As the puck dropped on the 2019-2020 NHL season, expectations were placed on the Carolina Hurricanes to follow up a year where they reached the Eastern Conference Finals with an equally good, or better, second act. And for most of the season, the Canes not only proved their miracle run last year wasn’t a fluke, but that they were poised for a deep run in the playoffs, like last year’s squad.
When the regular season was suspended on March 12, the Canes were on a three-game winning streak on the road, and in two of the games the Canes managed to win, they did so without the help of their starting tandem in net: Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. The team seemed to be getting hot at the right time, but when the NHL decided to conclude the regular season and start the playoffs, the Canes had no recourse to improve on their good, but not great, 38-25-5 record.
With the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference, the Hurricanes were slated to play against the upstart, 11th-seeded New York Rangers in a preliminary play-in round, led by Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin. Panarin’s playmaking, along with the much improved goal-scoring touch from sniper Mika Zibanejad, made the Rangers a trendy pick to upset the less flashy, less top-heavy Hurricanes. But aside from a tight 3-2 decision in Game 1 favoring the Hurricanes, the series wasn’t particularly close. The Rangers would find the back of the net only twice more the rest of the series, and the Canes breezed by the Blueshirts en route to a 3-0 series sweep. James Reimer made 37 saves on 38 shots for the Hurricanes in Game 3, and his performance summed up how well Carolina’s defense and goaltending have played at times.
Once officially in the playoffs, the Canes now had to face their Eastern Conference Finals foe from last year: the Boston Bruins. While the “Perfection Line” of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron made all the headlines for the Bruins, it was Boston’s smothering defense that was the key to a 4-0 series sweep in the 2019 playoffs. For the Canes to find a way to win, they’d have to get the puck past Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask.
Though the series was much tighter this time around, the Canes couldn’t stop the Bruins offense when they needed to and their offense stalled when they needed a goal, even with 35-year old backup goalie Jaroslav Halak between the pipes for Boston from Game 3 onwards. The result was a 4-1 series win for Boston, in which Carolina lost three games by a one-goal margin.
Though the season has ended, several players on the Hurricanes have taken significant strides toward becoming productive NHL players. 2019 Calder Cup Winner Martin Nečas was called up from the AHL and showed flashes of skill that could make him a top-six forward for the Canes. The 21-year-old native of the Czech Republic scored 16 goals and 36 points in 64 games this season, more productive than highly touted rookies from the 2019 NHL draft, such as New Jersey’s Jack Hughes and the New York Rangers top pick Kaapo Kakko.
Of course, the player that took the biggest leap this season was 2018 second-overall pick Andrei Svechnikov. The young Russian scored 24 goals and 61 points in 68 games for the Canes, and made headlines for his pair of lacrosse-style goals (that’s right, not just once, but twice).
In trying to improve on last year’s improbable seasons, Carolina made a slew of new signings and a few key trades before or during the year. Coming in were Ryan Dzingel, Jake Gardiner, Joel Edmundson and James Reimer in the offseason, along with Brady Skjei, Sami Vatanen and Vincent Trocheck at the trade deadline. Gone were Justin Faulk, Lucas Wallmark, Curtis McElhenny, Michael Ferland and Calvin de Haan.
While some had the potential to make a real impact over the course of a full season, like Dzingel who chipped in with 29 points in 64 games, other additions looked puzzling at the time and have aged worse over time, namely the signing of Gardiner to a four-year contract over $16.2 million. If the next few years of Gardiner’s stay in Raleigh are anything like his first year, in which he was a minus-24 in 68 games, the Canes will be more hesitant to give long-term deals to defensemen hesitant on defending.
The big storyline that surrounded most of the season for the Canes was whether or not last year’s captain and playoff talisman Justin Williams would return to the squad. The 38-year-old wanted to take a break from the game in order to spend time with family, and missed the start of the season as a result. Finally, in the first week of 2020, Williams decided to sign with the Hurricanes on a one-year deal. Williams produced just as efficiently as in seasons past, scoring 11 points in the 20 games he played, including eight goals.
Goaltending wasn’t as strong a suit for Carolina this season as it has historically been, and the departure of fan-favorite Curtis McElhinney and the impending free agency of Petr Mrazek left the Canes in the precarious position of losing what little goaltending talent they had. After signing Mrazek, the Canes traded for a stopgap in James Reimer. Not only did Reimer perform admirably in his role as 1B to Mrazek’s 1A, but he often played better than his partner in net. Reimer’s 2.66 goals against average and .914 save percentage were both better than Mrazek’s 2.69 GAA and .905 SV%, and the question has to be asked if Reimer might be the way Carolina looks toward in the future.
Fresh off of signing Montreal’s five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet and watching Carolina match it, Sebastian Aho was set out to prove he wasn’t just a budding young star, but a player who had already arrived, and would be a mainstay among the league’s elite. Aho followed up his 83-point campaign with 38-goal, 68-point totals in 68 games this year. In addition to putting up impressive point totals, Aho refined his defensive game, adding his name among the best defensive forwards in the league, and may have Selke Awards in his future.
Though these aren’t your grandfather’s Canes of years past, perhaps this franchise is still snakebitten in some ways. After Carolina eliminated the New York Rangers in the play-in round, the Rangers won the first pick in the 2020 NHL draft and a chance to draft a potentially franchise-changing player.