Hurricanes in position to end NHL’s longest active playoff drought

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The last time the Carolina Hurricanes were in the playoffs, the Black Eyed Peas were on top of the charts and The Hangover was just about to hit theaters. This year, the “bunch of jerks” from Raleigh have a legitimate chance to end the NHL’s longest active playoff drought.

Postseason hockey was last seen in Carolina in May of 2009, when the Canes were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final. Not one member of that playoff roster remains on the team, except for captain Rod Brind’Amour, who is now behind the bench. Justin Williams, the Canes’ current captain, was traded to Los Angeles in March of 2009 before the playoffs began.

Fast forward 10 years to this March, where with 11 games to play, the Canes are in the first wild card spot in the East. They’re also just three points behind the Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division, with two games in hand. That positioning has to do with a recent surge in which Carolina has gone 11-3-1 in their past 15 games, have converted on 21.9 percent of their power plays during that stretch and also killed off 34 of 37 penalties.

Outside of Williams, who has three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, Carolina is led by a slew of underrated up-and-comers. Sebastian Aho is in the middle of a career season and is on track to become just the second player in Carolina history (not including the Hartford Whalers) to record 90 points. Eric Staal did so with 100 points in 2005-06. The team’s leaders in time on ice this season are Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce. Goaltenders Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney have combined for just 176 wins over the past 11 seasons. And yet, the Hurricanes have the seventh best defense and sixth best penalty kill in the NHL.

Beyond their collective lack of experience, a glance at the roster would probably place goaltending as Carolina’s biggest concern entering the final few weeks of the season, though their netminders have been sensational of late. McElhinney is 11-3-1 dating back to New Year’s Eve with a 2.66 goals against average, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts. While he struggled in his latest start against Columbus, Mrazek has been terrific over the past month, going 6-1-0 over his last seven starts with a 1.71 goals against average, a .943 save percentage and two shutouts of his own. Still, performing that well in the playoffs is something new entirely. McElhinney has never made a postseason start. Mrazek took the Detroit Red Wings to Game 7 of the opening round against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015, but has never won a playoff series. His latest postseason appearance came last year with the Philadelphia Flyers, when he allowed two goals on 14 shots in relief during a game that the Penguins won 7-0.

If they can hang on to a playoff spot and snap their nine-season drought, the Canes will most certainly be underdogs in the first round, no matter their opponent. But there is no reason not to enjoy what Carolina has already accomplished this season in their push toward the playoffs.

When he signed with the Hurricanes before the 2017-18 season, Williams made it clear he wanted the team’s culture to change.

“You have to go through trying years and failure before you get to your goal,” Williams said. “We’re done losing. It’s time to climb the ladder and get relevant.”

It took a year longer than Williams might have liked, but between making a playoff push and enjoying their viral post-game celebrations, the Hurricanes are relevant once more.

Hurricanes stay in-house, name Brind’Amour head coach, Waddell GM

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Rod Brind’Amour told the News and Observer last month that his learning capacity as an assistant coach had maxed out and he was ready for the next step: to become an NHL head coach.

After working with two Carolina Hurricanes head coaches since 2012, Brind’Amour will finally get that shot.

The Hurricanes announced on Tuesday that Brind’Amour will be their new new head coach. It continues the off-season of change in Carolina that saw Bill Peters leave for the Calgary Flames and Ron Francis get fired from his job as president of hockey operations and replaced by longtime NHL executive Rick Dudley.

Also in the press release was the little nugget that Don Waddell, who had been serving as interim general manager since Francis was canned, has the role full-time now as well as the title of president.

“Rod is the greatest leader in the history of this franchise, and has earned the opportunity to take charge of our locker room,” said Waddell in a statement. “We spoke to a number of candidates for this position, but our conversations with staff and players consistently returned to the same person. Rod’s fresh ideas, ability to motivate and understanding of what it takes to bring a championship to Raleigh will help our young team take the next step toward competing to bring the Cup back to North Carolina.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

“If you never try, you’ll never know,” Brind’Amour said last month. “The reason for saying ‘why not?’ is I’ve been doing it for eight years and I really believe I can help out one way or the other and see if I can put us over the hump.”

Brind’Amour, 47, spent parts of 10 seasons playing for the Hurricanes and captained them beginning with the 2005-06 season, which ended with the franchise winning its first and only Stanley Cup. Once retired, he also worked in player development with the team.

For Tom Dundon, these are safe picks. There’s familiarity with the organization and the fact that both are on-board with the overhaul the new owner is overseeing. But are they the right ones for the current state of the franchise?

The Hurricanes have not made the playoffs since 2010. After coming up short the last few seasons as many thought they would take big steps forward, change was definitely needed. So out goes Francis and Peters and talk of a new identity and culture bubbles up. A fresh start was on the horizon, but then Dudley, who is longtime buddies with the new GM, is hired. Now you have Brind’Amour, who has been on the non-playing side of the franchise’s failures for nearly the last decade, is promoted.

If you’re trying to establish a new identity then why are you holding on to pieces of the past? You now have a franchise legend behind the bench on a team that has continually disappointed. You now have a GM who hasn’t served as a GM since 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers were still around.

The Metropolitan Division isn’t exactly getting any easier. The approach to free agency and fixing the holes on the roster will be fascinating. This has to work now.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.