The Carolina Hurricanes are approaching the end of one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. With the playoffs just around the corner, now is a good time to look back and appreciate the impressive contributions from players on the roster who helped get them this far.
Thanks to a full team effort, especially after a rash of injuries, most notably to top-line winger Teuvo Teravainen for more than half the season, the ‘Canes never faltered or struggled for any prolonged period of time, and because of it, they are in the mix for the Presidents’ Trophy and leading the race for the top seed in the Discover Central Division.
As they gear up for the playoffs, and with little likely to change before then with four games remaining, here’s a quick look back as we offer awards to eight players for the 2020-21 season.
Offensive MVP: Sebastian Aho
All three of the Hurricanes’ top centers were finalists here. A couple of weeks ago, offensive MVP would probably have gone to a different player (don’t worry, we’ll talk these players later), but given Aho’s strong play lately, it’s tough to dispute this one. He is riding an eight-game point streak, which includes five multi-point efforts and 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists).
As the team heads down the stretch, the return of Teravainen has been one of the most promising developments. The subsequent reunion of the SAT line (Svechnikov – Aho – Teravainen) has been stellar, and their talent level and chemistry are a huge reason why the Hurricanes have a legitimate chance to win the Cup this season. That line can match up with any in the league, and though Teravainen has only been back for four games, it’s no coincidence that Aho and Svechnikov (especially after a prolonged, tough stretch in the latter’s case) are firing on all cylinders now.
Aho leads the team with 24 goals and 55 points this season and is the only Hurricane with over 41 points. He’s the team’s best player and has grown into one of the best two-way centers in the league. Under head coach Rod Brind’Amour, his development in the faceoff circle (52.9% this season, the first time in his career he’s been over 50%) and on the penalty kill (including 3 shorthanded goals) while scoring at over a point-per-game pace makes him an easy choice here.
Defensive MVP: Brett Pesce
This award is usually reserved for Jaccob Slavin, and if his recent play had been the standard this season (as it has been up until 2020-21), defensive MVP would be his. His uncharacteristic struggles after his bout with COVID-19 opened the door for two other players, and, this was a very tough call.
Dougie Hamilton is second on the team in points with 42 (10 goals, 32 assists) and had a 14-game point streak which, at the time, was the longest in the NHL (surpassed by Nathan MacKinnon) as well as a Hartford/Carolina franchise record for a defenseman. Unfortunately, his defense slipped for a chunk of the season, and his mobility wasn’t great coming off last year’s broken fibula. He has picked up his game recently and played some of his best hockey down the stretch (the theme for the Hurricanes), but his inconsistent season made room for another defenseman who, like Slavin, doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves.
Pesce has been a consistent force for the ‘Canes since his rookie season in 2015-16, consistently logging big minutes and handling tough matchups with aplomb. He hasn’t missed a game this season, is averaging a career-high 23:29 ice time (TOI), and his offensive numbers have taken a step forward as well. His high mark for points in a season is 29 in 73 games in 2018-19 (0.39 points-per-game average (P/G)). In 2020-21, he has 4 goals and 25 points through 52 games (0.48 P/G). For a shutdown defenseman who excels in his own end and can effectively erase most anyone in the NHL, that kind of production is more than enough to be named this year’s defensive MVP on the Hurricanes.
Best Rookie: Alex Nedeljkovic
All due respect to Jake Bean and Steven Lorentz, both of whom have had some very good moments as NHL newcomers, the goaltender, and Calder Trophy candidate, wins Best Rookie in what is likely the easiest call of the day. Remember that “Ned” cleared waivers in January, unwanted by all 31 teams.
Since then? He is 15-4-3 with a 1.89 goals-against average (GAA), .932 save percentage (SV%), and three shutouts. He’s been one of the best goalies in the NHL this season, and the only thing keeping him from being mentioned in the same breath as Calder favorites Kirill Kaprizov and Jason Robertson is his games played. Nedeljkovic has been a massive story for the ‘Canes this season, stepping in for Petr Mrazek and not only helping the team tread water but thrive. He has provided the goaltending depth that Carolina hasn’t had since 2006 (at least), and he may find himself starting playoff games in a couple of weeks if he stays hot.
I’m sure more will be written about this, but during Monday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, he hit the 30-minute mark to surpass the games played threshold needed to remain a restricted free agent this summer. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Nedeljkovic is likely to remain a big part of this franchise’s future between the pipes.
Most Improved: Martin Necas
Another obvious pick, Necas still has some work to do in terms of his strength and keeping his motor running in every shift. But, when he’s on, the young Czech playmaker is electrifying and this season’s most improved player. He set a career-high in points (37) when he racked up three assists in an April win over the Florida Panthers, his 42nd game of the season. Last season, he needed 64 games to notch one fewer.
His speed, hands, and playmaking ability are evident, as those traits are what made him the 12th overall pick in 2017. His defensive improvement and usage on the penalty kill this season has been just as important in his development, and especially under Brind’Amour. That kind of play has led to more minutes, which has led to increased confidence, which has led to another fantastic, rising player on the Hurricanes.
Biggest Surprise: Jordan Staal
The captain has been an excellent two-way center the entirety of his NHL career. Last season, he had just 8 goals and 19 assists, but he was still great. The box score has just never truly measured his impact. Well, at least, until it did.
Staal’s good ol’ offensive renaissance at 32 years old has been one of the most fascinating storylines on the team this season. Their center depth allowed Staal to slide down to a more natural role on the third line, where he isn’t miscast as a player relied on for offense. He simply makes his money wearing down the opponent’s top scorers and lines. So, naturally, he has doubled his goal total and netted 16 goals and 22 assists this season (50 games). His .76 P/G mark is the second-best of his career, behind 2011-12 when he notched 25 goals and 50 points in 62 games at age 23 (.81 P/G). Hey, he could even finish hot and beat that. And, of course, his defensive game hasn’t slowed down a bit.
What Willy says, goes.
Best Newcomer: Vincent Trocheck
For this award, I cheated a little, mostly to make sure we talked about the season Trocheck has had. For “newcomers,” we included players acquired at the 2020 trade deadline, which made Trocheck and Brady Skjei eligible. They were brought in right before the COVID break, so they never got a chance to get settled. They essentially came over for a handful of games, had the COVID pause, then went to the bubble for another handful of games, and that was that.
This season, both players have found their legs within the system and have proven to be excellent additions, and for a good chunk of the season, Trocheck would have been my pick for offensive MVP. He has hovered near a point-per-game pace all season (41 points in 43 games played) while always being amongst the team leaders in goals (3rd with 17). That’s not to mention how good he has been defensively, on the penalty kill, and in the faceoff circle.
His ever-so-slight slowing down, and the coincidental eruption of Aho’s game, may have caused him to lose out on the offensive MVP award, but Trocheck has been stellar, and, if you ask me, has worked himself into the Hurricanes’ long-term plans. His contract is up in the summer of 2022, but his fit within the system and production after a few down years in Florida seem like a perfect match for the Hurricanes.
Unsung Hero: Nino Niederreiter
Niederreiter has always been a streaky player, and after catching fire on his arrival in Raleigh as a mid-season addition in the 2018-19 season, he struggled in his second campaign with the team. A lot of it was puck luck, as he had plenty of long, multi-game stretches of excellent play where his shots simply did not find the net.
But this season, especially early on when Teravainen went down and Andrei Svechnikov struggled mightily, Niederreiter has come “back”. He’s second on the team in goals with 18 and has already surpassed his 2019-20 point total in 15 fewer games. More importantly, he’s been a phenomenal fit on the second line next to Necas and Trocheck. His puck retrieval and board battles have made him a key piece of the Hurricanes’ forecheck, and his ability to consistently win possession and get the puck to his two playmaking linemates has made the trio fit extremely well. The Hurricanes’ top six has been incredible, and Niederreiter has settled into his role as a finisher, net-front presence, and dirty-worker exactly as the Hurricanes envisioned, which is what makes him the team’s unsung hero.
Best Game: 4-3 Win Over Tampa Bay Lightning, March 27
Despite a 15% capacity crowd, this was as close to a playoff atmosphere as you’ll get, as the Hurricanes came back from a 2-0 deficit to take two huge points from the defending Stanley Cup Champs. Aho had a goal and an assist, while Necas scored twice as part of a four-point night, including this beauty of a game-winning goal:
The game felt a lot less competitive than it was. After the Lightning scored twice early in the game to go up 2-0, it was all Carolina. Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy stood on his head to keep it close, making 36 saves, as the Hurricanes outshot the Lightning 40-22. It was a riveting performance and one of the biggest statement games of the season; in such a tight Central Division race as the season winds down, we see how massive these regulation wins were, in retrospect.
It has been far from a one-man show this season in Carolina. I could have discussed every member of the roster at one point or another. A team that can beat the opposition in many different ways is an extremely dangerous one, because strategizing to take away one aspect of their game often opens the door for another. This is what we see with the ‘Canes; the team has a chance to win the Cup because of the contributions they get from all over the lineup, pretty much on a nightly basis.
What did you guys think of the picks? If you would have chosen someone else or added another category I didn’t throw in here – I enjoy creativity – be sure to drop a comment below or tweet at me @bwstanley26.
Check back later this week as we get into playoff storylines once the seeding and bubble picture gets a little bit clearer. The best time of the year is almost upon us, friends.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!