Rookies are often thrust into the spotlight as hockey minds try to predict a young player’s potential for growth. Watching a star grow into their own is one of the more exciting parts of hockey, especially when they show flashes of brilliance in their first NHL season. These are the five rookies who did it best for the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes franchise.
5. Sebastian Aho, 2016-17
The flashy Finnish forward quickly becoming a household name not only in Carolina, but around the league, gets the slight edge at No. 5. Aho has shown remarkable development during his three years in the league, but Hurricanes fans have known since his rookie season that this kid was the real deal.
Aho got off to a slow start as he adjusted to the NHL pace; he didn’t score a goal until his 14th game. But after getting the first one out of the way, he gradually began to gain confidence and contribute more offensively. On Jan. 31, 2017, he scored his first hat trick and added an assist in a 5-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers. In total, he compiled 24 goals and 25 assists in 82 games.
Perhaps most impressive about his rookie season is how he achieved that with a weak supporting cast. He finished second on the team in points, behind only Jeff Skinner, who he rarely played with. Two of Aho’s regular linemates were Teuvo Teravainen and Elias Lindholm, neither of whom had broken 40 points yet in their careers.
Carolina improved from 27th to 20th in goals-for, a number that has increased every season Aho has been with the team. His youthful energy and undeniable talent was a beacon of light for the lowly Hurricanes during that time, and he did it all at only 19 years of age. That’s what gives him the nod over honorable mentions like Scott Young, Brad Shaw, and Chris Pronger.
4. Jeff Skinner, 2010-11
The Hurricanes had a good haul at the 2010 draft, using their first two picks on left winger Jeff Skinner and defenseman Justin Faulk, two players who shaped Carolina’s core for the next eight years. Despite his smaller stature, Skinner impressed Hurricanes’ staff with his skill and agility, and immediately earned himself a spot on the roster.
In his first season, Skinner scored 31 goals and 32 points, which was best among all freshmen. His efforts earned him the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie, and a spot in the NHL All-Star Game. His 63-point rookie season ranks third in Hurricanes/Whalers franchise history.
Carolina missed the playoffs by just two points, despite Skinner’s contributions. Through his nine-year career, he hasn’t seen one game of playoff action. His trade to the Buffalo Sabres last year brought some hope that he could team up with Jack Eichel and bring long-aching Buffalo fans playoff aspirations, but it was the Skinner-less Hurricanes who instead stormed into the postseason.
3. Sylvain Turgeon, 1983-84
Going all the way back to Oct. 5, 1983, an 18-year-old kid from Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec made his NHL debut for the Hartford Whalers. After being drafted second overall in 1983, Turgeon immediately exploded onto the scene, setting records for goals and points by a Whalers/Hurricanes rookie. His 40 goals and 72 points are records that still hold up today, and also put him in elite company — only 12 players in NHL history have scored more than 40 goals in their rookie season.
It was an exciting time for Hartford, which had the speedy sniper Turgeon and a young Ron Francis at the nucleus of the team. For the next two seasons, Turgeon produced at a point-per-game pace until 1986-87, when he suffered an abdominal injury. Though the Whalers made the playoffs the next few seasons, keeping up with divisional rivals like the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins proved to be a daunting challenge.
Turgeon’s injuries lingered in the seasons following, hindering his abilities while the Whalers continued to meddle in the middle of the NHL. In 1989, he was traded to the New Jersey Devils. He spent the last few years of his NHL career pinballing around several different teams before retiring to Europe to play out his career.
2. Ron Francis, 1981-82
The longest-serving captain in franchise history and the only player on this list to have his number retired, Ron Francis remains one of the franchise’s most iconic and beloved players. Francis played 23 seasons in the NHL for the Whalers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs. He sits fifth in NHL history with a whopping 1,798 points — 68 of those coming in his rookie season.
After Francis was drafted fourth overall in 1981, he began the following season back with the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds. While Francis dominated the OHL, the Whalers were clawing at the cellar door, struggling in a competitive Adams division. Scraping up only two wins in their first 16 games, the Whalers called up their highly touted new draft pick and immediately inserted him into the lineup. From there, Francis never looked back.
He scored his first goal and added two assists in his second NHL game — an 8-5 win against the Maple Leafs. He spent the rest of the season with Hartford, scoring 25 goals and 43 assists in only 59 games to finish third in team scoring. His 1.15 points-per-game that season is still the highest in franchise history for rookies.
Point totals aside, Francis earns his spot at No. 2 because of what he signified when he came into the league as an 18-year-old. He represented hope during hard times for the small-market team, and he was able to do that again for Carolina when he joined the Hurricanes in 1998. This franchise owes a lot to Francis, and that’s why he is one of its most admired and respected people.
1. Cam Ward, 2005-06
Often dubbed one of the greatest seasons ever for a rookie goalie, it should come as no surprise to see Cam Ward No. 1 on this list. Ward played just 28 games in a backup role during the 2005-06 regular season, posting a shaky goals against average (GAA) of 3.68 and save percentage (SV%) of .882, but he took his game to the next level when he got his opportunity in the playoffs.
In Game 1 of the first round against the Canadiens, veteran starting goalie Martin Gerber surrendered six goals on 21 shots in a 6-1 loss. After Gerber allowed three more goals in the first period of Game 2, head coach Peter Laviolette turned to their 22-year-old rookie backup. And from there, everything went just swimmingly.
Drafted 25th overall in 2002, Ward was always a player Carolina had high hopes for. But in the playoffs, the ‘Canes saw that potential quickly come to fruition. The Hurricanes won the next four games, and the series, with Ward shutting the door behind them. In those four wins, Ward allowed just five goals.
Inspired by his performance, Carolina then defeated the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, and Edmonton Oilers to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Ward was a wall in goal all postseason, constantly bailing out his team with key saves in critical moments. By the end, he improved his numbers to a sparkling 2.14 GAA and .920 SV%, earning him the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Ward is one of four first-year goalies in NHL history to collect 15 or more playoff wins and win the Stanley Cup. He was also the first rookie goalie to win the Conn Smythe since Ron Hextall in 1987. Carolina’s 112-point season in 2005-06 was already its best in history, but the Stanley Cup is the ultimate prize, and Ward’s playoffs heroics alone are enough to justify him as the greatest Hurricanes franchise rookie of all time.
Matt Cosman is a Sheridan College print journalism graduate from Oakville, Ontario. I’ve been with THW since 2019 covering the Carolina Hurricanes, one of my favorite childhood teams. When I’m not in my hockey bubble you can probably catch me jamming out on the piano or losing money at the poker tables.