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2021-22 Carolina Hurricanes Preview: A lesson in tanking goodwill

Everyone loves the Carolina Hurricanes, the goofy bunch of jerks ... wait, I’m hearing they signed an actual jerk.

Nino Niederreiter #21 of the Carolina Hurricanes and teammate Andrei Svechnikov #37 acknowledge a fan on the glass during an NHL game against the Detroit Red Wings on April 29, 2021 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

The Carolina Hurricanes have done more for the NHL’s image in the last few years than perhaps any team that isn’t a recent expansion. The lovable “bunch of jerks” in Raleigh were a feel-good hockey story and the team’s social media presence reflected that vibe. This was a team that was fun to watch and easy to root for, as they established themselves both with on-ice success and off-ice antics that won over the hockey world.

And then what happened?

Well, to start, instead of building on the team that has sustained success, general manager Don Waddell started trading away the players that got them there, and allowing others to walk in free agency. Losing impact players is hard enough, but when they’re fan favorites too, it’s even harder to sell to your fanbase as necessary instead of just ... cheap.

But a harder sell is replacing those players with some of the worst in the sport. I don’t mean in a the trade is one for one, Hall for Larsson, type of way, where general managers will overvalue a skill to the point that they can convince themselves that any two players short of Connor McDavid could actually be comparable. I mean the team signed one of the league’s most unrepentant assholes in Tony DeAngelo to their blue line while letting Dougie “likes museums” Hamilton walk.

The goodwill the team had earned from fanbases across the league quickly shattered with the realization that even the fun and loveable team that everyone kind of roots for will also sell their morals for a dime if they think it would get pucks to the net.

It’s an all too familiar disappointment, but still, ‘Canes fans are now struggling with their relationship to the team — who is building a new identity, with or without them.

Where they left off

The 2021 season posed an interesting challenge to the Hurricanes, temporarily moving to the Central Division, which lost the heavy-hitting Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild to the West Division. However, they still had to contend with the Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers and the eventual championship Tampa Bay Lightning team.

But the Hurricanes had no problem blowing through the mainland, ultimately topping the division with a 36-12-8 record.

Early in the season, the team acquired Alex Galchenyuk and Cedric Paquette from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Ryan Dzingel, shoring up their forwards, but two days later, they flipped Galchenyuk to the Toronto Maple Leafs for two players who presumably will not return to the NHL. Paquette later left the team in free agency.

Then ahead of April’s trade deadline, the ‘Canes swapped defenders with the Anaheim Ducks, sending Hadyn Fleury to California in exchange for Jani Hakanpaa. Hakanpaa also left the team in free agency, signing a three-year deal with the Dallas Stars.

Eventually, the team lost in the second round of playoffs to the Lightning, after two hard-fought series. A highlight of the postseason was the performance of 25-year-old goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, who was rewarded by being traded to the Detroit Red Wings, instead of being paid by the team who drafted him. The team received the signing rights to pending free agent goaltender Jonathan Bernier in exchange, though — stop me if you’ve heard this before — he did not sign with the team, opting to go to market and eventually landing with the New Jersey Devils.

After spending the last three years establishing themselves as a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference, the time has come for the team to start paying its talent — instead, they started trading it away.

2021 Entry Draft

The ‘Canes weren’t messing around when it came to this year’s draft. They took a big chance on trading out of the first round, along with four other exchanges of picks, to walk away with 13 selections overall between the second and seventh rounds, a franchise record.

As a draft strategy, it helps to have the numbers on your side; more picks means a higher chance that you’ll get NHL players out of this draft. That’s the goal, after all, especially after a couple consecutive years of success leading to later draft picks makes it harder to make those big swings at high-end talent.

But it’s also hard to separate this year’s draft strategy from the team’s approach to free agency, and allowing talent to walk when they become too expensive means you need a healthy supply of young, cheap players to start filling out the roster soon. Prospects also become great bargaining chips to acquire higher end talent, something Sharks fans are familiar with, given how rarely they have drafted within the top ten.

The Hurricanes are good at drafting, too. While this strategy could’ve resulted in simple quantity over quality, trading down while targeting players who would still be available resulted in a loaded draft class for Carolina. Experts ranked the team as one of the best drafts of the year, will the lowest grade coming in at a B. The selections of defenders Scott Morrow and Aleksi Heimosalmi at 40th and 44th overall were particularly inspired.

As most teams are learning, the 2021 draft class is unlikely to be NHL ready after the last two years of coronavirus-related restrictions, but when they do, the ‘Canes will have plenty of cheap talent — at least until their entry-level contracts expire.

Here’s the full draft class:

  • Scott Morrow, D (40th overall)
  • Aleksi Heimosalmi, D (44th overall)
  • Ville Koivunen, F (51st overall)
  • Patrik Hamrla, G (83rd overall)
  • Aidan Hreschuk, D (94th overall)
  • Jackson Blake, RW (109th overall)
  • Robert Orr, C (136th overall)
  • Justin Robidas, C (147th overall)
  • Bryce Montgomery, D (170th overall)
  • Nikita Quapp, G (187th overall)
  • Yegor Naumov, G (200th overall)
  • Nikita Guslistov, C (209th overall)
  • Joel Nystrom, D (219th overall)

Roster

The Hurricanes were busy in free agency, but, well, they kind of had to be. Adding to the players already mentioned who were traded or left in free agency, they also lost two more goaltenders (Petr Mrazek signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, while the Sharks snagged James Reimer), Brock McGinn (the best and youngest of the McGinn brothers) left for the Pittsburgh Penguins and most damning, defender Dougie Hamilton took a $9 million pay day with the New Jersey Devils for the next seven seasons.

The roster looks nothing like the 2019 ‘Canes, who made it to the Eastern Conference Final after a nine-year playoffs drought. Just a handful of those players remain with the organization, and Don Waddell spent this off-season constructing a new team around them.

In former Sharks news, the ‘Canes signed forwards Maxim Letunov and Stefan Noesen as depth pieces. Derek Stepan was added to the center the fourth line, along with several depth wingers. A complete refresh in net saw Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen sign with the team. A trade with the Edmonton Oilers scored defender Ethan Bear, and the ‘Canes added veteran Ian Cole to the blue line too.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an NHL off-season without some drama, and Waddell decided to spice things up by pulling out the rare offer sheet. You may remember that previous offer sheet drama between the Hurricanes and the Montreal Canadiens in 2019, when the Habs tried to steal franchise forward Sebastian Aho. Ultimately, the ‘Canes were able to keep Aho last time.

This time, the roles were reversed and Carolina signed Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet. Montreal is in a stickier situation now than Carolina was three years ago and could not match the offer. Despite the fact that Carolina almost certainly overpaid and will have to continue to overpay to keep Kotkaniemi, they still get a top-six forward out of the deal.

Here’s how Daily Faceoff projects the line-up:

Forwards

Nino Niederreiter — Sebastian Aho — Martin Necas
Jesperi Kotkaniemi — Vincent Trocheck — Teuvo Teravainen
Andrei Svechnikov — Jordan Staal — Jesper Fast
Steven Lorentz — Derek Stepan — Jordan Martinook

Defenders

Jaccob Slavin — Brett Pesce
Brady Skjei — Tony DeAngelo
Ian Cole — Ethan Bear

Goaltenders

Frederik Andersen
Antti Raanta

What can we expect in 2021-22?

It’s hard to say what the new-look ‘Canes are capable of doing this season. The forward group, while new, is still explosive, but will need consistency from Kotkaniemi. The defense has taken a step backward, though, and Dougie Hamilton will be missed.

As for goaltending, the tandem of Andersen and Raanta could be fine, but two streaky performers don’t really level out to one decent goaltender. The loss of Alex Nedeljkovic is going to haunt this team and the defense didn’t improve enough to bail out the new goaltending tandem. Wins are going to come exclusively from their forwards, a step backward for a team that was on the up-and-up.

The Sharks and Hurricanes will create a Sharknado twice this season, first at SAP Center on Nov. 22, while Sharknado 2: The Rematch will be at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan. 30, 2022.