As Carolina Hurricanes top-line center Sebastian Aho explained to ESPN in 2019: “Our team’s identity comes from Rod [Brind’Amour].”
The team’s coach, who captained the Canes to their only Stanley Cup in 2006, is demanding, but he empowers his players. At 50, Brind’Amour still lives up to his nickname “Rod the Bod,” known to work out just as hard — if not harder — than his players, even completing their yearly conditioning test for fun. He can be feisty yelling on the bench, but he speaks in raw honesty in the postgame news conference. He has also become known for his patented locker room speeches.
But it’s 2021. And even one of the NHL’s best motivators is having a hard time drumming up the right motivation.
“I’ll be honest, that’s the toughest thing,” Brind’Amour said. “The guys need a little more this year. So finding that message — you’ve got to be a little more creative on that front. You don’t want to be talking too much, because it’s every day now, all the time, so players get sick of hearing your voice too. It’s a tricky balance, and I guess that’s part of coaching: figuring that out.”
Brind’Amour has figured out the right chords to strike so far. Heading into the season’s second half, the Canes have the third-best points percentage in the league, trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights, and are second behind the Lightning in the Central Division. They are among the top 10 in both goals scored and fewest goals allowed. Most importantly, they are getting contributions from everywhere.
When starting goalie Petr Mrazek underwent thumb surgery after just four starts, 26-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic thrived given the opportunity (despite being put on waivers in January). According to Natural Stat Trick data, Nedeljkovic has a 6.83 goals saved above average at 5-on-5, which ranks seventh among all NHL goaltenders. Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin are still the stalwarts on defense, but Brett Pesce has asserted himself as a top blueliner as well. And on offense, Vincent Trocheck was a force to begin the season (13 goals through 24 games). In early March, he got injured and first-line winger Teuvo Teravainen was sidelined with a concussion. The Canes soldiered on, and lineup shuffling gave us the magical chemistry of Aho and Martin Necas:
Aho and Necas teaming up for a goal?
Unheard of pic.twitter.com/bU3e5RYx5i
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) March 23, 2021
But for the Canes, it’s no longer about proving that they can keep up with the best teams in the league, especially not in the regular season. It’s about getting over their playoff hump. Carolina shocked everyone with its trip to the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, but it fizzled out of the 2020 postseason bubble with a first-round loss to the Boston Bruins.
“The bar has been raised for these guys, and I think they’ve answered that, and they expect to win every night too,” Brind’Amour said. “And that’s the only thing that’s acceptable. That’s what we’re here to do. And we have a good enough team where we can honestly say that.”
In other words: Anything other than a long playoff run is going to be viewed as a disappointment. But Brind’Amour — especially in the times of COVID-19 — can’t look that far ahead.
“In a normal year, you look at things more week to week,” Brind’Amour said. “We look at it day by day now. Like, we have a plan, but it’s in pencil. How did this game go? What are we thinking? And you just go day by day, because you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring, for so many reasons.”
The key to this season?
“We’re trying to make it as normal as possible,” Brind’Amour said. “Which means: The excuses are all there — we just try not to make any.”
The Canes have technically played only one game in 2021 with their full lineup — and that was the first game of the season. Brind’Amour preached the age-old hockey trope: “The team that can get healthiest, and stay healthier the longest, are going to be the ones there at the end.”
Trocheck is back skating with the team, but the absence of Teravainen looms, with no timetable for the 26-year-old to return.
“It’s a huge loss for a lot of reasons that a lot of people don’t understand,” Brind’Amour said. “Teravainen is probably one of the best defending players in the NHL. He’s very, very smart and can cover for those other guys who are a little more offensive-minded, or take more risks. So having him out is a big loss — and we definitely are feeling the effects of losing both those guys, Troch and Teravainen.”
The Canes have been able to string together two decent winning streaks this season: a five-game stretch in January and an eight-game stretch in March. They’ve also had two three-game losing streaks.
“Staying healthy is key, but also just staying consistent — we have so many games, just playing one after another, and if you have a lull, it can really knock you out,” Brind’Amour said. “To me, that’s not even a physical thing, or the physical wear and tear. We just don’t practice anymore, hardly; it’s just games. It’s not the physical wear and tear — it’s the mental focus. Normally you get a couple days between games here or there, and you just don’t have that anymore. That mental focus is probably the toughest thing for players this year.”
For the coach, it will be about striking the right motivation — but saving it for the right time.
“That’s the biggest trick, finding things to say that they haven’t heard,” Brind’Amour said. “I don’t like getting up in front of a group just to get in front of a group. Every time you say something, it has to mean something. “