Carolina Hurricanes’ Leadership Being Tested Early

Leadership can’t exactly be measured. There’s no statistic or way of quantifying it, but it’s a presence that can be felt in every locker room, whether you’re at the NHL level or a kid starting out on your first hockey team.

Leadership also has layers – a natural hierarchy with a trickle-down effect. For the Carolina Hurricanes, much of their success in the past two seasons can be attributed to the more structured approach they’ve taken in establishing their chain of command. Through the first 18 games of this season, under a new captain and new alternates, the Hurricanes are adjusting to changes and challenges.

Life Without Justin Williams

When Jordan Staal was named captain in September, he had massive shoes to fill. Last season, Justin Williams led the Hurricanes in a unique way; as a strong offensive contributor, with three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, and as a calming presence to some of the squad’s youthful, impressionable stars.

It’s easy to forget just how young their talent is. Andrei Svechnikov is still a teenager, Sebastian Aho is only 22 years old, and even the other corner pieces – Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Teuvo Teravainen – are 26 or younger. As the youngest team in the league last season, with an average age of 25.7, many of the young players looked up to Williams, and he effectively took them under his wing.

Carolina Hurricanes Petr Mrazek Justin Williams
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek and right wing Justin Williams (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who is one of the game’s most exceptional leaders dating back to his five-year captaincy as a Hurricane, comprised a strong leadership duo with Williams, his former teammate. Not only did they begin a new tradition with the storm surge, but they helped jump start a new era of Hurricanes hockey and gave the team a brand-new persona.

Now that Williams has stepped away from the game, the torch has been passed to Staal who, along with alternate captains Jordan Martinook and Jaccob Slavin, is expected to steer the ship in the right direction. The Hurricanes are still one of the league’s youngest teams, and a common symptom of inexperience is inconsistency.

They have been a streaky team through the first quarter of the season, highlighted by their 5-0-0 start and recent 0-4-0 skid. On closer inspection, you can see when things began to unravel, which was around the time Martinook was injured.

Importance of Positive Energy and Momentum

The announcement that Martinook would miss six-to-eight weeks with a core muscle injury meant that a high-energy player and positive presence would be gone from the locker room. As a third- to fourth-line player who isn’t a massive offensive contributor, it didn’t seem like a huge loss at the time, but Martinook is an understated leader who spreads good vibes. Just look at how he reacted to Svechnikov’s legendary lacrosse-style goal two weeks ago.

The Hurricanes are 4-0-0 with Martinook in the lineup this season and 6-7-1 without him. He’s also coming off a career high 15-goal season in 2018-19. When the Marty party gets going, so do the Hurricanes. They were 10-1-2 last season in games in which Martinook scored a goal. He even scored his first career hat trick on Nov. 23 last year in a 4-1 win over the Florida Panthers.

He’s still recuperating but he’s been skating with the team since Saturday, and his influence has already been noticeable. Few guys can pump up the team like Martinook – his enthusiasm is infectious.

“I got Haula out and I got Martinook out, and those are two very important cogs in what we’re trying to do,” Brind’Amour said following Saturday’s morning skate. “Marty especially, the way he plays and emotional intangibles he brings to our group has definitely been missed.” Martinook is still roughly two weeks away from being in game shape, but to have him participating with the team is a boon.

The Hurricanes rebounded powerfully Monday, slaughtering the Ottawa Senators 8-2 on the night rink-side reporter Mike Maniscalco returned to work following surgery to remove a stomach mass. Players, fans and fellow media members were all beaming to see “Big Rig” healthy and back at work. It’s those moments that give the Hurricanes the extra drive they need to perform at peak level.

Coincidence or not, there’s a noticeable difference when good things are happening to the team, and they’re lifted by their ability to keep things light. Storm surges that bring the team together, the fun, youthful energy of players like Aho and Svechnikov, and the smiles and positivity from Martinook and Maniscalco. All these factors contribute to the way the Hurricanes and their fans function, and it’s what they’ve been missing during their early November slump.

Learning From the Best

When Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon purchased the team in Jan. 2018, he initiated the revival of Hurricanes hockey. He wasn’t afraid to spend money, and he had a legitimate vision for building a successful hockey team in Raleigh. He brought in a new general manager in Don Waddell, a new coach in Brind’Amour, and the identity of the Hurricanes changed almost overnight. They have all been essential to turning the franchise around.

head coach Rod Brind'Amour
RALEIGH, NC – JUNE 30: Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour meets with fans before the Canes Prospect Game at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC on June 30, 2018. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s easier to come to the rink every day when you know you have an owner who cares, and the Hurricanes responded by making the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons. But for the Hurricanes to stay successful, they need players to step up and maintain that optimism, even when guys like Martinook are on the sidelines.

Surviving without Williams and Martinook for much of the beginning of the season has had its effects on the Hurricanes and, at times, stunted their success. But as players like Aho and Svechnikov continue to dig their feet into the NHL, they will need to learn how to overcome adversity and answer the bell when called upon. After all, they’re going to be the guys who will one day morph into the Hurricanes’ new leaders for the next generation – and they’re fortunate to be learning from some of the best.