The Carolina Hurricanes open the 2019-20 NHL season at home Thursday against burgeoning rival Montreal. Both teams have legitimate playoff aspirations and could battle for a wild card spot come April. Here are some notes ahead of Game 1 of 82.
1. The line to watch against Montreal might be Erik Haula centering Ryan Dzingel and Jordan Martinook. Carolina’s two offseason forward additions will certainly be looking to prove themselves — Haula will be playing for the first time since he hurt his knee on Nov. 6, while Dzingel still walks around with a chip on his shoulder as a late-round pick who had to earn everything he’s gotten in the league.
The X-factor is Martinook, who has spent all training camp playing as if it’s playoff time. The trio has looked good in practice, and with focus on Sebastian Aho and new captain Jordan Staal, I think the Haula line could be the difference.
2. In his own words, Haydn Fleury has “got a lot to prove this year.” The 23-year-old was seemingly on his way to a full-time role with the Hurricanes when the team acquired Jake Gardiner — also a left-handed defenseman — right before the start of training camp. Gardiner’s addition spelled the end of Justin Faulk’s tenure in Carolina, but an unexpected part of his trade to St. Louis was the Hurricanes receiving fellow left-handed defender Joel Edmundson as part of the return.
Fleury currently slots in as the No. 6 defender — starting off playing on his off side with Gardiner on Thursday — but Trevor van Riemsdyk is working his way back from injury and that open spot could very well be gone soon.
“It’s a big year,” Fleury said Wednesday. “I’ve gotta prepare myself to play a full year and be the best player I can be, and it starts (Thursday) night.”
On the opposite side will be his younger brother Cale, who earned an opening night spot on the Canadiens defense. The two have followed a similar path, the elder Fleury said, with both having played for the same midget team, then in the Western Hockey League. Both were NHL draft picks (Haydn seventh overall, 20-year-old Cale in the third round in 2017) and spent time in the AHL.
Now little brother will make his NHL debut against big brother. The two went head-to-head in the WHL, and Haydn admitted he has played poorly when going against Cale in the past. The younger Fleury, after shedding “lots of tears” against his older brother on the backyard rink as kids, even has the one standout hit in between the two in organized play.
“He got me,” Haydn said. “I was going in front of their goalie and he buried me.”
Then Haydn smiled.
“People don’t forget.”
3. Martin Necas beat out Julien Gauthier for the final roster spot. That didn’t sit well with Gauthier, who played in every preseason game and created several scoring chances using his 6-foot-4, 227-pound frame to drive the net — though he failed to score.
“He wasn’t happy,” coach Rod Brind’amour said of Gauthier when he was told he was being assigned to Charlotte. “At the end of the day, he’s going to be here at some point, I think, if he keeps trending in the right direction.”
That right direction is working on the little things.
“It’s one thing to have a great shift here or there, but all the other ones you’ve got to make sure you’re keeping pucks out of your net or chances against away,” Brind’Amour said.
While Gauthier showed flashes of dominance, Necas missed most of the end of camp with a sore neck. That included not playing in the team’s two final dress rehearsals.
“I liked what I saw in the other games that he played, especially in the Nashville game,” Brind’Amour said. “Late in that game, he was starting to be a force.”
Another reason Necas is in and Gauthier isn’t? It likely has to do with the power play. Carolina has plenty of guys who can serve as a net-front presence, as Gauthier did in the preseason, but the Hurricanes have very few right-handed triggermen. In fact, Necas is the only forward who shoots right. The addition of Gardiner was done to help the power play, but the team needs balance in order to be successful. In Necas, they get a shooter on the flank. Now he needs to prove he belongs there.
4. Speaking of the power play, Brind’Amour tried to make it a focal point in the preseason. But injuries to Haula, Dzingel, Gardiner and Necas never really let the coach put two units together and see how they look.
Brind’Amour is cautiously optimistic that the injuries to those players — Gardiner, in particular, is a concern — are in the rear-view mirror.
“It’s an area, obviously, we’ve got to get better at, and we’re going to work till we do,” Brind’Amour said.
5. It certainly doesn’t feel like hockey weather. At the morning skate, one Montreal beat writer was lamenting the walk from a nearby hotel to PNC Arena, saying he might Uber rather than sweat out the half-mile walk in a wool suit. The local radio shows on 99.9 The Fan broadcasted from outside in the record-breaking heat, while Fox Sports Carolina’s personalities Mike Maniscalco and Shane Willis were set for a special one-hour pregame show out in the 99-degree fireball — rather than their normal 30-minute show from the climate-controlled arena concourse.
The only sign, it seems, that October is here is meaningful hockey is back. Let’s do it.