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Raleigh, N.C. — If you’re a fan who has followed the Carolina Hurricanes for the last decade, this all feels a bit familiar, doesn’t it?
A team once comfortably out of the postseason surged right into the playoffs, won a pair of rounds (including a Game 7 overtime win on the road), and fell short against a clearly superior team in the Eastern Conference Final.
In the process, the community fully rallied around them. They were greeted at the airport by adoring fans. Tailgates, as expected, were buzzing early and often.
But while there are parallels between the Hurricanes of 2009 and the 2019 team, there are also plenty of differences, plenty of reasons to believe that not only will the fan base not be subjected to another lengthy postseason drought, but that the team is now ready to start a streak of making the playoffs.
First and foremost, it should be said that there are no guarantees in the NHL. Nobody who followed the 2009 team could have fathomed what the next nine seasons would bring, even if the signs were there.
In a league in which the results are so heavily influenced by injuries, bounces, variance and straight-up luck, you can never guarantee that a team will make the playoffs.
But the odds are in Carolina’s favor.
Since the Hurricanes last made the postseason in 2009, 36 teams have made the conference finals between 2010 and 2018.
Of those 36, 31 (86 percent) returned to the postseason the following year, while 17 (47 percent) won a series the following year.
The conference finalists who did not qualify for the playoffs the following year were the 2011 Tampa Bay Lightning, 2012 New Jersey Devils, 2012 Phoenix Coyotes, 2014 Los Angeles Kings and 2017 Ottawa Senators.
But what is it about these Hurricanes that leads to the belief that they won’t suffer the same fate?
Let’s examine the things about this team that positively differentiate it from the 2009 team and the five above.
Expect consistency on defense
An underrated part of what made the 2009 team tick was its defense.
The 2009 Canes’ defensive unit saw four of its members finish with over 30 points (Joe Corvo, Anton Babchuk, Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg).
This year’s Hurricanes had three defenseman hit that mark with Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin and Justin Faulk. Brett Pesce, with 29 points in 73 games, played at a full-season pace comfortably over 30, but just missed the mark.
This year was the first time that the Hurricanes had four defensemen hit the 25-point mark since 2009. It’s not exactly a coincidence that this year was also the first playoff appearance since then, though there were clearly other factors as well.
That 2009 group of predominantly mobile, offensively-oriented defensemen with the elements of defensive acumen and toughness that Tim Gleason and Nic Wallin offered made it an underrated unit.
Heading into the 2009-2010 season, then-general manager Jim Rutherford flipped the script a bit. Out went Corvo, Babchuk and Seidenberg and in came Aaron Ward, Andrew Alberts and Brett Carson.
The impact of those personnel changes meant the Hurricanes had a defense that struggled mightily with moving the puck out of its own end and generating offense.
The result was disastrous. A year after surrendering 2.69 goals against per game with the original group, the Canes gave up 3.06 goals per game in 2009-2010 despite receiving a similar level of goaltending in terms of save percentage in both years.
While there will be minor changes to this year’s defensive group due to the logjam of bodies and the progression of prospect Jake Bean, there is no question that the identity of the group will remain the same.
The 2019-2020 Hurricanes defense will continue to feature outstanding skaters on the back end who all possess the ability to move the puck in the way the modern game demands.
Young firepower at forward
Before delving into the specifics of individual players, let’s compare the average age of the 12 forwards who played the most (in the postseason) between the 2009 and 2019 teams.
In 2009, the average age of the 12 forwards was 29.4. In 2019, the average was 25.1.
The youngest forwards on the 2019 team were Eric Staal and Patrick Eaves at 24. The 2019 team had seven forwards (Aho, Teravainen, Foegele, Svechnikov, McGinn, Wallmark, Maenalanen) the same age or younger.
The elder Staal was entering the middle of his prime in 2009, but the other major forward contributors on that team had already hit theirs or were well beyond it.
Another huge reason for the playoff drought, at least in its early years, was the lack of scoring help that Staal had around him.
That is not an issue with this group. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov are legitimate high-end scoring threats that will be fully capable of leading a potent offensive attack moving forward, and they will have help.
Nino Niederreiter and Jordan Staal are solid, veteran, top-six forwards who are both under contract for the foreseeable future. Justin Williams will almost certainly be back for his age-38 year in 2019-2020, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be good for his typical production level once again.
This year saw other youngsters such as Warren Foegele and Lucas Wallmark emerge as the type of young, quality forward depth pieces that had been sorely lacking for years.
Help is still on the way, too. Martin Necas spent the year as an offensive force in the AHL with Charlotte, and fellow recent first-round pick Julien Gauthier showed plenty of positive signs with the Checkers this season as well.
So take heart, Hurricanes fans. While the fate for the 2019 group may have been the same that befell the 2009 squad, there is plenty of reason to believe that this is the start of a great run, and not just a one-off.