After months of waiting and wondering, hockey is right around the corner. Following this weekend’s official announcement that the league will play a 56-game schedule with a Jan. 13, 2021 start date, the Hurricanes suddenly find themselves quickly preparing for a new season.
It will unfortunately be without fans in the building at least as the season begins, but hockey will return to PNC Arena in under a month.
As the team prepares for its truncated 2021 season, head coach Rod Brind’Amour, general manager Don Waddell and captain Jordan Staal spoke with the media via Zoom Monday. Here’s some key updates from their availability:
Training camp and condensed schedule
Training camp for the new season will begin Jan. 3, as a very quick lead in to the new season. The Hurricanes will spend the majority of their training camp at the new Wake Competition Center practice facility, partly due to availability conflicts with NC State men’s basketball home games at PNC Arena.
Without a normal training camp, teams will have to be able to ramp up to full speed quickly, and each game will take on added importance in a shortened year.
“I think it’s going to be a challenge, kind of like going into the bubble,” Staal said. “It’s going to be a quick training camp, I don’t think there’s any exhibition. With a shortened season, every game is just going to be that much more heightened. It’s just one of those things that everyone’s got to be prepared right away, and our group’s got to gel quickly, find a way to get hot early and continue to stay hot. With a short season, you’ve got to string together some games if you want to make that push to the playoffs.”
With a truncated camp, it will be to the Hurricanes’ benefit that they largely return the same group as last season, with the core untouched and Jesper Fast the only major addition to the NHL team.
“I think with this group, what we’ve learned last year from it, I think you definitely want to make sure we take that experience,” Brind’Amour said. “Playing in front of no fans for the first time, that’s an adjustment. Well, now they’ve kind of got that in check. Really, I think with the same group being back is that motivation. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end. I think that’s the fuel here, the fire to say ‘OK, we’ve got to be better than that.’ We don’t want to end like that, so that’s what’s great about having the same group back, they suffered here, they went through that together. We want better things, and I think that’s what you’re going to see out of these guys.”
As part of the league’s realignment with the seven Canadian teams having to form one division due to travel issues, the Hurricanes moved to a new central division. They’ll only keep one of their old Metropolitan Division Rivals, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and will square off eight times each against Columbus, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.
Most of the teams are opponents the Hurricanes normally only play twice a year, and playing each of them eight times could spawn some new rivalries.
“I think it’s interesting,” Staal said. “It’s mostly teams we haven’t played a ton, so that’ll make it different. It’s obviously weird that we’re going to play those same teams the whole year, which I think is going to maybe cause some quick rivalries and obviously some good games. But it is what it is. We’re happy we’re getting going, we’re happy we’re playing some hockey. We’re excited to be back, and whoever we’re lining up against, we’re just excited to play some hockey.”
Clean bill of health
Waddell said that, with two additional players arriving Monday, the Hurricanes now have all of their NHL players in Raleigh, and “100% ready to roll” with everyone healthy.
That means that defenseman Brett Pesce, who has not played in a game for the Hurricanes since suffering a shoulder injury in late February, should be ready to rejoin the group.
One of the adjustments the league will make for this season in the time of COVID-19 is the addition of a “taxi squad.”
Teams can carry a minimum of four and maximum of six players, according to Waddell. If a team doesn’t have three goalies on its active roster, one of the players on the taxi squad must be a goalie, as each team must carry three goalies at all times (there will be no emergency goalies this season). The entire taxi squad doesn’t have to travel to road games with its team, but the goalie does.
If the AHL plays this season, players will not be able to be recalled directly from the AHL to the NHL roster. Players can be recalled from the AHL to the NHL taxi squad, but they must pass a 14-day quarantine before reporting.
No outdoor games
Waddell said the Hurricanes were one of the teams that spoke to the league about possibly playing some outdoor games in this season, but that it didn’t make financial sense with current restrictions on fans, so the team likely won’t play any outdoor games during the 2021 season.
No update on extensions
Waddell also said that while he did not have any update on potential contract extensions for Dougie Hamilton and Andrei Svechnikov, who will both be free agents after the 2021 season (Hamilton will be unrestricted, Svechnikov will be restricted), he’s told both players’ agents the Hurricanes have interest in extensions and expects talks to continue.
Ready to play
There are obviously financial concerns about playing a shortened season with limited to, in the Hurricanes’ case, at least to start the season, no fans.
There are ways to offset the losses, and Waddell confirmed the Hurricanes are looking at placing advertisement decals on their home and away helmets this season, but the losses won’t be insignificant. Still, Waddell knows it was important for the league to get back on the ice.
“We need to play,” Waddell said. “I think to go out of sight for a whole year probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We are who we are. We’re the NHL. Obviously we’re not the NFL. I think we need to be in front of our fans. Our fans, they miss that.”
There were reports that some NHL owners didn’t want to play the season under those circumstances.
Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon wasn’t one of them.
“Tom, from the onset, always wanted to play,” Waddell said. “He never second guessed that at all. He’s been totally supportive of us, for all the reasons I said, to get back and play. We were 100% on board.”
From the players’ perspective, they know this year will look different, and COVID will likely place added rules and regulations on their day-to-day activities.
However, the Hurricanes view that as a small price to pay to get back in action.
“There’s going to be some sacrifices,” Staal said. “Everyone’s made sacrifices at this time. These are small sacrifices for us to be able to play a game and hopefully entertain a group of people that are longing to watch some hockey. That’s what we want to do, and it’s going to be different. There’s going to be little things here and there. But in the end, being able to be out on the ice and compete against the best players in the world is what we all want. I think that’s what the fans want, too.”