There was good, and there was bad for the Carolina Hurricanes in an unusual 2021 NHL season.
The good was that the Canes were always competitive and one of the top teams in the league, seemingly in every single game and in the race for the President’s Trophy right down to the wire.
The bad, however, was that the Hurricanes exited the playoffs in the second round, falling to a loaded Tampa Bay Lightning team 4-1. After making the Eastern Conference finals in head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s first season in 2019, 2021 marked the second straight season the Canes didn’t get past the second round.
Getting back over that hump to that next stage has to be the objective for this organization, which touts one of the best young cores in the league and is clearly building towards something great. And in some regards, the 2021 season could be considered a step forward for the Hurricanes.
But in other ways, Carolina didn’t take that step forward in the way it wanted to. That was the feeling of star center Sebastian Aho, one of the top young forwards in the NHL, anyway.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like that right now,” Aho said. “We had, in our minds, something different than this. I thought we were ready to take the next step. The next step is to be the best, right? A lot of good things. I’m proud of the effort. I love the group. I enjoyed this year with these guys, but at the same time it’s not a step forward because we didn’t get the ultimate goal.”
Aho, like everyone on the Canes, wasn’t satisfied with the second-round exit. Yes, the Hurricanes played the defending champs in the Lightning. But still, a second-round exit after a fantastic regular season wasn’t the picture this team had in mind.
And to Brind’Amour, that mindset of this past season not being enough at the end is welcomed.
“I’m glad he would say that,” Brind’Amour said. “You certainly don’t want to be satisfied because that’s not it. We were here to try to win. I love that that’s what he said because we fell short of that.”
And if the Hurricanes didn’t take that next step in 2021, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t close. All it takes is one look at Carolina’s roster and the ages on it to know that this team is mighty close to being one of the league’s best, consistently.
“It’s so close,” said forward Jordan Martinook. “It’s very, very close...I think it’s just sticking with it, continuing on. Guys are going to get better. The younger guys that are 21, 22, [Aho] is 23 and he’s just going to get better. It’s that close and for us to be consistently there and give ourselves a chance, that’s all you can ask for. I sincerely think once we get over that hurdle, there’s going to be good things.”
And while the future is bright and this team has the building blocks in place, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, both with the guys on the team and the personnel that needs to be added.
There will be retooling this offseason, maybe even with Martinook himself. It happens every year for every NHL team, but for a team like the Carolina Hurricanes right now there should be excitement in that retooling.
If this team is close, which it is, it may just be one or two pieces away from getting over that hump and taking the next step.
“We’ve got to get better, your depth,” Brind’Amour said. “There’s always a weakest link that you can’t have. We’ve got to figure out what that is and get better at it. We definitely have some great pieces here both talent wise and character wise. We’ve got to make sure we keep those intact and if there’s areas we’ve got to get better, which obviously we do, we’ve got to figure out a way to do that.”
Who knows what those changes will be right now. The Canes will add pieces, say goodbye to others and at the end of the day, hope to have a better roster in 2021-22 than it did this past season.
But, regardless of those additions and subtractions, the core group of this team won’t change. It’s as young and as talented as any in the NHL, and the future is nothing but bright for the Carolina Hurricanes as they look to take that next step.
“There’s a bright future here in Carolina with the young group we have and the D corps and the right things moving forward with [Brind’Amour],” said captain Jordan Staal. “It’s all good stuff. I think Carolina throughout the league is starting to make a name for itself that we’re gonna be a tough team to play against every night.”