The Carolina Hurricanes’ 2021 season is over, and now it’s time to reflect on all of the good things and good performances that we witnessed in a bizarre NHL campaign.
Today, we’re giving out end-of-season awards and recognizing some of the most impressive highlight reel moments that happened along the way.
We did this at the midway point of the season, as well.
Here are the 2021 end-of-season awards for the Hurricanes.
Most Valuable Player and Best Forward
Midseason MVP winner: Brett Pesce
Midseason best forward winner: Vincent Trocheck
The common theme in the midseason awards was that there were a number of players in every category that could win every award. That’s not really the case this time around, especially in the MVP category. The answer is very obvious.
It’s Sebastian Aho.
Aho closed out his fifth NHL season as the Hurricanes’ team leader in goals (24), assists (33), and points (57). He’s the first Carolina player to lead the team in all three scoring categories since Eric Staal did it during the 2011-12 season.
During the postseason, he led all Carolina skaters in goals (six) and points (11) and scored the series-winning goal in Nashville in game six of the first round.
The franchise’s cornerstone continues to take steps forward both in his play and his presence as a leader for the Hurricanes. For obvious reasons, Aho is the 2021 team MVP and the best forward.
Midseason best defenseman winner: Brett Pesce
You can make an argument for a couple of defensemen here, but I’m going to stick with my midseason pick for the best defenseman - Brett Pesce.
Pesce had an outstanding bounce-back season after a 2019-20 season that never really got off the ground and ended early due to another shoulder injury that required surgery.
2021 might have been Pesce’s best season to date. He ranked fourth among NHL defensemen in shooting-adjusted wins above replacement, according to TopDownHockey’s data.
I wrote about Pesce’s value in the early days of the 2021 season, and a lot of those points remain true. He has been the connective tissue from the top of Carolina’s defensive depth chart to the bottom three. Without him, this team’s defense starts to fall apart.
In 2021, Pesce’s posted 5-on-5 career-highs in corsi-for (54.31%), expected goals-for (56.46%), total assists (17), primary assists (10), and points (20).
Pesce’s complete game is crucial to Carolina’s success as a team, and that was put on display again this season. You can make a very strong argument in favor of Dougie Hamilton because of just how dominant he is as an offseason driver, but. I’m going to show Pesce some more love here and go with him as the Hurricanes’ best defenseman in 2021.
Best Goalie and Best Rookie
Midseason best goalie winner: Alex Nedeljkovic
There isn’t much to say here. Alex Nedeljkovic took the league by storm in 2021 and instantly shot up to near league-best numbers across many goalie statistics, with top-five finishes in goals saved above expectation, save percentage above expectation, save percentage, and goals-against average.
The only thing that kept Nedeljkovic from Vezina nominee territory was his lack of games. He started and played in 23 games, wherein the Hurricanes went 15-5-3 as a team. He likely would’ve needed 10-15 more starts to cement himself in the Vezina conversation, but he’ll just have to live with a Calder nomination instead.
In the postseason, Nedeljkovic started all but two of Carolina’s 11 games played. The team went 4-5 in the nine games he started. Ned had a .920 save percentage and a shutout in his first NHL postseason run and provided the Hurricanes with a quality starting goalie that kept them in games. It’s almost impossible to ignore his lowlights, though. His back-breaking soft goal in game one against the Lightning might’ve spelled the beginning of the end of Carolina’s postseason. If he makes that save, maybe the Hurricanes win the game. If they win the game, who knows what happens from there.
But those are all hypotheticals, and instead of dwelling on those, we’re going to focus on what we know. We know that Nedeljkovic had a rookie season for the ages and that the Hurricanes have reason to believe they have their goalie of the future.
Alex Nedeljkovic had an outstanding season.
Goal of the Year
As painful as Carolina’s second-round exit to the Lightning was, it would have been 50x more painful had they gotten ousted by the Nashville Predators in the first round.
That’s what was on the horizon for the Hurricanes with 10 minutes left in the third period of game five. Losers of back-to-back games in double overtime, the Canes were down 2-1 more than halfway through the third period in a quiet building with no energy left. A loss on that night in front of their home crowd would’ve likely led to a heartbreaking defeat in game six on the road.
But with seven minutes left in regulation, a young star in the making delivered the biggest goal of his NHL career.
Down 2-1 in the third period with the season on the line.— Canes Country (@CanesCountry) May 26, 2021
Martin Necas, the stage is yours: pic.twitter.com/HskAPbJoXp
Necas’ highlight-reel goal saved the Hurricanes’ season and set the table for Jordan Staal’s overtime winner.
There might have been some prettier goals for the Hurricanes in 2021, but none of them held the weight that Necas’ goal in game five did. It was a gorgeous goal that carried so many implications.
This was the goal of the year.
Save of the Year
Naturally, the save of the year goes to Nedeljkovic, who made plenty of big-time stops in his remarkable rookie campaign.
I’m going with his sprawling glove save on Jonathan Huberdeau back on April 22.
If we’re talking about saves that feature that highlight-reel quality AND importance in the grand scheme of the Hurricanes’ season, this one has it all.
This short-handed save came late in the third period of a 3-2 game on the road in one of the many insane games that the Canes and Cats played in 2021. After falling behind 1-0, the Hurricanes scored three unanswered goals in the second period to take a two-goal lead into the third period.
Florida dominated the third, though. They had five third-period power plays and four power plays in the final 10:14 of the game. Aleksander Barkov’s goal at 12:02 brought the game within a goal and the Panthers didn’t let up the rest of the way. Huberdeau’s chance on the power play was perhaps Florida’s best to tie the game, but Nedeljkovic made an outstanding save while falling backward to retain Carolina’s lead. A couple of minutes later, Aho scored the game-sealing ENG.
If Florida ties the game there, they have all the momentum and it would be tough to bet against them winning that game. Instead, the Canes secured two more points in the standings en route to a division title.
How important was this game?
The Hurricanes won the Central Division by one point. The second-place team was, of course, the Panthers. That save might have been the difference between drawing the Predators or Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.