The Hurricanes’ long road back to the playoffs

2 Comments

To understand the excitement and emotion Carolina Hurricanes fans were feeling on Thursday night as their team clinched its first playoff berth since 2009, you first have to try to understand just how long it has been since they have had an opportunity to experience that sort of moment.

Chances are, you can’t.

You can’t because there is a very good chance your favorite hockey team, no matter who it is, has never gone through the type of drought the Hurricanes went through.

That is not really any kind of an exaggeration, because Hurricanes’ drought was reaching historic levels that was nearly unmatched in the history of the league.

[Related: Hurricanes clinch playoff spot]

It was the spring of 2009 when the Hurricanes were last in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ending with a clean four-game sweep out of the Eastern Conference Final. It was a bittersweet ending to a strong season that came just three years after the team had won its first Stanley Cup. Even though the team had missed the playoffs in the two years between, they were still competitive and right in the thick of the playoff race each of those years.

They may not have been a consistent powerhouse, but they were competitive and they had success. A lot of success.

Surely nobody in Carolina figured it would be nine years before they would get back to the playoffs, let alone have a chance to even think about competing for a championship.

Nine years is a long time in the NHL, especially when we are talking about simply making the playoffs, something that more than half of the league does every season.

It is so long that only three other franchises have ever gone through a similar postseason drought at any point in their history (The Edmonton Oilers went 10 years between 2006-07 to 2015-16; the Florida Panthers went 10 years from 1999-00 to 2010-11; the New Jersey Devils went nine years from 1978-79 to 1986-87).

Think of how bad the past few years have been for a team like the Buffalo Sabres. Their current drought only reached eight years this year.

It is so long that only five players from their 2008-09 roster are still active in the league today.

It is so long that their current head coach, Rod Brind’Amour, was a player on their most recent playoff team, and then played one more season in the NHL after that. Some of the other key names on that roster included Joni Pitkanen, Niclas Wallin, Chad LaRose, and Sergei Samsonov, a wonderful collection of “hey do you remember that guy?” players. A 19-year-old Zach Boychuk made his NHL debut on that team, nearly a decade before he embarked on his current career of following and unfollowing hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter.

There were 137 different players to wear a Carolina Hurricanes sweater during the nine seasons between playoff appearances. There were four different head coaches. There were multiple changes in the front office from the general manager to, most recently, the owner. 

What had to make it all the more frustrating was just how the entire nine-year process went because they were rarely, if ever, actually close to making the playoffs.

Only three times in the nine years did they finish a regular season within 10 points of a playoff spot, and only once (all the way back in the 2010-11 season) were they closer than eight points (they missed by two points that year).

They were constantly an afterthought in the playoff race despite the fact they never really had a scorched earth rebuild that completely gutted the roster. The Hurricanes attempted to rebuild during that time, sure, but they never really went into an all-out tank mode to chase after high draft picks like so many other teams have done. Only once during the nine years did they select higher than fifth in the draft, and that was this past year when they selected Andrei Svechnikov with the No. 2 overall pick. And even that was because they had some serious luck in the draft lottery, moving up nine spots in draft position, and not necessarily because they were bad.

Because of that constant futility it would eventually become difficult for the team to draw fans or generate interest, both locally and nationally.

There is no fate worse in professional sports for a team than perpetual mediocrity, and the Hurricanes were stuck in it for nine years.

If you’re going to be bad, be bad because fans might at least get excited about the prospect of a franchise-changing talent at the top of the draft. If you’re going to be competitive, be great because fans have an unquenchable thirst for championships, or at least the illusion of competing for a championship.

Mediocrity is what gets people to stop caring, and no reasonable person should ever blame a fan that stops caring after nearly a decade of sustained mediocrity like the Hurricanes went through.

Slowly but surely, though, you could see the change starting to build up.

They found a top-end star in Sebastian Aho in the second round of the draft.

They stole Teuvo Teravainen from Chicago as payment for taking on a salary dump.

They started to assemble a talented, young defense and locked them all up early to long-term contracts and allowed them to grow together in the NHL.

Eventually the process started to show itself. For years they would be everyone’s preseason “sleeper” pick to do something special because of their consistently dominant possession numbers, only to always end up right back where they started. Either because the goaltending failed them again, or because they didn’t have enough finishers at forward, or because of some combination of the two. It was always something that held them back.

But this year everything surrounding the team started to charge.

Tom Dundon immediately set a high bar with his expectations. They went after high-end talent by acquiring Dougie Hamilton from the Calgary Flames before the season, and even before they were guaranteed a playoff spot swung the blockbuster trade to land Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild. Most importantly, they finally got consistent enough goaltending.

They play a fun, fast, exciting style of hockey and are constantly all over their opponents, and they created a fun atmosphere with the Storm Surges, and then embraced — for lack of a better description  — the villain role when outsiders complained about something that was supposed to excite their fans, and only their fans. If you’re not a Hurricanes fan and you don’t like it, that’s fine. Because it’s not for you. And if you’re not a Hurricanes fan, chances are you can’t relate to the frustration they went through and the apathy that sort of run can create.

Sometimes you need something extra to bring you back.

It has been a long time coming for Hurricanes fans to get back to this stage. And this team, with this roster, with this approach both on and off the ice was the perfect one to get them back.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.