Justin Williams’ Decision Means More than “I’m Done”

Canes’ nation got some shocking news yesterday when Captain Justin Williams announced he would be stepping away from the NHL. I’m bummed and it’s okay if you are too. The point that I don’t need to belabor is that this decision weighed on Williams mightily, and he made his decision with the best interest of the team in mind.

I’m not surprised that this was the conclusion at which he arrived. To me, the signs were there. I believe it was after the game 7 double-OT victory versus Washington that I first noticed change. There was a video of only the captain walking into the room to sit down at his locker. It was his body language and the manner in which he took his gear off that caught my attention. The fatigue and mental exhaustion in his eyes was unmistakable. Seeing Williams unguarded on camera like that had a feeling of newness for me. Postgame tired was normal, but this tired was not that. The second sign I noted was his snowballing penalties in the series against the Bruins. The timing and nature of those infractions was different. Not to blow minor penalties out of proportion, but Williams and a lack of mental discipline were two ideas that rarely, if ever, went together. Williams took hockey penalties from time to time, but not mental penalties, if you catch my drift.

Those are just some of the side notes I had taken in case some were seeking more explanation than Williams’ “I’ve decided to step away from the game,” quote. To me, there’s some nuance that goes along with this. We can read between the lines of his choice to step away. My thought is that there is assurance for the future if we step back and think about who it is that just made the decision, his thoughtfulness, and his track record. I think William’s choice says much more than “I’m done.”

We all know that Williams puts 110% of his energy into his play and leadership. I’d wager that he put 130% into this specific Canes team and that specific season. Not only did he have his best statistical season since 2011-2012, but also he rebuilt the bridge between the team and community. Indirectly and unofficially, Williams owns a part of what this team has become because he helped engineer its rebirth.

Think of all the character that has been added or re-signed to the room in Captain Williams’ image. Character became priority number one when the page turned over last summer. Ryan Dzingel, Erik Haula, Jordan Martinook, Nino Niederreiter, and Brock McGinn are all guys that might not be part of the “core,” but in one way or another they overlap with Williams’ work ethic, leadership, or skill. They are instrumental to the team’s success, and they’ll all play for second-year Coach Brind’Amour. This was always the image.

I’ve been saying Captain Williams because I don’t expect the Canes to name a new one until Williams officially retires. I still think Aho is set to be the next Canes’ captain, just not yet. It’s so clear that Williams has had an enormous impact on Aho’s attitude and work ethic. They had the lockers next to each other last season, and I think it’s because Aho is being groomed for the role. Aho has that same insatiable desire to win like Williams. Until a decision is made official on Williams’ end, I think a fair speculation would be two alternates in Aho and Staal. My thought in the long run is that Williams “stepping away” indirectly says, “He’s ready” of Sebastian, even if Williams himself is not ready to fully let go.

That would be a huge compliment of the future of the Canes’ franchise from one of the sport’s most consistent winners if you ask me. I don’t claim to know him, but Williams has never struck me as the type to leave something unfinished. If he’s stepping away, then to some degree, he must feel content with where the team is, where it’s going, and what he’s been able to do. The right people are in place, and he feels comfortable taking even more time to decide for himself because of it. That speaks volumes.

I can understand how this might feel like the final chapter for Williams. For him personally, it’s entirely plausible that serving as the guiding hand and ushering in a new era of Canes hockey was a much sweeter note to go out on than a 4th Stanley Cup. I’d wager more was asked of him this season than in any championship season prior. He served as captain for just this one season, but if he did it near flawlessly on his first try, would he really need to come back and do it again? We know Williams would say he could always do more and improve. But from a fan’s perspective, I honestly don’t know what else he can do for us as captain. Maybe he’ll return mid-season for a final victory lap as to add to his career point totals. Other than that, he’s done everything asked of him in this role and then some.

It’s a lot to digest, but I think the Canes are going to be just fine heading into this season. Physically, Williams won’t be in the room. Though, I get the sense that the impression he left in the locker room will have lasting effects. He’ll be there in spirit always giving the guys that something extra.

If this is indeed the end, thanks for everything #14. Thanks for being our rock in this time of organizational change. Thanks for helping rekindle that fire in the Canes’ community. Thanks for mentoring our rookies. Thanks for helping guide your old friend and our new head coach. Thanks for being the caniacs’ leader. We owe you big time. Hopefully, we’ll see you on the ice again very soon.

Playoff Preview Round 1: Carolina Hurricanes vs. Washington Capitals

Ten years. It was ten years of not being able to put all the pieces together. It was ten years of unfounded relocation rumors. It was ten years of attendance jokes. It was ten trying years that resulted in an acceptance of losing for some inside the organization. It was ten years of just general defeat.

These ten years tested the loyalty and fandom of many, myself included. Enter new owner, Tom Dundon, head coach Rod Brind’Amour, rightful captain Justin Williams, and with them, a revitalized hunger for success. They had a vision, they knew we were close, and they would be the ones to lead the rebirth of exciting hockey in Raleigh, NC.

On April 4, 2019, the Canes defeated the New Jersey Devils on home ice in front of more than 17,000 fans. The win clinched their first playoff birth in exactly ten years. You simply can’t make this stuff up. In game 82, the Canes defeated the Philadelphia Flyers and earned themselves the first wild card spot and a first round matchup with the defending champs, the Washington Capitals.

I think I speak for all fans when I say a tremendous weight was lifted off my shoulders when we clinched. FINALLY. I genuinely appreciate our first round matchup with the Caps. It’s going to be tough, and it sets the tone. But if we manage to upset them, it puts the rest of the playoff teams on notice. The series could get personal, and wouldn’t a rejuvenation of the Canes-Caps rivalry – from the Southeast division days – be fun to see? The Canes are the younger, faster team. The Caps have been there and done that. Without further ado, let’s break it down. What do the Canes need to do to take down the defending champs? What should we be watching for?

20.

For the Canes to compete in this series, Sebastian Aho is going to need to be the impact player we know he can be. In all likelihood, he’ll be matching up against either Washington’s Niklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov. Who the caps choose to run out there against Aho will depend on where they take the faceoff. In my eyes, Backstrom and Oshie are two-way players and more equipped to defend Aho. But, that doesn’t mean Aho won’t see a steady dose of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. He’ll have to best them all.

From the Canes perspective, the Caps don’t have a dominant defensive pair that I’d prefer Aho avoids when we get last change at home. Carlson is good, but I wouldn’t actively avoid him, especially if it’s an offensive zone draw and we can force him to play in his own end. I believe if Aho is given his share of favorable draws, there isn’t a Caps defensive pair he can’t out-work. The way for him to be most effective will undoubtedly be his skating. If he can get to top speed through the neutral zone, he’ll be in good shape. Unless Caps’ winger Carl Hagelin is on at the same time, Aho should be the faster skater on either side of the ice when he’s taking his shifts.

Despite putting up assists down the stretch, Aho concluded the season on a 14-game goalless streak. He missed the net on occasion, and he rang iron on others. General speculation was that he was just getting fatigued down the stretch. Undoubtedly, a lot was asked of him this season. He also had that inadvertent knee-on-knee collision with Niederreiter. That sort of close call is enough for anyone to take a breather. Against the Philadelphia Flyers last Saturday, Aho showed flashes of his usual elusiveness and speed, which was encouraging. He will break out of his scoring slump, without question. Here’s to hoping it’s broken on his first shift on Thursday.

Canes’ Forecheck

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Canes’ bread and butter is their speed and getting to their forecheck. To beat the defending champs, the Canes will have to push the pace from the opening faceoff. One obvious game trend from the home and home with Washington a few weeks ago was that the Caps were totally comfortable slowing the game down via resetting breakouts. You could feel their confidence and composure. If the Canes give Washington time to settle into the game early and reset plays at their leisure, you can forget about it. We won’t beat them in a game of trading quick strikes because that’s never been the Canes’ calling card. The Canes will need to be desperate from the opening faceoff. They’ll need to [shades on] capitalize [shades off] on their speed advantage and outwork the Caps in the corners.

The Canes know their strengths, though. They score more goals as a result of hard work by their cycling than they do gorgeous passing plays. I like to say the Canes have raw talent, as opposed to polished talent like that of the Caps. When I say “raw talent” I mean that there are occasions where the Canes’ strength on the puck outshines their handling of it. Sometimes we’ll see the Canes’ fighting the puck, where as with the Caps, it appears they’ve got it on a string at times. Give the Canes’ young guys two years to reach their prime and that raw talent will graduate to polished. In this clash of contrasting offensive styles, it will be best for the Canes to keep things simple.

One last thing I want to group with the forecheck is how the Canes can beat Braden Holtby. Go to the net. Create chaos. Just by the eye test, Holtby relies on his tracking more so than his reflexes or recovery in the crease. No goalie can stop what he can’t see, so disrupt his field of vision. Like most goalies, Holtby’s glove is stronger than his blocker. Favor the blocker side, and instead of always shooting for tips, try shooting for rebounds off his pads too. It’s going to take second and third chances to beat him.

Blue Line Contributions

On paper, the Canes have the advantage on defense this series. The Canes allowed fewer goals (221) this season than the Caps (248). In addition, the Canes allowed an average of 28.6 shots against per game, which was good for third fewest in the league. With 31.5 shots against per game, the Caps ranked 15th in this regard. The Canes top-4 is very balanced, for they all secured over 25 points on the season. Dougie Hamilton turned out to be the guy we thought he was, but that was expected. The most pleasant surprise was Brett Pesce discovering his offensive flare in the latter half of the season. Generally, Hamilton and Faulk are the two defenders who shoot to score. Meanwhile, Slavin and Pesce are more likely to shoot for effect in search of a deflection or rebound. To beat the Capitals, point shots from all four of them will need to be plentiful and through traffic in front of the net. Don’t just fling it into the Caps wingers’ shins, obviously. But if there’s a lane, get the puck toward the net. For the Canes, it’s a luxury that they have two pairs with which they can effectively create offense. Use them. Show why our blue line carries our team.

When it comes to matching up against the Caps offense, I have two primary concerns. To the best of their ability, the Canes need to have Hamilton and Slavin out against Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. That leaves Pesce and Faulk to take care of Backstrom and Oshie. What we want to avoid is Trevor Van Riemsdyk and Haydn Fleury out against Washington’s top players.

Unfortunately for the Canes, it seems Calvin de Haan may be unavailable for the first round. We haven’t gotten a clear update on his status, but it sounds like it’s possible his timetable may even extend beyond the first round should the Canes advance. Enter Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean. Fleury is still looking for his first NHL goal, and this would be an opportune time to do it. Jake Bean had a killer season with the Charlotte Checkers in which he led rookie defensemen in scoring (13 g 31 a). He looks like he has legitimate top-4 offensive defenseman potential. He’ll serve as the 7th defender/healthy scratch, and despite his inexperience, I wouldn’t rule out him seeing the ice this series if one or both on our suddenly questionable third pair underperform.

Special Teams

At 17.8% efficiency, the Canes power play ranked 20th in the league this season. Their penalty kill is at 81.6% and that’s good for 8th in the league. For the Capitals, their power play sits at 20.8% (12th) and their penalty kill at 78.9% (24th). Despite the numbers favoring the Canes, I’m positive I’d rather have this series played at even strength as much as possible. Though the Caps aren’t innovative in trying to isolate the weak side one-timer, Ovechkin’s shot alone makes it an effective strategy for them.

You know the shot is coming. Everyone says, “Just cover him.” The thing about defending Ovechkin is that you can’t glue a defender to him on the penalty kill. That opens up too much space for the Caps’ other skilled players. They have two first power play units. I trust the Canes’ penalty killers, but the fact of the matter is if they crack for even a second, Ovechkin will make them pay. If it’s not Ovechkin, it’ll be Oshie, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Carlson, Wilson, etc. All you can really do is shadow No. 8 and anticipate his one-timer. No one has figured out a foolproof way to stop him yet, but if you do, let me know.

Though the Canes power play has been better of late, I’m still very opposed to getting into a special teams battle with Washington. Generally speaking, the Canes second unit hasn’t been as effective as their first unit. As good as Mrazek has been, lackluster special teams were what tanked his numbers early on in the season. Discipline will be the name of the game for the Canes because the Capitals can hurt you in many ways on the man advantage. The best penalty kill strategy is to not take unnecessary penalties at all.

Micheal Ferland vs. Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson is very well known for his numerous suspensions for bad hits on unsuspecting players. Having a player like Ferland in the Canes’ lineup will help keep Wilson in check. I’m not saying a Ferland-Wilson fight is a sure thing to occur at some point this series, but with how both of them play the game, it’s something to watch. Ferland and Wilson have near identical skill sets. They are the respective centerpieces for their teams’ physical identities.

There are certain players that elevate their game to a whole new level in playoffs. Ferland is one of them. There has been a YouTube video circulating on Canes Twitter that I’ll link at the end of this section. It’s Micheal Ferland versus the Vancouver Canucks from 2015. If nothing else, it will kill a few minutes of your workday and get you pumped up. You’re welcome.

Other than Ferland, the Canes will have to match Washington’s physicality up and down the lineup. That means Staal, Martinook, Foegele, and McGinn will need to throw some hits to make their presences felt. If it happens to turn into a grind, I could see Saku Maenalanen drawing into the lineup. He is 6’ 4” with a little nastiness to his game. Though he’s not been in a fight this season, he just strikes me as a guy you don’t want to mess with. The potential for bad blood in this series is higher than I think most people realize.

Unsung Heroes

This is the time of the season where players you wouldn’t normally expect to emerge and make an impact do just that. Last season for the Capitals on their cup run, it was Devante Smith-Pelley. He played a 4th line grinder role, but suddenly he was scoring clutch goals in bunches.

Every contending team needs their own unsung hero, and it’s no different for the Canes. As much as I want it to be Haydn Fleury suddenly scoring his first goal in dramatic fashion, it probably won’t be. While he’s looked good, he still has occasional concerning missteps in his own zone. I expect the Capitals to attack his side when he’s on the ice. Lucas Wallmark could be the guy to step up for the Canes. He plays a low key, but steady two-way game. He’s played as high as the second line this season. To make an impact in this series, he needs to take advantage of his underrated shot. But, I feel he’ll be preoccupied with his play away from the puck and in transition.

So, who could emerge for the Canes? Warren Foegele. Okay, so I’m sort of cheating with this choice since he started heating up last week, but whatever. The playoffs are about getting hot at the right time. Foegele has that work ethic that just can’t be taught. He is scoring big goals with more frequency. Look no further than his breakaway tally versus New Jersey. The kid never quits on a play, and he has the grit needed for the playoff race. He potted 28 goals in his AHL rookie season, so that scoring touch is there. It’s just been dormant. I think what would help with his consistency and finishing ability would be a shooting coach over the summer. I’m just speculating, but focusing on his shot will help transition his complete game to the NHL level. Foegele is a great example of the aforementioned “raw talent.” The good news is that talent doesn’t need to be refined to make an impact in the playoffs.

Mrazek’s Moment

I wrote a longer article around the halfway point of the season that detailed how good Mrazek was despite his numbers. Now that the regular season is over, his numbers more accurately reflect how awesome he has been. I fully expect Mrazek to be named the starter for the series against Washington. For what it’s worth, Mrazek has a better save percentage (.914) and goals against average (2.39) than Braden Holtby (.911 & 2.82). They have different goaltending styles though, and Holtby has played more games this season.

If this hasn’t been made perfectly clear by now, Mrazek was made for this team. He knew he had something to prove, and he did that and much more. His enthusiasm is exactly what the fans and his teammates will need to feed off. Obviously no disrespect to McElhinney, but Mrazek is the guy for this playoff team. This team was built to grab this moment.

Prediction and Final Thoughts

All things considered, I expect this series to be competitive and a bit closer than the teams’ recent postseason histories suggest it will be. The Canes should be able to contain the Capitals at 5v5 for the most part. They are great at suppressing high-danger shots, and they keep their opponents to the outside while limiting slot chances. As mentioned before, the Canes’ goal should be to keep this series at even strength.

The Capitals will get good looks though, and that’s inevitable. As a team, they favor quality over quantity because they have several high-end finishers on their roster. Look for most of their chances to come off of weak side one-timers and high percentage slot wrist shots. As always, watch out for Kuznetsov’s sneaky little no-look pass from below the goal line.

The Canes will be more dependent on quantity of chances, as per usual. They’ll be looking for blue line activation off their initial rushes. Ideally, they’ll get down low and grind out a consistent cycle game. Since they lack seasoned finishers, it will be important for the Canes to get to the front of the net and generate second and third chances. It’s all about speed for the Canes.

While the regular season series favored the Caps, the Canes were never completely out of a game. If the Canes have shown one thing over the course of this season, it’s to never count them out. The race for the cup is a brand new season, after all. My heart is telling me Canes in 7 games. But, my brain is saying Caps in 6. Anything can happen, but the latter is a safer bet, if you’re a bettor.

Even if the Canes were to get swept by the Capitals, it’s not what I would remember most about this season. Our goaltending was finally the backbone we needed it to be. We got to watch Brind’Amour grow into the head coach we all knew he could be. Teuvo Teravainen signed a 5-year contract extension. Andrei Svechnikov carved out a second line role that he should find himself in next season. In landslide fashion, we won a significant player-for-player trade when we flipped Rask for Niederreiter. We brought in character guys like Jordan Martinook. We persevered when Jordan Staal battled through his concussion. Dougie Hamilton showed why he was the main piece in the offseason trade with Calgary. And for all of these awesome reasons and more, the team and its fans interacted in a way they hadn’t since 2009. The post-game celebrations got us labeled a “Bunch of Jerks” and we ran with it and expanded our fan base. Regardless of how it ends, this was a significant season for the Canes.

The Carolina Hurricanes are a visible and relevant playoff team again. I’ve already secured my tickets for game 4 and, hopefully, game 6. Ten years, man. I have a good feeling that the next ten years will be defined by success for the team and more frequent playoff ticket purchases for myself. But for now, let’s focus on the Washington Capitals and round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. GO CANES!

The Case for Hockey in Carter-Finley

The month is January. There’s a light breeze and clear night skies. Carter-Finley’s lights burst down on the temporary ice rink. The stadium is at max capacity; everyone is rocking back and forth causing tremors in the bleachers. Amidst the hurricane warning siren blaring over the PA system, the Carolina Hurricanes emerge from the end zone tunnel to meet the Nashville Predators. The siren gives way to The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane.” In this moment, where the cardiac pack loyalists of N.C. State meet the fresh and growing #TakeWarning crowd, you realize it. Raleigh, North Carolina is absolutely a hockey market.

Last week, NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, visited Raleigh. Part of his visit was touring Carter-Finley Stadium as a potential outdoor game location. I’ve seen articles talking about the logistics of planning an outdoor game in Raleigh. What I haven’t seen much of is the local fans themselves talking about all of the reasons it would be a giant success. Southerners know how to host an event, and they know how to have a good time. We know best why our city is suited to host an outdoor game, so why not brag on it a little? I’m convinced it would be the best live sporting event I’ve seen, and I haven’t seen it yet. What I’ve got is a list of nine reasons why this game would be great for Raleigh and the NHL as a whole. Let’s get to it.

  1. The Hurricanes are simply exciting to watch. Sebastian Aho is electric, and undoubtedly, and elite player in the NHL. Teuvo Teravainen is proving he’s much more than just Aho’s sidekick. Justin Williams has taught the team how to balance compete and fun again. Players such as Brock McGinn and Micheal Ferland are hitting everything in sight. The young defense is proving they’re one of the deepest in the league. The story of Mrazek and McElhinney, two supposed backup goalies, coming together to be the backbone of the team is great. Andrei Svechnikov, despite his ups and downs, has shown that he’s the most naturally talented and complete player the Canes have ever drafted. Give him a year or two, and he’ll be terrorizing the league. Put this team on the national stage for all to see, and let the “Wows” commence. Fans love an underdog story, and they also love when a team shows the ability to disturb the status quo.
  2. Growing youth hockey in the south. The Hurricanes have been doing great work in the community. The most recent event that comes to mind is having 9,000 Wake County Public School System students at practice for the second year in a row. Interactive practices? You can bet good money that a lot of those kids ran home and asked to go to a game or buy their own gear. For me, I was already captivated prior to seeing the Hurricanes win the cup in 2006. The extra events in the community can get kids hooked for good. I can only imagine being eleven again and the excitement of seeing two non-traditional hockey markets on the big stage. It’s a big opportunity for the NHL to grow its brand and reach a larger target audience. It’s one they should work with the Canes to make happen for the sake of the longevity of the sport.
  3. Hockey culture is changing. May as well embrace it. The days of the true enforcer are long gone. In the game itself, it’s all about speed and finesse nowadays. In terms of business, the NHL will have its loyal “good old boys.” But to maintain and increase relevancy, the NHL has to shift along with culture and society at large. What I mean is, just like the NBA allows for more player personality, the NHL should embrace it too. Why not put two southern-based teams on a pedestal for a night? Both Carolina and Nashville play a fast-paced, new age style of hockey. Both teams have unique personalities. Both are winning now, and thus entertaining. I hope I speak for many when I say that I get it. I get where hockey comes from, and I have a great appreciation for the original six and tradition. No one is attacking sportsmanship or decency. But, let’s do something different. What could be more entertaining than P.K. Subban’s charisma and the country music-embracing Nashville Predators versus Justin Williams’ “Bunch of Jerks?” Not to mention, Williams and Subban are probably the ideal guys to have on the national stage. Williams has been an honest professional (and still is), and now he’s leading and innovating for the Raleigh market. Subban is very active in his community. Most notably, he donated $10 million dollars to a Montreal children’s hospital a few years back whilst playing for the Canadiens.
  4. A meeting of unique traditions. Country music and hockey don’t really go together, but that didn’t stop Nashville. Choreographed team celebrations and hockey don’t really go together, but that didn’t stop Carolina. Innovation is good. Relating to your own unique fan base is good. It puts butts in seats, and increases brand awareness. It just seems like with how similar, yet unique the Canes and Predators are, there should be a rivalry. They’re cross-conference and only play each other twice a season though, so it’s hard for it to be naturally occurring. May as well turn it into an event! Can you imagine a jam-packed Carter-Finley field doing a storm surge in the event of a Canes win? I get chills just imagining it.
  5. Carter-Finley would probably sell out. If there’s one thing that Triangle residents know how to do, it is fill up a college sports venue, no matter the event. Carolina versus Nashville is different and intriguing enough to sell a lot of tickets. NC State’s home football field is perfect for an outdoor game. The ice rink would take up two thirds of the football field. Carter-Finley doesn’t do track and field, so predictably, there’s no track separating the ice and the fans. I’ve been inside Carter-Finley many times, and there’s not a seat in the house that’d be too far from the ice, which can be a problem for a baseball field hosting this type of event. Most sight lines would look down onto the rink as opposed to across it. It would feel quite similar to a hockey arena’s lower and upper bowl layout. The size of the venue is about three times that of PNC, and it makes perfect sense.
  6. NCSU getting national publicity. Okay so obviously NC State doesn’t need any help getting national recognition. They have a well-documented reputation as an engineering school. Exposure is still a positive byproduct of having an outdoor game in Raleigh. NC State does have a club ice hockey team, and any publicity for them is great since the school is better known for its football and basketball programs. Did you know the Icepack went undefeated this season? It’s quite the story. We’re trying to grow the game, after all.
  7. The weather would likely be tolerable. It wouldn’t be so warm that the ice would be in unplayable condition, but it wouldn’t be so cold that nobody would buy tickets. The odds of facing something like freezing rain are pretty low. Think of one of the colder game days you’ve attended at the tail end of college football season. In Raleigh, NC in January, it’s probably in the low to mid 30s and overcast. That’s ideal outdoor hockey weather. Bundle up, bring a blanket, buy some hot chocolate or booze, and get ready for a show!
  8. The greatest pre-game tailgate in hockey history. Tailgating is more so associated with football than hockey, but that doesn’t mean we can’t show the hockey world what’s up! NC State fans and Canes fans alike know how to tailgate. If tailgating is unfamiliar to you, allow us to introduce it to you during peak sports season. The timing of the outdoor NHL game would coincide with the college football and NFL playoffs as well as the college basketball season. That’s a lot of passion for sports in one location at one time. Think of the interviews the news crews could get from the fans. Think of all of the different types of food. Think of the corn hole tournaments and the street hockey. But most importantly, think of the sense of community that gets built around these types of events. Our reputation is as a college sports market, but a Carolina-Nashville outdoor game would be a great chance to show the world that we love hockey too.
  9. Canadian kindness = southern hospitality. Despite the differing accents and mannerisms, at their cores, these two concepts are the same. The only reason that some Canadians act like hockey doesn’t belong in the south or that southerners make fun of Canadians for being too nice is the geographical distance between them. Culturally, both Canadians and southerners care about being warm, welcoming, and good hosts. Regarding hockey fandom, not much is different about us other than rooting for our respective teams in different climates. To me, it seems like we should be striving to build bridges and connect fan bases to grow the game as opposed to feigning superiority based on location.

Give Raleigh a chance to have an outdoor game, and we’ll show a passion for hockey like it’s 2006 again. We’ll bring the same energy and excitement (if not more) as any other hockey city in North America would. We’re eager and ready for it. The puck is in your ice, NHL.

Canes Stand Pat at Trade Deadline

I tell you what; this world can be cruel (in a funny way). I’ve been guessing Lucas Wallmark all season long for the first goal contest for two reasons. First, he has a great first name. Second, on the off chance he does score first, my odds of winning the signed puck are just a little better than most. Low and behold, the one night I’m late to submit my guess, Wallmark is the one scoring first. Talk about bad luck. I like to think the world exists in a balance though. The Canes’ good luck in the trade market dating back to last season’s playoffs (minus the Skinner trade) has to be evened out somehow. I’ll take this one for the team this time, guys.

The trade deadline passed us by again, and the Canes didn’t make any big moves. That’s not necessarily a bad thing like it was in years past. The big splash that was the Nino deal made our need to acquire a top-6 forward much less urgent. Also, let’s not forget about the trade with Calgary that got us Ferland and Hamilton. They have both been as advertised, even if it took the latter awhile to adjust. They’ve both been equally as important to the changing culture.

Furthermore, you didn’t forget that we flipped Marcus Kruger for Jordan Martinook did you? Martinook has exceeded expectations and been a great mentor to Andrei Svechnikov. All of this considered, the team’s current positioning in the second wild card spot set them up as not a true buyer and not a true seller. Staying quiet today was a totally acceptable course of action.

Instead of making another contender even better, the Canes elected to hold on to pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) Micheal Ferland and use him as an “own rental.” I’m not a fan of this term because it’s just trying too hard. An “own rental” is simply holding on to a contract that expires at season’s end. It’s nothing more than him still being a Hurricane and helping our playoff push. Somewhere along the line, a concept was conceived that seller teams must offload their pending UFAs to contenders for draft picks or prospects. This is so they don’t “lose him for nothing” to free agency. As mentioned before, the Canes aren’t sellers this season. They just play in a loaded eastern conference. Every team will have a shot at signing Ferland this summer, including the Canes. But if we get the most out of him right now, do we actually lose him for nothing come July 1? No.

Something else the Canes didn’t do today was move one of their right-handed defensemen (RHD). All of that speculation leading up to today was for nothing. Time to crawl back under our rocks. Rest assured, the Canes will likely move one this summer, just not now. Why fix something that isn’t broken? Just to make room on the roster for Adam Fox once he signs? There’s a spot. Don’t worry.

Fox is our highly touted right-defense prospect that has said he wants to play in the NHL as soon as possible, and rightfully so. He can sign once he finishes his season at Harvard, which will be soon. The general idea floating around was that we had to move one of our RHDs to give him a roster spot immediately and not risk him not signing. At one point I was worried about this, but a real quick glance at our roster took care of that.

An NHL roster has a minimum size of 20 (18 skaters, 2 goalies) and a maximum of 23. With no one on injured reserve right now, the Canes have 21 players. They have the 20 who dress for each game and 1 healthy scratch. That leaves room for 2 more healthy scratches. They can sign Fox sometime in March, and add him to the roster. He can get a few NHL games under his belt yet this season, and on the other nights, he’ll be scratched. Better yet, the team chemistry doesn’t have to be affected by a trade. It’s a win-win.

While the Canes didn’t move Ferland or any of their RHDs, they did make a minor league transaction. It was designed to help the Charlotte Checkers’ playoff push and Calder Cup hopes. Officially, it appears as two separate trades because you can’t trade NHL contracts for AHL contracts. The Canes acquired Tomas Jurco from the Florida Panthers, who is signed to an AHL contract. The Panthers received Cliff Pu, who is on his NHL entry-level contract (RIP the Canes Cliff Pu era, it was a legendary 6 months). On the other end of these “separate” deals is the term “future considerations.” The future considerations are those two players themselves, but because it was an NHL-AHL deal, the phrase has to be there to be league compliant. Though insignificant for the Canes, this deal repays the Checkers after the Canes called up Greg McKegg earlier this season.

You know what is significant for the Canes? Jordan Staal is back. No, he wasn’t the subject of a trade, but we can view him as a major re-acquisition based on the timing of his return. He had missed 32 of the last 34 games with concussion symptoms. When he returned to play against the Dallas Stars last Saturday night, his impact was immediately felt. Dallas was held to 4 total shots almost halfway through the game en route to a 3-0 shutout win. Staal’s presence in the lineup is a big confidence booster for the guys, and his ability to shutdown other teams’ top lines going forward is a welcome addition (back) to the Canes.

I’m of the opinion that the Canes were smart to hold tight regarding the deadline this season. They’re one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now, and it’s clear something special is being built in the locker room. While trade deadline day itself was largely uneventful, the Canes have had their fair share of good luck over the course of the season. In a way, not having to lose our minds while the rest of the contending teams did may prove quite beneficial. The Canes are playing genuinely meaningful games post-trade deadline for the first time in a long time. Holding on to the wild card spot will be tough, and the final 20 games are going to make for one heck of a horse race in the eastern conference.

Aho, Ferland, and Williams Redefining Hurricanes’ Leadership Culture

The Carolina Hurricanes have grown to be quite the threatening system in the past two weeks. They’ve posted a 7-1 record in their last eight games, with their only loss coming at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning last week. If your only loss in the past two weeks is to the best team in the league, and you played them hard for fifty minutes, you’re doing something right.

The Hurricanes are getting offensive contributions from their defense and depth scoring, which means they aren’t relying on their top line like they were in early December. On this recent eight-game hot streak, the Hurricanes have scored an average of 4 goals per game and yielded an average of 2.75. Ideally, we’d like to be giving up less overall, but I find it hard to complain too much with the offense clicking like it is.

I’ll take more of a realist angle later this week, but right now, we’re giving credit where credit is due. There’s something in the air, and it feels a lot like genuine locker room chemistry. You can say it’s as simple as winning games, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But, I think there’s something else to be said about the quality of leadership from a handful of guys that has the rest of the team so engaged. These games are fun to watch, and the crowds at PNC Arena recently have been nothing short of electric.

Sebastian Aho (Sea Bass/Fishy) is a savage, first-line NHL center. You can’t change my mind on this, and we can put the “The ‘Canes lack a 1C” narratives to rest. He’s been here the whole time, and his role has steadily transformed from a 5 on 5 and power play winger to that of an every situation center. He was recently added to the penalty kill, so there’s nothing this kid can’t do. He keeps turning heads with each passing game, and the cherry on top is that he was recently selected to his first all-star game. People know Sebastian Aho now, and if they don’t yet, they should fear him. Aho currently has 51 points (21 goals, 30 assists) in 45 games played which puts him on pace for 93 total points this season. That’s elite production.

He brings a certain kind of leadership to this club that you can tell the guys effortlessly rally around. He’s light-hearted with media and the fans, yet absolutely insatiable on the ice. Every shift builds off the last, and there’s no off switch in his game. When Aho is flying, the whole team is flying.

There’s something inspiring for the rest of the team to have a truly elite, well-rounded player to look towards for motivation. I know Jeff Skinner was good for us for a long time, but Aho has set himself apart, and it’s something the ‘Canes haven’t really had since Eric Staal’s glory days. Aho is the type of player that gives his teammates greater confidence in their own abilities, and it shows not only on the scoreboard, but also in the tenacity with which they play each game.

Speaking of tenacity, let’s talk about Micheal Ferland. Though he doesn’t wear a letter on his jersey, when I watch him play, I see him as a leader for this Hurricanes team. He brings an element of toughness that the ‘Canes haven’t seen since the league started phasing out the “true enforcer” years ago. Ferland throws his weight around better than anyone else on this team, and if necessary, he’ll throw punches to defend himself or a teammate. And what’s even better? He has a nose for the net, an underrated shot, and the ability to finish a play.

I was propped up in section 124 for the game against the Buffalo Sabres last Friday night. When I wasn’t methodically stroking my beard pondering the aspects of group think related to the crowd clapping along to Fitz and the Tantrums, I was watching Micheal Ferland. Ferland posted his first career three-point game (1 goal, 2 assists) against Buffalo, and it was easily his best game as a Hurricane.

He was all over the ice throwing hits and creating scoring chances. Each thunderous hit was met with a roar from the crowd. On Sunday afternoon versus the Nashville Predators, Ferland followed up with two more assists and a fight against Austin Watson. What followed the fight was what could’ve been the loudest roar from inside PNC arena in a decade. The fans love Micheal Ferland and his play style.

It’s clear that on the ice his teammates appreciate him too. I think his willingness to mix it up rubs off on the rest of the team, and they play with more aggression because of him. There’s a new edge to this Hurricanes team compared to years past, and in this way, I consider Ferland a leader. This is all good news, right? Well, almost.

Ferland is set to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and it’s possible (incredibly likely) he could be dealt at the trade deadline. He’s due for a pay raise, and you can’t blame him for wanting what he’s worth. He’s currently making $1.75 million, but rumor has it that he will seek something akin to $5 million for 5 years, what some are calling “Tom Wilson money.”

One scenario I could see playing out is that the ‘Canes do trade Ferland at the deadline so they don’t risk losing him for nothing. Then when July 1st rolls around, the Hurricanes can attempt to re-sign him. However, this is dependent on whether the front office is willing to cough up the cash based on his short time here. He said he’d like to stay in Carolina, so if I’m in management’s shoes, I’m doing everything I can to get this man on the Hurricanes roster come the 2019-2020 season. Players that fit into and contribute to the team culture like Ferland don’t come around very often.

Honestly, I can’t say “culture” and then not talk a little about the team dad and actual captain, Justin Williams. Williams has been what many call a professional pro his entire career. He always does things the right way, and leads by example for the team. He has instilled a work ethic into this team that is palpable to the fans.

Off the ice, he’s always honest and genuine in his interviews. On the ice, he shows the never-quit attitude and hustle that he preaches to the guys. The Nashville game was already in the bag with a score of 6-3 and just a minute to go. What was Justin Williams doing? He was skating hard after a loose puck with the same effort and intensity as his first shift of the game. That kind of effort is why he finds himself on a seven-game point streak and five-game goal streak.

There’s a lot to be proud of with how the Carolina Hurricanes are playing right now. Everyone is chipping in, and it shows with the recent push in the standings. I’m not in the locker room, but I’ll tell you that in my eyes Sebastian Aho, Micheal Ferland, and Justin Williams are leading the charge. Not all of them have letters on their sweaters, but they’re each leading in their own way, and their actions are speaking volumes to the rest of the team, the coaches, and the fans too. It’s a unique three-pronged leadership dynamic, and it’s one the ‘Canes haven’t seen in quite some time.

Team building is refreshing isn’t it?

Carolina Hurricanes Make Landfall at The Queen’s Guard

Hello, and welcome to the first of many hot take installments of Carolina Hurricanes coverage here at The Queen’s Guard. I’m excited to share my passion for hockey and this team with you all in the form of game recaps, trade deadline buzz, roster transactions, etc. Without further delay, let’s get into it!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The team plays just poorly enough to miss the playoffs by a handful of points in the standings, but isn’t bad enough to get a meaningful first round draft pick. Welcome to the past nine years of Hurricanes fandom. If we miss again this season, that makes one decade –10 years– without a playoff appearance. This forces us to once again ask, “I wonder who’s good at 11-12th overall?” Yikes. But fear not! While the Hurricanes have been stalled out over calm seas, a different storm has been brewing in the minors.

I’m talking about the Charlotte Checkers, the ‘Canes affiliate. With a tremendous record of 27-8-3, the Checkers are far and away the best team in the American Hockey League (AHL). They hold a nine-point lead over the second best team, their divisional rival Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The Checkers have some serious talent down there, and a number of their current players will find themselves on the Hurricanes roster in due time.

Going forward, I plan to integrate Checkers coverage as necessary to supplement the bigger picture of the Carolina Hurricanes. The Checkers success is also indicative of great potential for the ‘Canes in the coming years because what’s a farm team for, right?

Like the NBA, the NHL has an eighty-two game season. The Hurricanes just played their 42nd game tonight and are sitting in 5th place in the Metropolitan division with a 20-17-5 record. They’re currently six points out of a playoff spot. Tonight’s 4-3 regulation victory over the New York Islanders is significant for several reasons, but mainly because the Hurricanes are chasing them in the standings.

Coming into tonight, the Hurricanes were 0-2-1 against the Islanders this season looking to avoid being swept in the season series. A win would extend their winning streak to a season-best five games and halt the Islanders win streak at six.

They got it done tonight with the help of Saku Mäenalanen’s first career NHL goal. It’s fitting that I get to mention a first goal in the first article. Greg McKegg also got on the score sheet twice with a goal and a beautiful assist on team captain Justin Williams’s tiebreaker in the third period. The laser of a pass came from the just inside the blue line to a lurking Williams in the slot who faked the one-timer and promptly roofed it on his backhand. The “slot” is the area between the offensive zone faceoff circles, and it is widely considered the scoring area.

McKegg has been outstanding since his call up, and is making a case for a full time gig with the ‘Canes the rest of the way. The same goes for Mäenalanen, whose grinding style and nice balance of size and speed has been a welcome sight on the 4th line in recent games. Generally speaking, the Hurricanes have been getting more contributions from their bottom six forwards of late, and that kind of scoring balance presents opposing teams with tough decisions on how they want to match up their lines.

The most critical point in the game came when the Islanders presumably tied the game 2-2 off Jordan Eberle’s stick. However, the Hurricanes would successfully challenge for offside on the offensive zone entry and it’d be overturned. Offside coaches challenges are high stakes in the NHL because if unsuccessful, not only does the goal stand, but also the team must subsequently serve a 2-minute bench minor for delaying the game. The Islanders tied the game 2-2 several minutes later on a shot from the point in which Hurricanes goalie, Curtis McElhinney, was screened and couldn’t fully see the shot. The “point” is the area just inside the offensive zone blue line where defensemen take most of their shots on goal.

Shortly after Justin Williams and the Hurricanes took the lead 3-2, defenseman Jaccob Slavin added a power play tally to make it 4-2, pinging a wrist shot off the left post and around the cage. This goal proved crucial because the ‘Canes would let up a goal on the ensuing face-off on a partial-breakaway making it 4-3. The Hurricanes buckled down though and secured the two points in regulation time.

By no means was it a pretty game, but a win is a win and there’s no such thing as a cakewalk for this team. In the NHL, good teams just find ways to win. They also string together 4 wins here and 5 wins there, something the ‘Canes can now say they’ve done. They’ll look to keep the ball rolling on Thursday night when they visit the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, a natural disaster to be reckoned with in their own right. To be considered a good team, you have to beat the best, and you have to do it on their home ice.

Introducing The Queen’s Guard: A New Direction

Happy Thanksgiving and a very happy holidays to all of you today. This morning as I prepare to feast on the most wonderful meal of the year, I decided I should drop some very exciting news about a new venture that I have been working on. 

Now, Scoop n’ Score hasn’t been in operation for very long, and I wish I was able to post more content on a regular basis. However, with everything going on in life, and the amount of time I spend writing for At the Hive, it wasn’t feasible for me to maintain this in the way that I wanted to. I’m hoping to change that in a major way today!

I’m very proud to announce that with the help of Dylan Jackson (@JaxonNBA), Josh George (@Ballsohard_Josh), Chase Pletcher (@Chasepletcher4), and of course myself, (@Stephenstweets_), we are starting The Queen’s Guard (The QG), a Charlotte sports blog. Here at The QG our goal is simple, provide all Charlotte sports fans with content and coverage from the fans viewpoint. 

To start off, this site will mainly focus on the Charlotte Hornets and Carolina Panthers. As we grow we will look at adding other relevant Carolina sports. Whether it be the Carolina Hurricanes, college athletics, or even our minor league baseball team the Charlotte Knights. We want this to be a place where ALL of Charlotte sports fan can one day gather to find and discuss their favorite teams.

Our aim is to provide you all with articles that provide relevant updates, game previews and reviews. At some point I want to even add a forum for day to day discussion. We will even be live tweeting games from our twitter account @TheQGB to be able to get live fan reaction and communicate with all of Charlotte sports nation while our teams play.

We look forward to what’s to come and can’t wait to share this journey with you!