impatience.
It’s a mood, more than anything.
For the players who have been through the past three seasons since Rod Brind’Amour and Justin Williams yoked a bunch of perpetual also-rans into harness, it’s a void that needs filling. One trip to the Eastern Conference finals and one division title in a pandemic-shortened season may have been enough so far, but they’re not as this new season dawns.
The Lightning may have been better last season, but the arrival of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta and Kotkaniemi and Derek Stepan and Ethan Bear and others is supposed to give the Hurricanes a chance to close that gap. (Arguably, the winner of that series was going to have the best shot at the Stanley Cup even at that moment; Montreal’s upset of Vegas made that a fact.)
For the newcomers, and there are so many of them, they didn’t have to spend much time with that group to pick that up. Whether they came from one of the NHL’s saddest franchises (like Raanta) or the most pressure-packed environment in hockey (like Andersen), they not only knew why they were being brought in, they could sense it deep in their bones once they got here, like a vibration.
“It feels great,” Raanta said. “I knew a lot of guys already before I even came here so it was an easy transformation for me. You see all these guys how they work out, how they practice, what they do off the ice. Just try to match that level, get to their level, bring something to the table every day.”
The Hurricanes have set a bar for the newcomers to clear, and they’re all setting a new bar for themselves together. This is how the franchise has to evolve and grow and move forward, and Thursday was the first step of many on a journey with an uncertain destination.
Everyone can feel that, from Brind’Amour on down. Coach of the year? It’s officially in the past.
“I’d forgotten about that,” Brind’Amour said. “That was nice, actually.”
Raanta joked that he has two kids at home and, as the oldest of an increasingly large Finnish contingent, three kids at the rink. But he was dead serious when he was asked about the atmosphere.
The mood is unquestionably all business, even if it’s the unfinished kind.
This story was originally published September 23, 2021 3:30 PM.