Ten years is a long time in the world of professional sports, and no one knows that better than the Carolina Hurricanes.
A decade removed from their last playoff run, the Canes are back and they’re making the most of the present, just like they did in 2009. The goal now for Carolina is to sustain the success they are currently having - something they absolutely failed to do in their last time around.
Perhaps it’s premature to be saying, “okay, but what’s next?”, but I don’t care. Let’s talk about the similarities and differences between this year’s Hurricanes team and the team that made its way to the 2009 Eastern Conference Final.
Spoiler alert: there’s a lot to like with the 2019 Carolina Hurricanes.
NHL Team Comparisons
Back in 2009, the Hurricanes finished with a record of 45-30-7, which was good for 97 points and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. They were also second place in the Southeast Division, just incase you needed another reminder of how long ago this was.
This season, the Canes finished 46-29-7 (one win better than the ‘09 team) with 99 points and the seventh seed in the East.
Here’s how the other numbers compare:
2009 Hurricanes vs. 2019 Hurricanes
|STAT||2009 Hurricanes||2019 Hurricanes|
|STAT||2009 Hurricanes||2019 Hurricanes|
|Goals for/game||2.88 (16th)||2.96 (16th)|
|Goals against/game||2.7 (8th)||2.7 (8th)|
|Power play %||18.7 (18th)||17.8 (20th)|
|Penalty kill %||80.4 (8th)||81.6 (8th)|
|Forwards (20+ gp) avg. age||28.3 yrs old||23.3 yrs old|
|Defensemen (20+ gp) avg. age||28.7 yrs old||25 yrs old|
Statistically, there are a lot of similarities - it’s almost scary.
Both teams ranked 16th in the NHL in goals for and 8th in goals against, though the 2019 team scored more goals over the course of the season. Both teams also ranked identical in penalty killing and were in the same ballpark on the man advantage.
The real differences come with age, and those differences are pretty massive.
This year’s forward group is, on average, five years younger than the 2009 team. On the blue line, this year’s team is almost four years younger.
In 2009, the team’s top-six point-producing forwards (Ray Whitney, Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, Rod Brind’Amour, Sergei Samsonov, Matt Cullen) had an average age of 30.8 years old. The only sub-30 forwards in that group, of course, were Staal and Ruutu.
2019’s top-six point producers up front (Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Justin Williams, Micheal Ferland, Andrei Svechnikov, and Nino Niederreiter) clock in at an average age of 25.3 years old. For my non-math majors out there, that’s 5.5 years younger than the club from a decade ago. In contrast to that team, of this year’s top-six forwards (in points), five of the six are under the age of 30 and none of those players are older than 26. Justin Williams is the lone member of that group on the wrong side of 30 (though, in his case, you could maybe argue that both sides of 30 are his right side of 30).
Much of that young forward group is locked into contracts. Teravainen signed an insanely valuable five-year extension earlier in the season, Niederreiter signed a long-term deal with Minnesota before being traded, and Svechnikov has two years left on his ELC. Aho is a pending RFA whose AAV could eclipse $10 million, but he’s just 21 and his 83 points this season was more than any player on the 2009 team, including a then-24-year-old Eric Staal. Ferland is likely out the door, though. Williams isn’t going anywhere.
On the blue line, Carolina’s current biggest strength, the 2019 team saw four guys (Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce) finish with 30+ points (Pesce had 29 points in 73 games so I’m counting him) and those four guys are under contract beyond this season and have an average age of 24.8 years old. The 2009 team had a strong offensive output from the back end as well with three blue-liners finishing north of 30 points. The difference lies in age as Joe Corvo, Anton Babchuk, and Joni Pitkanen had an average age of 26.7 years old and Babchuk’s contract dispute led to him playing in Russia the next season before coming back to Carolina in 2010-11 and eventually getting traded.
On top of this year’s Carolina blue line being young and extremely productive on both ends of the ice, they’re all locked in for next season and beyond. In Slavin and Pesce’s case, they’re two pillars for this team and they’re under long-term, team-friendly contracts.
In net, the 2009 Hurricanes had their flag firmly planted in Cam Ward, whose .916 save percentage had him in the Vezina Trophy conversation. Michael Leighton’s .901 save percentage was far from stellar in his backup role.
We have another big contrast this year. Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney largely split starts this season and they both finished with above-average save percentages at .914 and .912, respectively. They are both pending UFA’s, so the future isn’t quite as certain here. Mrazek will almost assuredly be brought back given his excellent regular and postseason run at a still very young age at 27. McElhinney is a question mark.
Cap construction is a big part of the equation, as well. For the life of me, I couldn’t find any reliable cap numbers from the 2008-09 season, but the 2019 Hurricanes are positioned to be fine with the salary cap given the long-term smart-money deals on the blue line and no outrageous deals signed, outside of Scott Darling who has been buried in the minors. The Canes are projected to have just shy of $30 million available in cap space this summer to take care of guys like Aho, Mrazek, Williams, and Ferland who are among the players in line for new deals.
In the System
One of the good things about being terrible for a decade is that you’re given an opportunity to select key players higher up in the seven rounds of the draft. Under Ron Francis, the Canes managed to do that.
Among the young core of recently drafted players in Carolina now are Aho, Svechnikov, Foegele, and Wallmark. Back in 2009, the list was much shorter and included the likes of... Brandon Sutter (whose rookie NHL season was comprised of 50 games and 9 total points)? There really weren’t many young, recently drafted and developed players on the 2009 team, as the average age of the club would suggest. Eric Staal certainly wasn’t a new player in the league at that point as he had five seasons in the league under his belt and was 25 years old in October of that season.
In the farm system, the Canes had little to offer, as well. Jamie McBain, Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman, Chris Terry, Jerome Samson, Michal Jordan, and Justin Peters were among the notable prospects in the Carolina system at the time. Ten years later, they’re all out of the NHL.
The 2019 farm system, however, is extremely promising.
At the top of the list, you have Martin Necas, who projects to be a top-six offensive force in the NHL as soon as next season thanks to his great rookie year in Charlotte. Julien Gauthier, Aleksi Saarela, Janne Kuokkanen, Morgan Geekie, Stelio Mattheos, and Nicolas Roy are all forwards in Charlotte who project as future NHLers. Some could be top-six or top-nine contributors, some could be role players at the bottom of the depth chart, and some may never make it even that far. Regardless, this iteration of the Carolina farm system offers a lot more upside than it did ten years ago, and it’s really not even close.
Adding in defenseman Jake Bean, who had a banner rookie season with the Checkers, makes things look even better, as does the development of goalies Alex Nedeljkovic and Callum Booth. Nedeljkovic could be a full-time NHLer as soon as next season, depending on what happens with Carolina’s goalie situation over the summer.
Obviously, more goes into team construction and a team’s future than current results, age, and farm systems. Coaching is huge, as is the state of the front office. Fortunately for the Hurricanes, Brind’Amour’s rookie year behind the bench has been unbelievably impressive and Waddell and company’s work up top has seen wins in the trade realm (i.e. Niederreiter for Rask and the Flames trade which brought in an offensive dynamo on the blue line in Hamilton).
The 2009 playoff run for the Hurricanes was exciting, but it was also very different from what the 2019 playoff run is. Ten years ago, it was a veteran group of players who had been around the block and were looking to make one of their final pushes in the postseason. This year, it’s a young team full of a talent that is making its first run of what should be many to come thanks to how well this team has been constructed, the age of those involved, and the salary cap structure.
Regardless of how this postseason ends, you can feel comfortable knowing that this is not going to be another 10-year playoff drought in the making. This is the beginning of what will be sustained success for the Hurricanes unlike anything that we’ve seen from this franchise... ever?
With core pieces like Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal, and Dougie Hamilton in place and the likes of Martin Necas, Julien Gauthier, Jake Bean, and Alex Nedeljkovic on the way, I don’t think there’s ever been a more stable time in this club’s history. This organization is built the right way on the ice and on the spreadsheets and they’re already experiencing success at all levels.