Every year in the NHL, unexpected events take place and fortunes change. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle gives some insight into how the Capitals’ first round playoff opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes, came to face the Caps in the opening round of the 2019 spring tournament, with the roots of these events beginning prior to the 2018-19 season.
During the summer of 2013, the Hurricanes drafted a forward Elias Lindholm with the fifth overall pick of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, an intriguing selection in a draft that include Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov, and Seth Jones among others. Lindholm made the Hurricanes out of training camp for the 2013-14 season and ended the year with nine goals and 12 assists for 21 points in 58 games played, with his first goal of the year allowed him to become the youngest Swede to ever score an NHL goal. He also played six games with the Carolina’s farm team, the Charlotte Checkers.
After the season, the Hurricanes fired then-Head Coach Kirk Muller, who had held the position for just under three seasons. The team had missed the playoffs in each of those seasons and as a result, the Hurricanes opted for a coaching change, hiring Bill Peters, an assistant coach under Mike Babcock (then of the Detroit Red Wings). They had also promoted Ron Francis, a former star player with the franchise who had worked in the front office for many years, as General Manager and fellow star alumni Rod Brind’amour as an assistant coach. The promotion of Francis was to replace longtime General Manager Jim Rutherford, who had joined the Pittsburgh Penguins in a similar role.
The fortunes of the Hurricanes did not improve during Peters’ tenure, with the ‘Canes finishing dead last in the Metropolitan Division in 2014-15 with a 30-41-11 record (worse than the 36-25-11 they had achieved under Muller the previous season). The season was marked by injuries to key players and star offensive players Jeff Skinner and Alex Semin finding themselves at odds with the new bench boss. Skinner was deployed up and down the lineup, many times on the third-line, which is arguably, not the optimal usage of a skilled forward. Semin fared even worse, finding himself in and out of the lineup, and as a healthy scratch many times. He had undergone wrist surgery prior to the season and, as a player largely dependent on his wrist shot to score, was not scoring. Semin’s contract was bought out when the season was over, and did not return to the NHL the following season. However, Skinner remained with the team.
The next three seasons, 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18, were nearly identical in results, with Carolina missing the playoffs each season. In 2015-16, they went 35-31-16 and finished sixth place in the division; in 2016-17 they went 36-31-15, identical to the team’s record in Muller’s final season; and in 2017-18, went 36-35-11. The team had clearly not improved under Peters although they registered good metrics in Corsi, Fenwick, and other advanced statistics but lacked the finishing ability. Peters was perceived as a coach who was good at coaching defense but unable to handle creative, skilled forwards who were seen as poor defensive players, such as Skinner, who had clearly not thrived under Peters’ tutelage.
As other forwards struggled in 2014-15 under Peters, Lindholm improved that year, scoring 17 goals and adding 22 assists, playing both center and wing and on the first, second, or third-line. The next two seasons were not good for Lindholm in terms of goal-scoring but saw him remain consistent in the assists department, as he recorded 11 goals and 28 assists in 2015-16 and 11 goals and 45 assists in 2016-17. During the 2017-18 season, he improved his goal scoring, scoring 16 goals and adding 28 assists. In each of those seasons, Lindholm’s role continued to change. He appeared to have become a good, but not great player, and fans began to compare his stats to those of Sean Monahan, whom the Calgary Flames drafted with the pick immediately after Lindholm was selected by the Hurricanes (Monahan had averaged close to 30 goals per year for the Flames since being drafted).
However, the winds of change arrived to the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2017-18 season. Tom Dundon, a businessman who was raised in Texas, became the majority owner, buying the franchise which Peter Karmanos had owned prior to their time in Carolina (Carolina was originally the Hartford Whalers). Karmanos had bought the Whalers in 1994 and moved them to Carolina after the 1996-97 season. In early March, Dundon relieved Francis of his duties as General Manager and assigned him to a new position as President of Hockey Operations and the search began for a new General Manager. The Hurricanes ended up terminating Francis’ contract on April 30.
Peters announced his resignation as head coach on April 20, letting it be known that he wished to coach closer to his hometown in Western Canada. Just three days later, Peters accepted a job to become the Head Coach of the Calgary Flames, who had fired their previous head coach less than a week earlier, after the team had missed the playoffs in 2018.
On May 8, Don Waddell, the President of the Hurricanes’ parent company, Gale Force Sports and Entertainment, became President and General Manager of the franchise. Prior to his time with the ‘Canes, he had served as General Manager and later the President for the Atlanta Thrashers, who had since moved to Winnipeg. At the same time, Brind’amour was promoted as the new Head Coach of the Hurricanes.
The new regime set about making their mark early, as the team held the second overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, with which they used to select forward Andrei Svechnikov, and in a surprise move on the second day of the draft, traded Lindholm and defenseman Noah Hanifin (whom they had drafted fifth overall in 2015) to the Calgary Flames in exchange for defenseman Dougie Hamilton, winger Micheal Ferland, and defensive prospect Adam Fox. Both Lindholm and Hanifin joined their former bench boss in Calgary. Later that summer, Skinner was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for prospect Cliff Pu and two draft picks. Prior to the 2018-19 season, Carolina appointed former Capitals right wing and veteran forward Justin Williams as the team’s new captain.
After the multiple changes in personnel in the offseason, results were positive for all involved, as Lindholm had a great year for Calgary, scoring 27 goals (a career-high and fourth on the team after Johnny Gaudreau, Monahan, and Matthew Tkachuk) and finishing third in assists with 51 and third in points, with 82. after Gaudreau and Monahan. The Flames finished the season with a 50-25-7 record and first place finish in the Pacific Division, enjoying success under Peters in his first season behind the bench.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes started off the season winning four of their first five games but then descended into mediocrity. They were 24-20-6 at the All-Star Break and it promised to be another mediocre year and another playoff miss. But the team turned it around, performing at a slow and steady pace winning five in a row during the late February-early March time frame. After their game on March 24, they held a record of 42-26-7, dropping two in a row to the Capitals but rebounding against the Flyers. Their final record for the regular season read 46-29-7 and they finished fourth in the Metropolitan Division and the first wild card team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And as a result of their finish, the Hurricanes now find themselves set to face the defending Stanley Cup Champions on Thursday.
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