It was an enchanting run for the Carolina Hurricanes last season when captain Justin Williams and new head coach Rod Brind’Amour led a group of underdog youngsters to the Eastern Conference Final. With Williams’ future still undecided, his tight-lipped approach to next season hasn’t stopped the Carolina brass from filling holes, and one move they may have to consider is designating a new captain.
Despite boasting one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Hurricanes flourished under Brind’Amour’s guidance en route to their first playoff berth in 10 seasons. His reputation, built on hard work and accountability, combined with the hockey buzz in Carolina has even made it an attractive free agent destination.
But questions still remain whether this Hurricanes team will compete for a Stanley Cup next season without their captain. With three Cups already to his name, Williams would be hard-pressed to find a better season to end his career on than last. If that’s the case, expect one of these guys to take up the mantle.
Four seasons after his older brother was traded from the team, Jordan Staal could become the second Staal to don the ‘C’ full-time in Carolina. He got a taste of the job in 2017-18, when he and defenseman Justin Faulk co-captained the team, splitting the job 50/50. It was an uncommon dynamic that only lasted one season before then-head coach Bill Peters resigned and left the team. Despite that failed experiment, Staal remains one of the team’s most experienced players and a top candidate for captain.
At 30, he’s the oldest player remaining from last season’s playoff run. On the current roster, only Faulk has played more seasons for the Hurricanes than Staal, who will be entering his eighth October. Whereas Faulk is entering the final year of his contract and could be used as a potential trade chip next season, Staal is signed with the team through 2022-23.
If you want familiarity, stability and someone who represents ‘Canes hockey, Staal’s your guy. The steady 6-foot-4 pivot can be relied upon as a 40-point middle-six center who particularly excels on the defensive side of the game. Though he may never put up point-per-game numbers, he certainly doesn’t lack identity or grit. Evident from his long history of wearing an ‘A’ both with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hurricanes, Staal could be the obvious choice for Brind’Amour as he looks to keep things structured in Williams’ potential absence.
Slavin was a pillar of strength during the Hurricanes’ playoff run last season when he tallied 11 assists in 15 games, nine of those coming in the first-round defeat of the Washington Capitals. He also played key shut-down minutes against superstars like Alex Ovechkin, Mathew Barzal and Patrice Bergeron.
The 25-year-old is quickly rising to prominence as one of the premier two-way defensemen in the league. He led the Hurricanes in blocked shots and time-on-ice (TOI) and has been one of their top players in takeaways each of the past three seasons. Now entering his fifth season, Slavin has solidified himself as a top penalty killer and No. 1 pairing guy on a team with an overgrowth of stud defensemen.
The former fourth-round pick would be a great representative for the Hurricanes, not only evident by his unlikely journey to becoming a star, but for how he has fully embraced the city of Raleigh. In 2017, he signed a seven-year contract to stay in Carolina through 2024-25 at a cap hit of only $5.3 million. His durability is also an asset – he hasn’t missed a game since he was promoted to the NHL in 2015-16. Slavin’s best years are likely still to come, and if his playoff performance is any indication, he could smash his career high of 34 points as early as next season.
The case for Sebastian Aho is interesting. Perhaps the only question is if now is the right time. He may benefit from another year of Williams, but at the core, this is already his team. After the Hurricanes matched the $42.27-million offer sheet presented to him by the Montreal Canadiens, it guaranteed at least five more years of the superstar Finn. Maybe now is the time to pass the torch.
The 22-year-old all-star is already entering his fourth season in the NHL. As his responsibilities continue to increase, his ceiling only seems to elevate. In just three seasons, he’s become Carolina’s go-to guy in almost all situations.
The successful transition to center last season saw him register the highest point total of his career (83), leading the team for the second straight season. The former 35th-overall pick has blossomed into an exceptional offensive and defensive player who can threaten from all areas – he tied for the team lead in power-play points (24) last season and his four shorthanded goals were good for third in the NHL.
Though still mild-mannered, his English has improved greatly since coming to North America as a 19-year-old, and his on-ice competitiveness is unquestionable. His dynamic talent and humble, wholesome nature has earned the affection of both ‘Canes fans and his teammates. So who better to represent the fun, new identity the Hurricanes created last season? The recipe is there for Aho to become a future captain, and with Brind’Amour at his side, now could be as good a time as any.
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.