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Getting to know the new Central: Carolina Hurricanes

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Let’s give the Hurricanes’ new division rivals a chance to know them.

NHL: OCT 29 Flames at Hurricanes Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With NHL teams entering new divisions this year, sites around SB Nation are giving their new opponents a chance to get to know their teams. Today, it’s our turn, as the Hurricanes will be a fairly unique division rival for teams Carolina has mostly played just two or three times a season for the past seven years.

Check out the previous three days’ editions from the Red Wings, Predators and Panthers.

Be sure to stay tuned to Storm Advisory to read the answers from the other teams around the new division going forward. For now, let’s give everyone a chance to get to know the Carolina Hurricanes:

1. How would you describe your team’s style of play? Under head coach Rod Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes play a fast-paced, up-tempo style of play. This team thrives on puck possession, and is consistently among the best possession teams in the league. They’re also going to fire away in the offensive zone, as the Hurricanes are third in shots on goal per game over the last two seasons.

The Hurricanes are going to activate their defensemen and have them join the play, and the team has plenty who can do it in Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei and Jake Gardiner. That’s not to say the Hurricanes are a run-and-gun, throw caution to the wind kind of team. Brind’Amour still wants everyone to be defensively responsible, and has sheltered younger players while they learn that side of the game.

2. What players should opposing fans know the name of and why? We’ll start with the three obvious ones, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. That trio forms the team’s top line and are its top three offensive threats. Aho was two tallies shy of 40 goals last year despite playing just 67 games, and Teravainen is one of the best playmakers in the league. The chemistry the two Finns have in all phases of the game is a treat to watch.

Svechnikov is, of course, known around the league for being the first player in the NHL to successfully score a lacrosse goal… and then do it again. Beyond “The Svech”, however, the third-year winger is a force to be reckoned with. He’s got an elite wrist shot and plays a strong power-forward type game. Entering his third year in the league, Svechnikov should just keep getting better and better.

Martin Necas, coming off a solid rookie season, is another young, skilled forward who’s fun to watch and should be in line for a bigger role in year two.

On the blue line, Dougie Hamilton was having an incredible season and was firmly in the Norris Trophy conversation before suffering a leg injury last season. He’s probably the best offensive defenseman the Hurricanes have ever had, and will definitely be one to watch in a contract year.

We seem to be getting past the point of Jaccob Slavin as the best-kept secret in the NHL, but it’s hard to overstate his importance to the Hurricanes on the top pair with Hamilton. Slavin is among the best pure defensemen in the league, with the ability to break up play after play in the defensive zone, while also joining the fun at the other end.

3. Why could your team win the division? Especially with Tampa Bay being without Nikita Kucherov for the full season, I think this is a more likely scenario than people think. The Hurricanes are a good team with a deep roster of talented players. They likely need a few breaks to go their way for this to happen, but the best version of the Hurricanes probably looks something like this:

Petr Mrazek and James Reimer continue to provide solid, if unspectacular, goaltending, and perhaps take a step firmly into the “consistently good” category. The top line of Aho, Tervainen and Svechnikov is just as dominant as last year, perhaps a little bit better as Svechnikov takes a step forward. Necas takes a similar step forward to Svechnikov in his sophomore season, Vincent Trocheck bounces back to producing like a legit top-six center in his first full season with the team and one of Nino Niederreiter or Ryan Dzingel bounces back to their previous form to give the Canes a legit second line and balance out their top six.

Hamilton continues to play at the Norris-caliber level he was pre injury last year, and the defensive group is even better with a full season of Brady Skjei and healthy years from Hamilton and Pesce.

It’s perhaps not terribly likely that all of that happens, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility either.

4. Why could your team be the caboose?

The first answer is the one that could face pretty much every team this season: a rash of injuries to key players after a short training camp, or lengthy absences of large groups of players due to COVID cases.

On the ice, the worst version of the Hurricanes looks like this: Trocheck continues his injury-plagued, below top-six level play from the last two seasons, Necas doesn’t step forward, Niederreiter and Dzingel don’t bounce back and the Canes get almost nothing resembling adequate depth scoring beyond their top three.

Hamilton’s contract year is too big a distraction for him to play at a high level, Pesce isn’t the same post-injury and the D corps takes a step back. Mrazek and Reimer tank, and the Hurricanes’ goaltending reverts to its horrific pre 2018-19 levels.

I really don’t think it’s likely all of that happens, but even if it does, it’s hard for me to imagine a mostly healthy Hurricanes team finishing below the Red Wings and Blackhawks.

5. On a scale of baby kitten to Tiger King, what’s the potential of a heated matchup with your new division mates?

This is interesting, because most of these teams are ones the Hurricanes only see two or three times a year normally. However, with all of these squads squaring off eight times this season, and the schedule mostly made up of pairs (or more) of games against the same opponent, it’s easy to see bad blood developing. As of now, here’s the likelihood I see for a rivalry with each new opponent, ranked:

7. Dallas Stars - I know the Stars are a physical team, so these games could get chippy, but as of right now it’s hard to remember any animosity between the Hurricanes and Stars. The Canes are likely to see a familiar face in Anton Khudobin in the opposing crease at least a few times in this series, so that could be interesting.

6. Florida Panthers - These two teams are old Southeast Division rivals, but while it’s possible that spark rekindles, there really aren’t any players left over from those days on either side. Vincent Trocheck will be manning the No. 2 center spot for the Canes after coming over from Florida at the deadline last year, and could be eager to prove his old team wrong. This one gets a lot more intriguing if Scott Darling makes the Panthers’ roster and starts at least a game or two against the Hurricanes.

5. Chicago Blackhawks - This one would have been a lot more interesting a few years ago, before the Blackhawks got so, well, not good, and the Canes had a few more former Blackhawks. Chicago will be reminded of what could have been with eight games against Teravainen, one of the best players in the league who Chicago traded to the Hurricanes along with Bryan Bickell for a pair of draft picks. Chicago currently employs Lucas Wallmark, a fan favorite in Carolina before he was traded to Florida last season, and one who could see a bigger role this season with the Hawks’ injuries at center.

4. Detroit Red Wings - I’d have this one higher if the Red Wings even remotely resembled the Detroit powerhouses of yesteryear, but I don’t see these games being overly competitive. Still, there will be a very interesting subplot of two pairs of brothers facing off. Jordan and Marc Staal have been division mates all but one season that they’ve both been in the league, and that won’t change this year following Marc’s offseason trade to Detroit.

And, provided the reported arm injury Evgeny Svechnikov suffered in Tuesday’s practice isn’t too serious, he and his brother Andrei will face off for the first time in their careers. Andrei told Hurricanes media Tuesday he’s been thinking about playing his brother before he goes to sleep at night, and that he just might try to line him up and hit him on the first shift. Could brotherly love turn this into an underrated showdown?

3. Tampa Bay Lightning - Another former Southeast rivalry, but the same caveat with Florida applies. I think there’s a strong chance the Canes finish second in this division, and, if they can remain within striking distance (see what I did there) of the Bolts, these matchups, particularly the late-season ones, will take on added meaning. And, while the Lightning will be without their best player, they’re the defending champs, which means they’ll be getting everyone’s best shot. I wouldn’t expect the Hurricanes to be any different.

2. Nashville Predators - This is a rivalry that’s made sense from a geographic standpoint for years, but the teams never played more than once a year. That’s about to change. Nashville is one of the closest NHL teams by proximity, and, while the fan element won’t be there at least to start this year, if conditions with COVID improve enough to allow spectators, could allow for some fun road trips for each fan base. And might we see Andrei Svechnikov and Filip Forsberg score dueling hat tricks? I believe that sound you just heard was a collective howl of anguish from our neighbors to the north.

There have also been rumors that, with the Milwaukee Admirals opting out of the AHL season, the Predators could send players on loan to the Hurricanes’ new AHL affiliate in Chicago. So you could have AHL teammates getting called up and playing against each other. The possibilities could be endless when these southern hockey brethren face off, topped only by…

1. Columbus Blue Jackets - The Blue Jackets are the Hurricanes’ only holdover opponent from the old Metropolitan Division, so there’s already familiarity from playing each other so many times over the past seven seasons.

But there’s really one reason I’m putting the Blue Jackets No. 1. For the most part, this schedule is made up of sets of two games against the same team in the same location. The only team the Canes are scheduled to play more than twice in a row is yep, you guessed it, Columbus.

These two teams will square off four times in eight days from March 18-25, with two in Raleigh and two in Columbus. That’s the minimum requirement for a playoff series. By the end of four straight against each other, with every game out of 56 taking on added importance in what’s likely to be a successful season, it’ll be a miracle if tempers don’t flare at some point. We may well look back at the third week of March 2021 as the true arrival of a Hurricanes-Blue Jackets rivalry.