RALEIGH — The questions were a bit different at this season’s Carolina Hurricanes media day. Gone were the questions about ending the team’s playoff drought. There was no intrigue about how a first-time head coach would handle the reins of his first season behind the bench.
Instead, the questions were of largely two themes: what the post-Justin Williams Hurricanes would look like, and how the playoff run of a season ago would change the approach to this season. There was success a year ago, to be sure, but the 2019-20 season has a different type of pressure: the pressure to turn that success into something more than fleeting.
Coach Rod Brind’Amour, who now knows what the majority of his roster will look like after Williams made his decision to step away from the game, was pragmatic as always. Without Williams, the team will need guys to step up.
“We chatted all summer. This wasn’t a surprise,” the coach said of his captain. “Justin came to his decision, I knew for a long time before that and I was kind of hoping he would lean in a different direction, but I think he’s at a real good place. He feels good about his response to it. He’s leaving it open a little bit, but as far as we’re concerned, he wants us to make sure we’re moving forward and he’s not part of the group right now. That’s how we’re approaching it.
“I didn’t think he wanted to be the guy that stopped playing and then two or three months later un-retired and came back,” Brind’Amour continued. “That seems to be done, and overdone with a lot of guys. He didn’t want that to be the case, so probably that was the best decision to say ‘I’m stepping away.’ If he ever comes back, that’s fine, we’ll leave the door open for him. Certain players earn that right to have that little bit of freedom, and he’s definitely one of them.”
One of those players in line for a bigger locker room role with Williams out of the picture is Jordan Martinook. But the popular forward is careful to point out that he won’t be the only one dealing with heightened expectations.
“I think Willy was one of those guys that knew how to keep it light. Everyone plays me out to be this ‘class clown’ - and I am, I love to have fun with it, this is the best job in the world,” said Martinook. “But at the end of the day I know when to get serious, and the absence of Willy is going to add a little bit more to my plate, a little more to [Jordan Staal’s], and it should add a little more to everybody’s.
“When you lose a guy who was a major part of turning the culture in here, every guy in this room might have to take a baby step forward.”
Last season, a lot was expected from Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas. Svechnikov acquitted himself well in the NHL, and is in line for a bigger role this season, especially given the offensive production the team will need to replace with Williams’ departure. Necas, after an early cup of coffee with the Hurricanes, spent the rest of the season with the Charlotte Checkers, eventually winning the Calder Cup. Noticeably bigger in his upper body this summer, he says he’s ready for the challenge of proving himself as an everyday NHL player.
“I want to make the team, and it’s up to me how I’m going to play, how I’m going to work,” Necas said. “I want to spend the whole season here. I worked on getting stronger, getting used to those little fights along the boards and in the corner. It’s a little bit different than in Europe. I kind of got used to it last season in Charlotte, and it feels better [this season].”
Perhaps more than any other player, Necas will be relied upon to help fill the void of Williams’ missing 53 points, but he says he’s ready for the challenge. “I’ve always been a player who was scoring goals and creating chances. I’d like to do that here, to help the offense, help the [power play], be helpful for the team in every way on the ice,” he said.
But Brind’Amour is careful to not put too much pressure on any one player to replace the unexpectedly key contributions that Williams made on the scoresheet last year. “We picked up a couple guys that can provide offense. We knew this was a possibility. We added [Ryan] Dzingel, [Erik] Haula, and Marty Necas, a young player. Somebody’s going to have to step up and fill those shoes on the offensive side of things.”
For those scoring at home, Martinook will remain “Marty” in the locker room, and Necas has been tabbed as “Junior” - although Martinook did say that he fully expects to turn around when someone is calling for Necas this season. “Everybody still calls him Marty, and I just answer to it,” Martinook quipped. “People are going to get sick of me saying ‘What?’ But we’ll figure it out.”
Among the new arrivals today was James Reimer, who had just met incumbent starter Petr Mrazek yesterday, and Dzingel, who couldn’t stop talking about his newly-adopted hometown.
“I’m actually way too excited,” Dzingel said. “I keep talking about it with everyone, it’s a hidden gem. You don’t hear too much about it, in Chicago [Dzingel’s hometown] I didn’t know too much about North Carolina, but I’m excited to be here and buy a house and make this my home hopefully for a long time.”
Brind’Amour told the media that he was excited to hear that the team had targeted Dzingel as a signing. “When I saw him in Ottawa, he’d hold my eyes. Every time we’d play them, I’d be like ‘who is that guy?’ As a coach, when you don’t really know the other team, certain players stand out, and he was always standing out for me. I’m hoping that he does that for us and [has] other coaches asking that question. I’m happy that he’s here.”
For Dzingel’s part, the sales job seems to have taken well. The veteran of 24 playoff games with Ottawa and Columbus knows what he’s getting himself into.
“The year [the Hurricanes] had last year was special. They want to build off that this year and keep going. Obviously I heard the fans were pretty insane and the building was the loudest one in the NHL, so I was really happy to hear about that. You need to put a good product on the ice so people will come, and that’s what we’re doing.”
“It’s easy to turn the page because you have to. What you’ve done in the past is kind of irrelevant. As a group I think it's good that we know that some of the things we did can work. We just have to get better and keep building.”