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Hurricanes moving forward after eventful offseason

Aho re-signed, but questions surrounding Faulk, Williams remain

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Finding one word that accurately sums up all that happened during the offseason for the Carolina Hurricanes isn't easy, but let's try "eventful".

"I don't think any team in the League in the offseason was talked about more than us," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "If you actually looked on a daily basis, there was something out there, little, big, whatever."

This is part of the strange new world the Hurricanes have entered after years of flying under the radar.

 

[RELATED: Hurricanes season preview]

 

The most important steps so far were going 46-29-7 last season to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009 and reaching the Eastern Conference Final, when they were swept by the Boston Bruins. This season, the challenge for the Hurricanes is to build on those achievements and avoid feeling satisfied with one good postseason run.

Carolina opens the regular season against the Montreal Canadiens at home on Oct. 3.

"That was our first meeting with Roddy. We don't want complacency in our room and we're not," Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce said. "You look around and everybody's hungry. It's exciting because we want to be that much better than last year."

The Hurricanes believe they are capable of doing that despite having to maneuver around some bumps in the road this offseason.

Video: Gardiner on why he chose to sign with the Hurricanes

Forward Sebastian Aho who was a restricted free agent, signed a five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet with Montreal on July 1 that Carolina quickly matched. General manager Don Waddell's contract expired, and he interviewed to become Minnesota Wild GM before the Carolina re-signed him to a three-year contract.

After spending the offseason pondering retirement, captain Justin Williams opted to step away from the game for at least the start of the season, potentially leaving their leadership group in limbo until he makes a final decision. And trade rumors continue to surround another one of their leaders, defenseman Justin Faulk, after unproductive efforts to sign him to a new contract this offseason left him in position to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2020.

All of that somewhat overshadowed some deft player additions. Forward Ryan Dzingel and defensemen Jake Gardiner and Fredrik Claesson were signed each as an unrestricted free agent, and center Erik Haula (Vegas Golden Knights) and goalie James Reimer (Florida Panthers) were acquired in separate trades.

"We had a lot going on," Waddell said. "We had success last year, going to the conference finals. But we made the playoffs the last week of the season, and every team is getting better, so we had to try to make some additions to try to make our hockey club better and we feel pretty good about the additions we made."

Although the off-ice activity often received more attention, the players say they ignored most of it.

"Sometimes there's more drama in the media than there actually is," Aho said.

Having spent enough time around Tom Dundon since he took over as Carolina's majority owner Jan. 11, 2018, Brind'Amour said he was never worried.

"There's a plan," said Brind'Amour, who is entering his second season as Hurricanes coach after seven seasons as an assistant. "We knew Aho wasn't going anywhere. Don wasn't going to go sign in Minnesota. It's just he's keeping our name in the news. That's what I think. Good or bad, that's the way Tom likes it, I think."

Video: Sebastian Aho checks in at No. 14 on the list

With Dundon's encouragement, the Hurricanes have created a buzz on and off the ice in Carolina. At times last season, they received more attention for their creative Storm Surge celebrations after home wins -- from bowling with a helmet as the ball and the players as pins to similar simulations of baseball, basketball, boxing, fishing and more -- than their on-ice success.

The winning was essential to fueling that buzz and helped rekindle fan interest. According to Waddell, season tickets sales are up more than 30 percent from last season.

Carolina's annual Canes 5K race earlier this month, which usually draws 800-900 runners, had more than 2,000 participants.

"People are excited about what's going on," Waddell said. "Some of that is staying in the news, for sure."

Gardiner, who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs his first eight NHL seasons, said he enjoyed watching the Storm Surge celebrations from the outside last season. But ultimately, it was seeing the Hurricanes get back in the playoffs and win two rounds that made him want to join the fun.

"The success they had last year was a big part of it," Gardiner said. "It's going to be a fun team to be a part of and the [defense] corps is probably one of the better ones in the League. … I saw them having success and I just wanted to be a part of it."

The next step for the Hurricanes is to establish themselves as an annual participant in the playoffs and, eventually, add a Stanley Cup banner beside theirs from the 2005-06 season. They have qualified for the playoffs in consecutive seasons once in their 21 seasons since moving from the Hartford Whalers (2000-01 and 2001-02).

Determined to end that trend, the Hurricanes are stressing getting off to a better start. They went 15-17-5 in the first 37 games before going 31-12-2 in their final 45 to qualify for the playoffs.

"It's good to have that feeling that we can do it, but at the same time, we know it's super hard if you're that far [behind] at that point," Aho said. "Midseason, we were so far back. So this season we want to be sure we're ready from the jump."

To do that, the Hurricanes will have to indoctrinate their new players quickly and navigate through some lingering drama. That includes Faulk's situation, which could carry into the season.

Faulk said he's approaching it as if he'll remain with the Hurricanes and Waddell acknowledged that is a possibility.

"We've been talking to teams, but we think that Faulk's got good value, and if he stays with us, we can fit him in the [NHL salary cap] for this year," Waddell said. "And we've also got to play for this year."

Whether Williams, who turns 38 on Oct. 4, will return or retire is another question hanging over the Hurricanes. Although they say they are planning as if he won't play, his old locker stall at PNC Arena sits empty with "Hurricanes" on the name plate, seemingly waiting for him to reclaim it or a captain to be named.

Brind'Amour said he will address the captaincy after the preseason, but it appears possible Carolina will begin the regular season without one. Regardless, the Hurricanes say they have enough leaders to carry on the winning culture Williams helped establish last season if he doesn't return.

"You don't lose guys like that every year, but it happens, and the team needs to continue to form an identity and move on," Faulk said. "We can't sit here and think about what ifs or if Willie was here or things like that. I think Roddy said it first, so I'll say it after: He's not here. We can't focus on that. We have to do our thing."

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